One of the most disturbing dimensions of taking Robert North's courses in biblical archeology was his stated conviction that the historical Jesus never intended his followers to number more than a small minority in any community. The Jesuit scholar contends that very few people actually have the courage to carry out Jesus' teachings and imitate his lifestyle. Once organized religion took over Jesus' faith, his beliefs were either ignored or, at best, watered down, enabling large numbers of people to claim they were other Christs.
Karl Rahner had said the same thing in his late 50s book The Christian Commitment. The famous theologian was convinced that, once Christians reach a certain percentage of the population, Christianity no longer has any effect on the culture or environment in which it exists. It's far easier to follow the teachings of a religious institution than to follow Jesus.
The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures surfaced a parallel truth long before Jesus shuttered his Capernaum carpentry shop to start his itinerant preaching ministry. Almost every prophet eventually develops a "remnant theology."
The basic prophetic message is "Return to Yahweh!" Prophet's don't preach to pagans or atheists. They proclaim God's word to the "good folk:" those who claim they're already doing what God wants them to do. It's the task of the prophet to point out that much of the religious stuff with which people are concerned actually has nothing to do with God's will. Only a small number of the faithful are actually willing to return to Yahweh and discover what real faith is all about.
That's why Zephania proclaims, "Seek Yahweh, all you humble of the earth . . . seek justice, seek humility . . . ." Only those searching for God and developing these two characteristics will have a faith-fulfilled life.
Given his ministry's poor results, the prophet has no other recourse but to quote Yahweh's comforting, but realistic promise. "I will leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of Yahweh: the remnant of Israel."
It's ironic that those who actually return to God and carry out God's will are society's least significant members. Six hundred years after Zephania, Paul reflects on the background of his Corinthians Christians. "Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth. Rather God chose the foolish . . . to shame the wise, . . . the weak to shame the strong, . . . the lowly and despised .. . those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something."
Matthew's Jesus zeroes in on the same insight at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Though Jesus' followers have heard these beatitudes for almost 2,000 years, most are content just to recite and memorize them. Few actually make these "blessings" an essential part of their lives. After all, who really would think their lives a success if they're continually poor, mourning, meek, hungry and thirsty for justice, merciful, clean of heart, peacemakers and persecuted for righteousness?
It didn't take long before organized Christianity began to develop the loopholes which permitted individuals to be labeled Christian without actually imitating the Christ. Personal poverty, for instance, eventually morphed into religious communities, many of which (using the words of John L. McKenzie) shared in a common possession of wealth. Within 300 years non-violent peacemaking was replaced with the doctrine of a "just war."
Perhaps those of us who work at being Christian leaders should spend most of our time simply surfacing, point out and supporting the humble, the just and the poor among us who are actively seeking God or imitating Jesus - the only people on this earth who will actually change this earth.