In a recent post by Rachel Held Evans, she poses the question, “What is the Gospel?” to the public, to her favorite bloggers and writers, and gives a nod to Scott McKnight. I wrestled with this question before, and I thought I might share my questions and research. In no way do I seek to answer this question clearly, for I am admittedly only a Bible scholar. Yet, I feel I can enlighten at least part of an answer. I will use parts of a paper I wrote a couple years ago.
As far as the Gospel goes, there is a double-tradition passage in Matthew and Luke that really got me to thinking. When John the Baptizer was in prison, he sent some of his followers to Jesus to find out if he was “the one who is to come.”
Matthew 11:4-5 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.
Luke 7:22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.
The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, and the dead all have their problems solved. But what do the poor get? Some good news? You might expect the poor to get some money, free shelter, free food, etc. But some preaching? Come on, that just seems unfair.
Charles Spurgeon preached, “Almost every impostor who has come into the world has aimed principally at the rich, and the mighty, and the respectable; very few impostors have found it to be worth their while to make it prominent in their preaching that they preach to the poor.”1 It is because the good news is heralded to the poor and not the rich that the good news can be paralleled with the other miracles in Luke 7.22. The allusion is to Isaiah 61.1. If we read the Greek of the Septuagint and the New Testament, we can see a turn in the use of the verb euvaggeli,zw (to preach the gospel/good news) at Isaiah 61.
Before, whenever euvaggeli,zw is used, there is always a herald bearing the good news and an audience of it. In nearly all instances of its usage, honor is attributed to its audience outside of Second and Third Isaiah. . Yet, in most of its uses, euvaggeli,zw gives honor either to a ruler or to the people of a victorious military conquest by a herald. Also, honor is attributed to a king who has a son, when the herald brings the good news. Examples include: 2Sam. 4.10; 18.19-20, 26, 31; 1Kings 1.42; 1Chron. 10.9.
So in Isaiah 61, and in the two Gospel passages, the meaning is put on its head—the poor are esteemed as though they are kings. The poor do not simply lack material things, but they are outcast and humiliated in society. The heralding of good news, whatever the content of the message, says to the poor, “You are no longer an outcast, you have dignity and worth.”
While one may still wonder, and I do, why don’t they receive food or shelter or other things that they need, it is something curious about the Gospel that the poor’s place in society is raised, perhaps above the level of kings and rulers. What is the Gospel? I cannot answer so easily. But what the Gospel does: at the very least, it raises the societal importance of the poor and the marginalized in society. And while we may want to know what the Gospel does for ourselves, the challenge of these passages is that we may be heralds of the good news by recognizing the importance of the poor and the marginalized before God and in society.
1 “Preaching for the Poor,” http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0114.htm.