The Politics of Jesus, Part I: Was He?

This is the first of a four-part sermon series, “The Politics of Jesus,” preached on October 9, 2016 at First Church in Simsbury, Connecticut.

Exodus 6:28 – 7:6

Luke 4:16-21

This morning’s topic is, “Was Jesus political, and if so, how?”

But before we wade into those questions together, I think three observations are in order.

First, why preach a sermon series about the politics of Jesus, if there is such a thing? Well, I think it is fair to say that this year’s presidential election has been like no other. It consumes headlines, fills social media feeds, and dominates conversations at water coolers and dinner tables alike. We are a people of faith who seek to follow Jesus. When the election seems to be turning our world upside down, God, through Jesus Christ, should, we would hope, be able to provide a center and help us gain some perspective.

Second, I know for myself, and I have heard from many people, that this election is creating a palatable anxiety and worry. In particular the conflict that arises between people with different viewpoints is very stressful for many. Kevin and I will seek to balance our roles as teachers and pastors. I will endeavor to speak the truth of the gospel as best I understand it, while staying grounded in God’s grace and love for all people.

And third, someone asked a fair question, I thought churches aren’t allowed to engage in politics or risk losing their non-profit status. I have looked this up. The IRS Statute on Charities, Churches and Politics is very clear, churches are forbidden from participating on political campaigns on behalf of particular candidates. I can assure you that neither Kevin nor I will promote a particular candidate. You may feel drawn to one candidate or another as a result of what we share, but those connections and conclusions are entirely yours to make. Our purpose is not to sway a vote for one candidate or another but to provide a framework for thinking about these things.

So, was Jesus political?

The answer depends of course on what we mean by political.

Politics has come to be associated with government. In particular, in our American form of Democracy, we associate politics with elections for candidates to public office.

And we know that in Jesus’ day, Israel and its capitol Jerusalem were nothing like an American democracy. Israel was part of the Roman Empire, so was expected to be loyal to Emperor Augustus and his representative in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate. A Jewish king, Herod, was appointed by Rome to rule over Galilee. And a Council of religious leaders, also loyal to Rome, was responsible for the religious life of Jerusalem. So there is no way Jesus was political in any American Democratic sense.

That said, I have a Master’s Degree in Political Science from the University of Hawaii, and through that work came to understand politics more broadly than just elections and government. In fact, looking for a good definition of politics for this morning, I contacted my favorite PoliSci professor, Kathy Ferguson, and she shared this: Politics is the process of organizing our collective lives. Politics is a process, ongoing not static. Politics requires organizing which can involve both cooperation and conflict. And politics is about our collective lives, not about the individual, but concerned with the public good. Power is also integral to politics, and power makes people do what they would otherwise not do, or enables people to do what they otherwise could not do.

I included the Exodus passage as an example of this definition of politics; Moses entered into a process identified by God to reorder the collective lives of his people, and he wielded the power of God to make Pharaoh do what he otherwise would not, and to enable the Israelites to do what they otherwise could not.

So this is the definition of politics I will use when asking, was Jesus political, did he seek to influence the process of organizing lives for the public good?

So let’s turn to Jesus.

There are various ways of understanding the meaning of Jesus’s life and ministry and these are not mutually exclusive.

One popular understanding of Jesus is as the arbiter of individual salvation. This is communicated in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Another way of understanding Jesus is as the good shepherd who has come to seek us out and bring us back when we are lost, to serve as a source of comfort and strength in times of trial.

Or Jesus may be seen as a teacher and example of a way to live a better, kinder life. For example, in the fifth chapter of Matthew we find Jesus teachings his followers about forgiveness and love for our enemies. Many work to follow these and other teachings so as to be better, happier people.

Notice that each of these understandings focuses on the individual, each is private and apolitical. None of these understandings of Jesus is about organizing our collective lives for the common good. I affirm each of these perspectives and believe all are important to our faith.

So, I ask again, was Jesus political?

I have mentioned that Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh meets my Professor Kathy Ferguson’s definition of political. Many Bible scholars note that Jesus is presented in the gospels, especially the gospel of Matthew, as the “new Moses.” There are a number of intriguing parallels between the stories of Moses and Jesus, but the most significant is that Moses went up the mountain to receive the law, and Jesus delivered the “new law” in the Sermon on the Mount. So, if Moses used the power of God to liberate his people, how might Jesus also be seeking to reorder lives for the common good?

One of the most prominent contemporary Bible scholars, Marcus Borg (who just died a couple years ago), identified what he called a “domination system” which operated throughout the Roman Empire, and in Jerusalem in particular. The domination system consisted of the Roman Empire’s political and military might, coupled with the religious power of the temple authorities. The chief priests, the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes supported the Roman Empire so they could retain their power and continue to collect temple taxes. In addition to political and religious power, the economic system preserved the wealth and land holdings of a very few. So all three of these, political, religious and economic systems, functioned together to benefit a small number of elite while oppressing and excluding everyone else.

So, whereas Moses liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, Jesus, suggests Borg, worked to liberate those kept down and excluded by the domination system.

Jesus entered into a process identified by God to reorder the collective lives of these people, and he wielded the power of God to make the chief priests, Herod and Pilate do what they otherwise would not, and to enable those on the margins of the domination system to do what they otherwise could not do.

But unlike Moses, Jesus didn’t do this by demanding freedom, he did it by going among those who had been cast out (lepers, demoniacs, the blind), healing them, and restoring them to the community. In addition to being individual, private acts of mercy, these were public, political acts; and the reordering of collective lives these acts promoted threatened the domination system. This is why we find Jesus being confronted by the religious authorities again and again. In Chapter 12 of Matthew the Pharisees seek to undermine Jesus’ authority, delegitimize his power by claiming that Jesus casts our demons by the power of Beelzebub. And in Chapter 21 of Matthew the chief priests challenge Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?”

The Roman Emperor Julius Cesar was deified, given the title of The Divine Julius. His son, Augustus, who ruled during Jesus lifetime, was then identified as the Son of God. So reference to Jesus as the Son of God were a direct challenge to Rome and the existing system of political, religious and economic power.

So yes, faith in Jesus Christ offers eternal life to those who believe. And yes, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, seeking us out and returning us home when we are lost, offering comfort and strength in times of trial. And yes, Jesus’ teachings and example can help us be better, kinder people. But these are not what got Jesus killed by Roman and temple authorities. Jesus was killed because he was political, because he sought to reorder collective lives for a public good in a way that threatened the existing domination system.

The domination system still exists, and Jesus still poses a threat to those who benefit from it politically, religiously and economically. This is why it is beneficial for some to interpret Christianity as only a private, personal, apolitical faith.

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and author of the book, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity. In an Miroslav Volf Interview on Wednesday Volf said:

“The Christian faith is one single faith that we encounter in myriad of forms. By “public faith” we don’t mean some special kind of faith, but we refer to the public dimension of that one faith. It is faith as it concerns common goods. There are circles of these common goods: from the roads and water pipes that run by our houses, through elementary schools all the way to a nation’s monetary policy and international relations. Since Christians believe in the God who created and is redeeming all things, Christian faith is concerned with all these common goods. We should not forget that there is no clear demarcating line between common goods and personal good, between public faith and private faith. My desires are intimate things, but they, too, concern the common good and are of public import.”

So yes, Jesus was political, and our faith today has a public, political dimension. Let us think carefully and engage wisely knowing that God created and is redeeming all things. Amen.




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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Missed hearing this last Sunday, but read it just now. Coupled with today’s sermon, you provide some thought-provoking themes. You quote Miroslav Volf in the Oct 9 sermon–and he has an op-ed piece in today’s HARTFORD COURANT…’Forgive Trump, but don’t vote for him.’ Keep us the good work…we are appreciative of your messages.
    Ken Poppe and Mary Hendrickson

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