The Politics of Jesus

One of the biggest lies ever told about Jesus is that he was not political. Of course, he was political.

If he wasn’t political, he’d be as irrelevant today as he would have been in his own lifetime. If he wasn’t political, he would have died of natural crosses rather than dying on a cross. If he hadn’t been political, we would never have heard of him.

But, of course, if he hadn’t been political, he wouldn’t be God incarnate, would he? He wouldn’t have bothered to enter into human life, becoming human himself. He could have stayed in heaven at his Father’s side and occasionally nudged his old man and said, “Hey, look at those crazy people.”

But because both Father and Son love crazy people like you and me, Jesus became one of us. We murdered him not because he was a swell guy but because he challenged us. He pushed us. He got in our faces. He told us our politics was wrong, and his politics was right.

Jesus was political, all right.

But he was never partisan. Today he would not be a Democrat. He would not be a Republican. He was so independent that he probably wouldn’t even register as an Independent.

Maybe that’s why some people think he wasn’t political. He refused to participate in our broken political system. But don’t tell me he didn’t care about politics. That’s a lie. To know it’s a lie, all you have to do is read the gospels without partisan blinders and earplugs. Jesus was political through and through. How do we know? Because he cared about people. And politics is about caring for people – or at least, in God’s world, it’s supposed to be.

This is my third and last message concerning the powers and principalities. In my first message, I defined the Powers That Be, those invisible forces that shape our world and our thinking. Last week I talked about the armor of God that we can wear to protect ourselves from the powers. Today I want to talk about how Jesus battled the powers. Today we’re talking about the politics of Jesus.

You think Jesus wasn’t political? What was his message to Israel, right out of the starting gate? Mark’s gospel, chapter 1, verse 15, Jesus announces: “The time is at hand. The kingdom of God is here. Change your way of thinking and believe the good news.”

Notice he doesn’t say the “family of God,” or the “community of God” or even – as some would prefer to hear it today – the “kindom of God.” No, he says, “The kingdom of God is here.”

Tell me the word “king” is not political. Even more, convince the Romans of that. Caesar accepts no rivals. The only kings he allows are puppet princes. What does the sign over Jesus’ cross say? It says, Luke 23:38, “This is the king of the Jews.” The cross is what happens to Caesar’s rivals.

Oh, you say, he was misunderstood. He wasn’t political at all. After all, didn’t he tell Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world”? (John 18:36)

In his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, what does Jesus say? He says, “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” (Luke 4:18-19).

Good news for the poor. Captives go free. The Lord’s Anointed One. The Lord’s favor. Nothing political there, right?

Jesus comes by his politics naturally. His mom was well-known radical. Hear the words of Mary’s Song, what we call the Magnificat.

“The Mighty One has done great things for me, holy is his name. He shows mercy to all who love him from generation to generation. With his mighty arm he scatters the proud, flings the powerful down from their thrones, and elevates the lowly in their place. He fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty” (Luke 1.49-53).

He fills the hungry with good things. Once he feeds more than 5,000 people in some remote place. They’re about ready to seize him to make him their king, but he hightails it before that can happen (John 6:15). He may have a kingdom, but he won’t be crowned by anyone but God.

But he will be crowned. Consider that name: Jesus Christ. Christ is not a last name, of course. It’s a title. Jesus the Christ, meaning Jesus the Messiah, meaning Jesus God’s Anointed One, meaning Jesus the King. Every time we say the word Christ, we honor Jesus as king.

When he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, he’s not saying that his kingdom is in outer space or heaven, or anyplace otherworldly like that. He’s saying that his kingdom is right here and now, but it isn’t at all like other kingdoms in this world. It runs by different rules altogether.

In worldly kingdoms, he once tells his disciples, “their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you. Among you, whoever wishes to become great must be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first must be servant to all.” (Mark 10:42-45)

Talk about turning the world upside down!

In fact, Jesus challenges the basic social system prevailing throughout the Roman empire. Patronage was the basis of Roman society, economics, law and family. In Roman mythology, it was the patriarch Romulus who established the class system of upper and lower classes and slaves. It was run on a system of reciprocal benefit and mutual obligation.

Say you’re a social climber who wants to expand your influence. You throw an expensive dinner party to which you invite all the movers and shakers in your community. By attending, they accept an obligation to you. They “owe you one,” as the saying as it. They have an obligation – call it an “ob” –  with your name on it. They can pay off this “ob” by reciprocating with a party invitation to you, or by paying you an equivalent amount in goods or services or some form of social favor.

Every time you pass somebody on the street, just a nod of the head is enough to acknowledge, “Yeah, I owe you,” or “Don’t forget, you owe me.” Everybody keeps the books in their heads. Nobody forgets.

Now you know why Jesus tells so many parables about feasts and dinner parties. For example, in Luke 14:12-14, he says, “When you give a dinner, don’t invite your friends or relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, because they cannot repay you.”

Historian Diana Butler Bass says we often misinterpret this story today because we don’t understand the context. We say, “Isn’t it nice of Jesus to invite the poor to dinner.” Jesus isn’t being nice. Nice people don’t get nailed to a cross. Jesus is challenging the economic system. He’s encouraging a quiet revolution against the Powers That Be.

Read the parable in Matthew 25. Jesus says that when comes in his glory, nations will be divided the way a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Who will be rewarded? Only those who are mindful of the least in society – the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned

We have managed to tame most of Jesus’ parables so that they don’t say what they are intended to say, but a couple of them refuse to be tamed. Take the one in Matthew 20 about the landowner who needs workers for his vineyard – and no matter how long they work, he pays them all the same. The ones who worked the longest are not happy. Why weren’t the ones who came later paid less? The landowner says, “Can’t I be generous?”

Jesus’ own generosity offends the powers. Everywhere he goes, he heals people, and he never charges them a penny for it. No, no, Jesus. You can’t go around giving people free health care!

Or free forgiveness. The religious authorities are scandalized when Jesus claims authority to forgive sins. No, they say, only God can forgive sins, and only through sacrifices made in the temple. Jesus is dispensing forgiveness without a license. He’s subverting the temple system.

He makes his intent clear when he charges into the temple and attacks the merchants who are selling animals for sacrifice. He says, “You’ve turned God’s house into a den of robbers!” (Mark 11:17). It is no coincidence that he is dead less than a week later.

He’s not averse, though, to paying the half-shekel temple tax levied on all Jewish men. Pushed to pay it, he tells Peter to throw out a line and hook a fish – and inside Peter finds a one-shekel coin, enough to pay the tax for both of them (Matthew 17:24-27).

What about paying taxes to the dreaded Romans? You remember the episode where he’s put on the spot with that question. If he says yes, he’ll be damned as a collaborator. If he says no, he’s guilty of sedition. Many commentators see his answer as a clever non-answer, showing that he won’t be drawn into a political matter.

Not so at all. Pointing to a Roman coin, he says: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17). He’s not making some phony division of the world into secular and sacred realms. He’s asking, what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? To whom is your highest allegiance due?

Is there even any question? “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6.4-5). Toss some coins Caesar’s way, but give your heart to God.

If you still doubt, look at Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the event we celebrate on Palm and Passion Sunday. We have stereotyped it as a children’s parade, but if children were present, they were not the focus of it. The people shout, “Hosanna!” which means, “Save us!”

Jesus rides into the city on a donkey. It may look non-threatening to us, but the donkey is the royal animal of Israel. Its significance is clear in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Look, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…”

For these and other acts, Jesus has to die. He does not die between two thieves. That’s a grievous mistranslation. The two men who are executed with him are rebels, insurrectionists, and it’s assumed he’s just like them. Well, he is a revolutionary, only no one knows just how revolutionary he really is.

How does he survive as long as he does? By living off the grid, constantly moving, always dodging the authorities. “Foxes have dens, and birds have nests,” he says, “but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

Some people contend that Jesus left no platform, no political pattern for life. Really? What do you call the Beatitudes? It’s no accident that so many people want to erect idols to the Ten Commandments – and they are idols – but no one wants to post the Beatitudes in schools and courthouses and other public places.

That’s because Jesus’ politics is too radical for us. What’s all this stuff about, “Blessed are the poor” and “Blessed are the merciful” and “Blessed are the peacemakers”? No, no. Our political platform is, “Blessed are the rich,” “Blessed are those who crush their enemies,” “Blessed are those who bully their way to the top.”

Jesus called his political platform the Kingdom of God. No human kingdom and no human politics has the power or authority to shape human life the way God wants human life to be shaped. Only the coming of God’s Kingdom can save us. Only the politics of Jesus can confront the powers and principalities and say, “No more! God demands better than this!” Only the politics of Jesus can save us.

Your life is the ballot box where you cast your vote for the politics of Jesus. You either strive to live like Jesus, or you serve another master. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!

This message was delivered October 25, 2020 at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Matthew 10:34-39.

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