Jesus’ practices of resistance to empire
Below are three ways Jesus’ not only embodied Isaiah’s words but stood against empire in his time. There are more, so this is not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means.
1. Jesus Resisted Empire with his body
Consider that Baby Jesus was born homeless and on the run, his very body was devalued by empire. Jesus lived in a body that would have been brown-skinned. He was of Palestinian decent. His people were Jewish and had been occupied by the Roman Empire in his time and by Babylon, Assyria, and Persian empires before that.
His body, full of the promise of God liberating the people who looked like him, put his life in grave danger from the moment he was born. His birth may have been a miracle, but to remain alive was an act of resistance.
Consider then those whose bodies are devalued today. Who - just by the way they look - are seen as a threat to neutralize. Who empire wishes to kill and refuses to protect. Those who are killed without any justice in their name.
To understand that Jesus resisted empire with his body and was killed because of it is to see one of the main lessons who sought to teach us: Those scapegoated by empire are not just precious in God’s sight but are the ones who God actually identifies with. Jesus’ identification with the innocent victims of empire links together all those crushed by empire throughout time.
This is surely part of what it means to release captives. The captives of systems that do not even see certain humans as valuable.
2. Jesus organized the poor
Jesus organized poor people by announcing God’s preferential option for the poor. You could say he was a missionary to the poor, not to convert them or tell them their culture is wrong, but to announce God’s favor and God’s love. Here in Luke, Jesus proclaims that his work is to “announce the good news to the poor.” He has a message. Friends would say, he carries a concern. And that good news is directed at and for the poor.
Jesus’ organized a movement of the poor with this message. He worked the way any good teacher, rabbi, and community organizer works. He went about from town to town meeting people, teaching, telling stories and eating with the poor, tax collectors, sex workers, fisherman, and more. He talked to people who have wealth and debates layers and religious figures, but he organized the poor with his message. He gave them new theological language and tools to understand a God who does now bow and concede to empire’s luxuries the way religious leaders in every generation are tempted to do, but one who stands with those who are exploited and crushed.
Jesus feeds hungry people on the hillside with fish and loaves. He casts out demons that keep people homeless, hungry, and without relationship. He calls uneducated and poor fishermen to be he co-organizers, men of the people who are themselves poor. This band of people gather in his name, repeat his teachings with one another, and share their resources, as Acts 2 tells us, as an act of survival. These are the people who become the earliest church.
Jesus brings the poor together as the new movement of God. A movement that still to this day gathers the poor, proclaims God’s liberation and love for the downtrodden.
3. Jesus subverted distorted moral theology
As a rabbi, Jesus taught counter lessons and used storytelling to subvert the empire’s distorted moral theology.
He sought to wake people up to empire and its effects. Luke 4 calls this, “recovery of sight to the blind.” Yes, there are a instances of Jesus’ performing physical miracles, but there are far more instances where Jesus performs the miracle of helping people wake up to the numbing effect and the lies of the distorted theology of empire.
His parables are short stories the subverted the typical story-telling of the time (and even in our own). Tales about how the strong and rich come out on top. Tales used to keep people under control and some in power.
Jesus’ teachings and stories were far more subversive, they were about the powerless coming out on top. The first shall be last. They were about the ways in which God was on the side of the poor and the weak: like the prodigal, the Samaritan, the mustard seed. These are all people and images that were devalued by empire in that time. Jesus’ stories are about how God shows favor on the disinherited.
This is certainly part of what it means to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Another example of Jesus challenging the distorted moral theology of empire in his time is when he addresses the question of "the poor always with you.” Rev. Liz Theoharis, friend and the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign writes on this text:
When Jesus says, “the poor will always be with you,” he is actually quoting Deuteronomy 15, which says that there will be no poor person among you if you follow God’s commandments — to forgive debts, release slaves, pay people fairly and lend money even knowing you won’t get paid back. Deuteronomy 15 continues that because people will not follow those commandments, the poor will never cease to be in the land.
Thus, in this passage and throughout the Bible, Jesus isn’t condoning poverty — he is reminding us that God hates poverty and has commanded us to end poverty by forgiving debts, raising wages, outlawing slavery, and restructuring society around the needs of the poor. He is reminding the disciples that charity and hypocrisy will not end poverty but keep poverty with us always. He is reminding his followers that he is going to be killed for bringing God’s reign here on earth, and it is their responsibility to continue the quest for justice.
This is our charge. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. Will we?
As we are faced with the questions of what is empire, how does it use “distorted theology” to justify its actions, and what does Jesus offer us any way of thinking about and resisting empire in our time there is plenty more to be considered in understanding how Jesus practiced resistance to empire through his ministry and calling.