Did Jesus mean what he said when he claimed that his preaching would be good news to the poor? Did he really mean what he said about proclaiming freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and release of the oppressed? (Luke 4:18-19).
As Jesus thus summarized his mission, he was citing Isaiah 61:1. The passage is about the restoring of justice to society by an anointed deliverer. "Justice" is a key theme in this passage, as in other Isaiah passages that were later applied to Jesus (see previous post). There can be no doubt that those awaiting a Messiah were expecting a restoration of justice, especially since the Jewish people had been oppressed for most of the last several centuries.
But Christians have often sought to "spiritualize" the text of Luke 4:18-19. Some have argued that the poor are actually the poor in spirit, the prisoners are those imprisoned by sin, the blind are those who haven't seen the light of God's truth, and the oppressed are those oppressed by Satan. So it is argued that the mission of Jesus, and by extension his body, is to meet spiritual needs and not physical ones. The gospel's societal dimension is either denied or obscured to the point that it really isn't good news for the poverty stricken unless we're talking spiritual poverty. Nor is it good news for the unjustly incarcerated or for those persecuted under despotic regimes. The ministry to the blind would certainly not include medical missions or church-sponsored clinics that provide early detection of glaucoma or vision screening for children.
The lines drawn between physical and spiritual needs are often drawn too sharply. It's too often assumed that a "spiritual" need is only one which meets the incorporeal part of a human being. So the condition of one's "spiritual" self is all that is thought to matter.
But ministry to souls is holistic ministry to whole persons. It is not only ministry to the lost, but also to the poor and marginalized. So the gospel certainly has a social dimension. Gospel proclamation involves a call to justice. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech was a gospel sermon. He longed for the day when justice would roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24). He spoke the kingdom language of "every valley being exalted and every hill and mountain made low"---words first recorded in Isaiah in anticipation of the coming reign of a just king (Isaiah 40:4).
Both the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and the end of apartheid in South Africa were launched and largely carried through by those whose belief in the gospel prompted their proclamation of release to the captives. The gospel includes the good news of societal transformation. When injustice is overturned, as when civil rights are finally granted, society starts bearing a bit more resemblance to the kingdom of God.
I'm not naive enough to think that the church will transform all of society. The kingdom of God will never be fully consummated until the return of Christ. But in the meatnime we are called to transform whatever corner of the world we can into a greater likeness of the realm in which God's rule is unchallenged. The miracles of Jesus were foretastes of a fully consummated reign of God in which no one will be sick or infirmed. Our participation in this mission of Christ is clear in light of Matthew 25, where those receiving the kingdom are those who have fed the hungry, shown hospitality, clothed the naked, looked after the sick, and visited the prisoners (Matt. 25:31-46, esp. verses 34-36). The gospel is good news to the poor when Christians are good to the poor.
All that being said, I understand the resistance of some to grant that the gospel has a social dimension. Much of the "Social Gospel" movement has equated gospel with social justice---period. It's no surprise that many mainline Protestants advocating such an approach have been theological liberals. When the deity of Jesus, substitutionary atonement, and Christ's bodily resurrection are viewed as inconsistent with rational thought, what of Christianity is left to be preserved?
What is left is whatever difference we can make in this world. While making a difference in the world is certainly a part of gospel proclamation, it is the only hope theological liberals have of finding relevance. But as Paul stated, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men" (1 Corinthians 15:19).
While there is undoubtedly a social dimension to the gospel of the kingdom, there is also an eschatological dimension. Life is meaningless and eternity hopeless apart from reconciliation with God which depends upon faith in the atoning death of Christ on the cross as he shed his blood for the remission of our sin. He was then raised from the dead granting us the expectation of following him into life everlasting. There is no gospel without that message.
(Photo by Robertboaz).