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Jesus, Religion, and Politics

Discovering Jesus: Part 2

Jirair Tashjian


In Part 1 we began looking at Jesus of Nazareth, with an emphasis on the human Jesus. We concluded with his baptism by John and considered the possibility that Jesus at one point may have been a disciple of John. Then we looked at the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness and the meaning of those temptations. 

The last temptation in Matthew (in Luke the second and third temptations are in reverse order) tells us how the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor and said to him, "All these I’ll give you if you’ll fall down and worship me" (Matt 4:9).  This provides us an opportunity to explore another dimension of the temptations in relation to the humanity of Jesus. We are told that in this last temptation the devil had taken Jesus to "a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor" (Matt 4:8). What does that mean? There is no mountain high enough in Palestine, or anywhere in the world for that matter, where a person can literally see all the kingdoms of the world. How can one see Rome and Athens and Damascus and Egypt from a mountain in Palestine? 

That simply suggests that we need to consider the concept of mountain in Matthew in terms of what the Gospel writer wanted to say rather than how we might want to hear it. Matthew, in fact, is fond of mountains. In Hebrew thinking mountains are the place where significant things happen. God gave the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 19-20). Elijah had a confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel where God came (1 Kings 18). In Matthew we see Jesus going up on a mountain and teaching the Sermon on the Mount to bring fulfillment to the Law given at Mount Sinai (Matt 5:1 ff). In the final chapter of Matthew (28) after his resurrection, Jesus meets with his disciples on a mountain in Galilee and commissions them to go and make disciples of all nations.

All that to say this, that the word "mountain" in Matthew is intended to be taken not in a strict literal sense but in a metaphorical sense. Matthew is using the concept of mountain from its history in Old Testament narratives as a way to focus attention on the significance of the temptation narrative in understanding Jesus. That suggests that the entire story of the temptations of Jesus in Matthew 4 is to be taken figuratively. It is not that the temptations are not "real," only that the way Matthew tells them to us in the Gospel account is couched in metaphor.  Jesus was not literally whisked around from the top of the temple to the top of some mountain. Jesus was tempted the way you and I are tempted, that is, in our minds and hearts rather than by a physically visible form of the devil transporting Jesus from place to place in some sort of a Star Trek beam-up and beam-down.  The physical descriptions are the way Matthew tells us about the internal struggle that Jesus was going through in the temptations.

In a sense, temptation is much more subtle and therefore a lot tougher to deal with when it is something going on in our minds and thoughts than if there is a physical being out there that we can see and identify as the devil. One of the greatest fears of Vietnam veterans was that they could never be sure who the enemy was. We could deal with the enemy if he were standing right there and you could identify him. Then maybe we could punch him in the nose, or pull a sword and split him in two. But if the enemy is not made up of a nose and a face and two arms and two legs, how does one fight him?

We’ve probably all heard the expression, "Give the devil a black eye." While it is nice sounding rhetoric, there are two things wrong with it.  First, the devil doesn’t have an eye that you can punch.  Secondly, even if it’s taken metaphorically, that kind of language is borrowed from the world of street gangs and neighborhood bullies who go around punching people in the face. Jesus did resist temptation. But how?  He resisted it with the word of God. That doesn’t mean that he just quoted words from the Bible, but that he shaped his whole life and mindset by the will of God revealed in Scripture.

Modern Conceptions of Politics

That third temptation is really where I want to focus this second study.  The fact that Jesus was tempted with the kingdoms of the world and their splendor implies that there are some political issues involved here. Jesus, of course, did resist that temptation, but that does not mean that his message was to be purely spiritual with no political overtones. The message of Jesus was not politically neutral.

Some of us may be uncomfortable to think of Jesus as being political. That’s because the word "politics" or "political" has come to have very negative overtones. It means wheeling and dealing, scheming, compromising, insincerity, telling half-truths, fighting for power, jockeying for position, slandering, mud-slinging, corruption, and on and on. Now, I know that not all politicians are that way. Unfortunately, our experience of politics in many instances has been negative. And if that is our definition of politics, then, no, Jesus was not political. So I need to define what I mean when I say the message of Jesus was political.

But before I do that, let’s consider something else. We as a church and as Christians believe that our primary task is to preach the gospel, to lead people into a mature relationship with God, and nurture them spiritually. We come together to worship the Lord, study his Word, are inspired and uplifted, have our spiritual needs met, have fellowship with one another, and occasionally, if we become aware of it, help with the material needs of individuals in our congregation or occasionally outside people. 

Our job description as a church does not include the political process, which is the way a society conducts its public affairs. In other words, we don’t feel that it’s our job as a church to do something about the world out there except to get people converted to Christ. Such problems as social injustice, discrimination, inner city problems, crime, poverty, and so on are left up to politicians to solve. In fact, we shy away from such involvement because it might move us in the direction of what we have identified as the social gospel. We think that perhaps individual Christians can get involved in politics to help shape the world. Or, we as individual Christians can vote for certain candidates and issues. But usually we think that the church as a church must remain politically neutral. So then, to say that the message of Jesus was political, which means that Jesus was not politically neutral, may require some explanation.

Politics in First-century Palestine

When I say that Jesus was not politically neutral, or that his message was political, I am recognizing something that is at the heart of the biblical message in general, and especially the Old Testament, which was the Bible of Jesus. The Old Testament did not separate religion and politics. The Bible does not compartmentalize them. In fact, one of the most scathing denunciations from the Old Testament prophets was against people who did that very thing, separating religion and politics. I can give many examples from Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah and others (Amos 2:6-8; 5:21-24; 7:10-13; Isaiah 1:11-17; Micah 6:6-8). But let me cite just one of the prophets (Amos 2:6-8 and 5:21-24):

Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals-they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The problem with Israel was not that they were not religious enough. The problem was that they were too religious, but did not translate their religiosity into a social policy of justice. Their religiosity did not make a difference in the way they conducted their business, government, economic policies, and social relationships, particularly when it came to the orphan and the widow, the disadvantaged, the unfortunate. They took bribes, they imposed unfair fines, they foreclosed on debts without mercy. Amos says that God will bring judgment on the nation of Israel for these injustices.

Jesus was saying the same thing: "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin--you practice your religion very well--but you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith" (Matt 23:23). When Jesus started talking about justice, he was into politics. We can’t understand the Old Testament or the message of Jesus unless we recognize the fact that the God of the Bible is very much interested in the kind of world we make for ourselves as human beings. God is passionately concerned about the world here and now. God becomes agitated when the poor, the orphan and the widow are oppressed and are treated unjustly.

Let’s consider the political situation of Palestine in the time of Jesus. Palestine was under Roman occupation and domination. Rome needed a great deal of revenue to carry on the affairs of the Empire. So the Romans had a policy of heavy taxation, which was very oppressive. People lost their land because they could not pay taxes. Absentee landlords, people with a lot of capital, were able to acquire more and more land and turned these small plots of land, land upon which Palestine peasants depended for survival, into large operations intended for the export industry. People who lost their land became day laborers. It is in this context, for example, that Jesus told the parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16).  When the landowner asked the workers in the market place why they had been standing idle all day, they responded that no on had hired them. The picture is dismal. Lots of workers, but not enough work to go around, therefore high unemployment. What were their options? The only option was to beg, which was the final stage before starvation and death.

Most Jewish people in the time of Jesus, including the Pharisees, the Zealots and the Essenes, had a very antagonistic attitude toward foreigners, especially the Romans who had seized the land by force. What right did the Romans have to take over their country? They, after all, were the people of God, and God had given them the land. To make things even worse, the Roman presence in Palestine did not benefit the Jewish people as a whole, and certainly not the ordinary person. It did benefit those who were in positions of political and economic power, rulers, governors, absentee landlords who exploited the situation for their benefit. The Roman government recruited Jewish people as tax collectors, and gave them the authority to collect whatever they could beyond what the Roman regime imposed.  They could then keep the difference as income for themselves. Some of them, such as Zacchaeus (Lk 19:2-10), became wealthy at the expense of their fellow Jews. It is in such an environment that we must hear such statements of Jesus such as, "Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full, woe to you who laugh, woe to you when you are well spoken of" (Lk 6:24-26).

Some Jewish people were more bitter than others, but everyone felt the awful injustice of it all. The Zealots were probably the most militant and aggressive, advocating and practicing guerrilla warfare against the Romans from time to time. But it would be wrong to think that only the Zealots were politically inclined. As noted already, Jews did not separate religion from politics. And neither did Jesus.  He looked at politics in a different way than the Zealots, but Jesus was not politically neutral or unconcerned.

The Sadducees, on the other hand, were in a different situation than most other Jewish people. They were in control of religious and political power in Jerusalem. They were the priestly group at the temple. They did not like the Romans, but they cooperated with the Romans because it meant that as long as they were favorable toward Rome, their position of control of the temple was secure. So the Sadducees became the aristocratic class. John the Baptist called the Sadducees and the Pharisees, "You brood of vipers" (Matt 3:7). The Sadducees controlled the Sanhedrin, the highest council of Judaism that had power to rule over religious as well as civil cases. Jesus could see that their religiosity made no difference as far as economic, social and political justice for the common folk. As long as they were secure in their position, why should they be too concerned with the peasants and the poor folk in the country?  So oppression came not only from the Romans. Even Jewish religious leaders were guilty of oppression. And, Jesus would say, even religious leaders needed to repent.

The Politics of Jesus

Now let’s begin to look at the politics of Jesus more earnestly. A good place to begin might be Luke 13:1. Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Apparently, some Galileans had gone up to Jerusalem during some feast and were offering sacrifices. These were times of volatile nationalistic feelings that could be ignited easily. Perhaps there was some sort of commotion and unrest. Pilate the governor must have ordered his soldiers to move in immediately to calm the situation. In doing so they must have massacred some of the people. But notice how Jesus responded to that report. He didn’t lash out at Pilate. It was not that Jesus thought Pilate was such a good person. Instead of denouncing Pilate Jesus said to the people who reported this incident, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did." We can almost hear their unspoken objections:  "What do you mean we repent? It’s Pilate and his whole Roman garrison in Jerusalem that needs repentance!"

The politics of Jesus even went a step further. He said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile" (Matt 5:39-41).  It is not very difficult to put that in the context of Roman power in Palestine. Jesus was telling the people that should a Roman soldier curse them and force them to carry his bag for a mile, which they had the right and power to do, that they should not only comply with the demand but should go a second mile, go beyond what was required by authority and force.

When Jesus was in Jerusalem, some asked him if it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. That is a political question. But Jesus immediately recognized the insincerity and hypocrisy of the question. He asked for a coin and then posed this question, "'Whose picture is it?' They said, 'The emperor’s.' Jesus said, 'Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s'" (Lk 20:20-26, Matt 22:16-21). That is a political statement.

Now, let’s not misunderstand. Jesus was not siding with the Romans against his own people. That is not the politics of Jesus. After all, Jesus himself was crucified by the Romans. Pilate was not particularly fond of Jesus, nor did Jesus particularly approve of Pilate. But Jesus was saying to the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Sadducees and Essenes: "You are being hypocritical if you think that it is only these terrible pagan Romans who are the oppressors." Listen to what Jesus said about the scribes and Pharisees, the religious types, the people who were meticulous about the law of God. Jesus said, "They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them" (Matt 23:4).

So what was the political message of Jesus? The best way to understand it is to look at the first sermon, maybe the only sermon, that Jesus preached in his hometown of Nazareth. The story is told in Luke 4:14-30 (see Lectionary Commentary on Luke 4:14-21 and Luke 4:21-30). Jesus began speaking by loosely quoting Isaiah 61:1-2 (NRSV; see Verse Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-11):

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

That particular passage in Isaiah was originally spoken to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. This was God’s promise to them that they were going to be set free and allowed to return to their homeland. They who had been in prison would be released. Those who had been sitting in dark dungeons and their eyes had grown weak would see the light again and receive their sight back.

After reading that passage Jesus sat down, and "the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him." Then Jesus began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." The people’s response was very positive. "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." Then they said, "Is not this Joseph’s son?" Now, even that statement need not be taken in a negative sense. They were simply amazed how this one who grew up in their little village could have such words of wisdom and insight. Then Jesus began to say some things that disturbed them. He said, "You have heard about the people I healed in Capernaum, and you’re expecting me to do the same here. Well, it’s not going to happen. After all, Elijah and Elisha were sent to help and heal non-Israelites." Now, those politically charged words. And their response? They were filled with rage, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill in order to hurl him off the cliff. But somehow he escaped and went on his way.

Why such inflammatory statements? Why did Jesus agitate them with such provocative words? What was he doing? Let’s consider several things in this story.

First, the political agenda of Jesus is expressed in the quote from Isaiah: good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. Secondly, the last line of the quote makes reference to proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor. And what year might that be? In Leviticus 25 Israel was told to observe two special year-long celebrations. One of them was to be the sabbatical when the land was to have complete rest. The other was the Year of Jubilee, which was to happen every 50 years. During this year slaves were to be freed, land restored to original owners, and debts forgiven. 

Do you realize what that would do the social structure of a nation? It was intended to give disadvantaged people a new lease on life. It was to keep the rich from getting richer and the poor getting poorer. It was God’s idea of economic and social justice. Now, I call that God’s politics. But there is no evidence that the Year of Jubilee was ever literally practiced. However, that dream, that ideology, that longing for a just society was never lost. Isaiah 61 uses the language of Jubilee to bring a message of hope to captive Israel. And now Jesus uses those same words to announce that God’s Year of Jubilee has come. In effect he was saying, "In these oppressive times I have come to proclaim the year of Jubilee. So if someone borrows something from you, don’t demand it back. If someone sues to take your shirt, give him your undergarment also. This is the year of Jubilee. The kingdom of God is here. Change your ways. You can’t just blame it on Rome. You all need to change the way you live with one another."

But we might say that this is not politics. Jesus was speaking about loving one another, which is a spiritual matter. Jesus had no political agenda. His agenda was only spiritual. Why then does he say that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, and to the captives, and to the oppressed? We might respond that this is spiritual poverty, not real economic poverty. But the year of Jubilee was not simply a spiritual event. It had very definite social and economic intentions. Yes, Jesus was certainly concerned about spiritual matters such as sin and salvation. But for Jesus sin and salvation are not merely personal and private matters. It is sin that has created oppressive social and political conditions in the world, and Jesus was certainly concerned about those conditions. And salvation for Jesus was not simply a private, personal affair between us and God.  It had very definite social and political implications.

Let’s look at some other things in the gospels that will indicate to us that the concern of Jesus was not simply for the inward, spiritual, private relationship of individuals with God, but that he truly had social and political concerns that went beyond the individual. The opening words of the Sermon on the Mount are what we call the Beatitudes. We usually read these from Matthew's version contained in the Sermon on the Mount (5:3-11).  But let's hear them from Luke's, which we don’t often read. Luke has it this way (6:20-25):

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

It is in a time of economic and political oppression that that we hear Jesus saying, "Blessed are you poor, blessed are you who are hungry, who weep and mourn, who long for righteousness and justice, who are persecuted for righteousness. Yours is the kingdom of God. Don’t worry about what you will eat and what you will wear; God knows all about you and cares" (Matthew 6). There would be no problem for us in affluent America to listen to these words of Jesus. But Jesus was saying those words to folks who were in a desperate economic environment. To them, he proclaimed that the year of Jubilee had arrived, and so they should start living accordingly.

Later in Luke 16 Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which perfectly illustrates these beatitudes. Perhaps one reason why we have a tendency to want to spiritualize the beatitudes of Jesus is that we can thereby escape their sting, or at least we think we can. So we have thought of Jesus in purely spiritual terms, as Savior, Redeemer, Son of God, with no social or political agenda. I don’t think we can read the gospels that way. Jesus did not divorce a social vision from religion. The message of Jesus was both spiritual and political. His political agenda was God’s agenda from all levels of the Old Testament—the Exodus from Egypt (slaves), Leviticus 25 (Jubilee), the OT prophets (passionate concern for the orphan and the widow).

In fact, the message of Jesus and his actions were so politically provocative that the Gospel of John tells us that at one point when Jesus had fed the five thousand with bread and fish, the crowd was about to come and take him by force to make him king. Of course, they misunderstood the nature of his political agenda, but they did perceive quite correctly that the message of Jesus had political implications and consequences.

The greatest political reality that Jesus spoke of was the kingdom of God. Again, we might ask if the kingdom of God is really political in nature? We often think that the kingdom of God is a reality in heaven, a spiritual kingdom, something that happens in our hearts? Or, does God really demand change in the social, economic and political arenas of life here on earth as part of the kingdom? The answer that I find in the gospels is that when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he spoke of good news to the poor, release of the captives, liberation to those who are oppressed. That’s why Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Our Father who art in heaven. Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt 6:9-10).

God cares about this world and wants a world where there is justice, peace, goodness and well-being. God is never pleased when children in Haiti go to bed hungry, while we throw food away into garbage cans. God is never pleased when dictators in the world oppress powerless people. God is never pleased when the richest country in the world, which makes up only 6% of the world’s population, controls 60% of the world’s resources. Salvation is not simply an individual matter. It also means a social order that is pleasing to God. When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God on earth, he had a political agenda, which was God’s agenda.

But this kind of talk about another kingdom that is based on mercy, justice, and concern for the oppressed obviously made the powerful very suspicious and nervous. Those in places of power did not care for anyone who disturbed the status quo because that threatened their position of power. No wonder, then, that Caiaphas wanted Jesus arrested. No wonder Pilate had Jesus crucified. And even Herod Antipas earlier in the ministry of Jesus wanted to have Jesus killed. The politics of Jesus empowered the weak, the poor, the needy. It gave them hope. It reassured them that God was here and that God was on their side. The politics of Jesus liberated people. Jesus empowered people, and that was a threat to people already in power.

Jesus believed that there was a big difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world, and he wanted the kingdom of God to become a reality in the world. And when that happens, it turns the world upside down. Jesus said to his disciples, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (Mark 10:42-44). 

That is the politics of Jesus. I wonder how often even in the church we function according to the politics of the world instead of the politics of Jesus. I hope and pray that we can meet Jesus again for the first time and learn what it means to be servants in the spirit of Jesus to people who need liberation and hope.

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-Jirair Tashjian, Copyright © 2013, Jirair Tashjian
and The Christian Resource Institute, All Rights Reserved
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