Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays (eds) (2011). Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

This is the third part of a series that is being written by Daniel James Levy and me. To see past entries scroll to the bottom where we have linked them. Also, it will provide you with a schedule for upcoming posts.

Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, “Outside a Small Circle of Friends: Jesus and the Justice of God.”

It is this third chapter that likely made scholars squirm in their chairs. It did that to me, anyways (though I shouldn’t be confused for a scholar). It is the “so what” to Wright’s work on the historical Jesus (apparently there is much of that these days).

Keesmaat and Walsh wrote this paper in the style of a dialog (if you have read their book Colossians Remixed you will be familiar). These two set forth to answer, “So what? Where does all of this exegesis go? Does this impressive and integrative Wrightian project really interest anybody outside a small circle of friends?” (p. 67) It is a good discussion to have: Does Wright’s scholarship really matter?

They answer it throughout the paper by saying, in gist, “Yes, it matters, but he hasn’t taken his own thought to its logical conclusion.”

Wright has done a great job providing a depiction of Jesus as prophet. Jesus stood in the tradition of the Hebrew sages before him. For Wright, this is very important for showing how Jesus criticized the nationalism of the Jews. For Keesmaat and Walsh it must go further and one important area is economics.

They talk about the abuses of the “temple industry” in Jesus’ day (p. 71). Although there was to be a year of Jubilee every several years, the Jews did no such thing. Rather, like our modern economy we make loans only to strip people once they can’t pay. Keesmaat and Walsh know this is one of Wright’s concerns, but they think he downplays economic issues.

Through the next part of the chapter these two take a look at how Wright interpreted several of Jesus’ parables and how they feel he ignored the socio-economic implications. While most of their insights were solid, Keesmaat’s suggestion that it is the third servant in the parable of Lk. 19.11-27 who was righteous because the original audience would have heard servant one and two as evil men collecting interest from them like any financial schemer seems to miss the literary point (Wright calls her on this, more below). Keesmaat says that the impoverished audience would have seen the third servant as the good one because he refused to try to “collect interest” which in that time almost always meant taking advantage of the poor. Also, since the master is considered wicked, and indeed, in those days, a master like this would have been, this must mean the master can’t be God. (pp. 80-84)

Keesmaat and Walsh conclude after examining Wright’s interpretation of Jesus’ parables that, “Jesus’ prophetic critique is wider than Tom allows.” (p. 84) Jesus’ prophetic ministry says more about economic injustice than Wright does and this should impact how Christians do economics. One suggestion given is that Christians “need to get out of the markets”. They refrain from saying exactly how Christians should use their funds because “what we do with our money is something that we need to struggle with in prayer, in the context of the community of other belivers, and in the context of the local needs and challenges in which our lives are situated”. (p. 86) Some suggestions are given such as mirco-loans, community shared agriculture, etc.

Wright’s response:

Wright gave a very strong, straightforward response in these points:

(1) If he could rewrite Jesus and the Victory of God he would say more about economics. (p. 89)

(2) He challenges Keesmaat’s reading of Lk. 19.11-27 saying it misses the literary point. Yes, the audience may have felt the way Keesmaat suggested, but Jesus often used stories with a twist. Wright cites the unjust judge in Lk. 18.1-8 and the Pharisee in 18.9-14 as examples that come just before Keesmaat’s focus passage. Both the evil judge and the sinner would have been understood negatively in that time, yet it is the the judge and the tax collecting sinner who are the heros. (pp. 89-90)

(3) He challenges the assumption that the best way to challenge the injustice of the world economy is to isolate ourselves from it. Wright points out that you don’t change a polygamous culture into a monogamous culture overnight. You don’t go in telling everyone to ditch all their wives but one. It takes time. Likewise, “it would be good to see realistic proposals, worked out perhaps with bankers and financial experts, on how to take several steps from where we are now to where it would be good to be.”


I enjoyed this chapter for two reasons:

(1) Keesmaat and Walsh made sure that this book (and the conference from which is came) was not merely theoretical, but asked what it means in practice. I am sure there were many comfortable, well-off Christians in the audience and many of us who will read their chapter. We need to be reminded that our gospel is no gospel at all if it doesn’t address the world of “the least of these, my brethren”.

(2) It kept the momentum going for the necessary project of asking how Wright’s insights over the year should be applied by the church. We don’t need to accept all of Keesmaat’s and Walsh’s conclusions, but we should be thinking with them.


Schedule for this series:

06/01: Marianne Meye Thompson, “Jesus and the Victory of God Meets the Gospel of John” (Brian LePort)

06/08: Richard B. Hays, “Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth” (Daniel James Levy)

06/15: Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends: Jesus and the Justice of God” (Brian LePort)

06/22: Nicholas Perrin, “Jesus’ Eschatology and Kingdom Ethics: Ever the Twain Shall Meet” (Daniel James Levy)

06/29: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?” (Brian LePort)

07/06: Edith M. Humphrey, “Glimpsing the Glory: Paul’s Gospel, Righteousness, and the Beautiful Feet of N.T. Wright” (Daniel James Levy)

07/13: Jeremy S. Begbie, “The Shape of Things to Come? Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies” (Brian LePort)

07/20: Markus Bockmuehl, “Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died? (Daniel James Levy)

07/27: Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology” (Brian LePort)

08/03: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the Life of the Church?”  (Daniel James Levy)