Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin are starting to sour on the new pope. In response to Pope Francis' rejection last week of the idea that trickle-down economics, "encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world," these two paragons of the far right ae" both of whom regularly invoke the teachings of Jesus to bolster their political views ae" have suddenly turned their backs on the man whose actual job description is to speak for Jesus.
Palin complained that Francis sounded ":kind of liberal" in his statements decrying the growing global inequality between the rich and the poor. (She has since apologized.) Limbaugh went one step further. "This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope," he harrumphed into his giant microphone. Limbaugh, in his usual conspiratorial style, speculated that the pope's tirade against "widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion" must have been forced upon him by somebody else. "Somebody has either written this [for the pope] or gotten to him," he said, referring to the remarks in Francis' first apostolic exhortation outlining his thoughts. Limbaugh is right. Somebody did get to Francis. It was Jesus.
Self-styled "defenders of Christianity" such as Palin and Limbaugh peddle a profoundly unhistorical view of Jesus. Indeed if you listen to those on the far right, you would think that all Jesus ever spoke about was guns and gays. But even many modern Christians who reject the far right's perception tend to hold an inaccurate picture of the historical Jesus, viewing him as some kind of celestial spirit with no concern for the cares of the world - a curious assertion about a man who not only lived in one of the most politically charged periods in Israel's history, but who claimed to be the promised Messiah sent to liberate the Jews from foreign occupation.
This popular view of Jesus [which I challenge in my book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth] has dominated Christianity since the days of the Holy Roman Empire. It is not difficult to see why. After all, if you think of Jesus as an apolitical, pacifist preacher of good works, whose only interest was in the world to come, then you can domesticate Jesus' radical teachings and more easily accommodate him to your political or economic agenda.
Then you can be Joel Osteen, the millionaire mega-church pastor preaching a "Gospel of prosperity." You can be Representative Stephen Lee Fincher citing Jesus to denounce welfare and food stamps. You can be Libertarian Rand Paul appealing to Jesus to advocate ending all foreign aid. The truth is Jesus' teachings were so revolutionary that were he to preach today what he preached 2000 years ago, many of the preachers and politicians who claim to promote his values would be the first to call for him to be silenced.
Jesus did not preach income equality between the rich and the poor. He preached the complete reversal of the social order: The rich and the poor would switch places. "Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be fed. Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall soon be laughing" (Luke 6:20-21). These abiding words of the Beatitudes are often remembered as a promise of vindication for the poor and the dispossessed; but that is because few bother reading the verses that follow: "Woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger. Woe to you who laugh now for soon you will mourn" (Luke 6:24-25).
Jesus is not describing some utopian fantasy in which the meek inherit the earth, the weak become strong, the hungry are fed and the poor are made rich. He is advocating a chilling new reality in which the rich will be made poor, the strong will become weak, and the powerful will be displaced by the powerless: "The first shall be last and the last shall be first." (Matthew 19:30).
Although modern Christianity has tried to spiritualize this message of Jesus, transforming his revolutionary social teachings into abstract ethical principles, it is impossible to overlook the unflinching condemnation of the wealthy and powerful that permeate Jesus' teachings. "How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:23).
Such a radical vision of the world would have been profoundly appealing for those at the bottom rungs of Jesus' society and incredibly threatening for those at the top. The fact is, not much has changed in 2,000 years, as Palin and Limbaugh have proven. Yet if these "culture warriors" who so often claim to speak for him understood what Jesus stood for, they would not be so eager to claim his ideas as their own. In fact, they'd probably call him a Marxist.