The Politics of Jesus

Jesus Series -

The Politics of Jesus

(Luke 6:27-36)

Jesus is often thought of as being irrelevant to politics. In fact, he presents us with a surprisingly radical political option. This message, the third in a series on ‘The Challenge of Jesus’, was given at an evening service in St. Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 2 March 1997.

A False Picture of Jesus

‘Politics’ is defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as ‘the art and science of government.’ More broadly, ‘politics’ is involvement in the leadership or government of the public life, civic affairs, social policy and public institutions of a society or nation.

Many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, have a false image of Jesus. Taking their cue from Jesus’ remark, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36), they have wrongly assumed that he was only interested in ‘spiritual’ matters, not in such ‘worldly’ activities as politics or economics. Holding that Jesus was non-political or a-political in outlook, they have assumed that his teaching is of no relevance to us today in the ‘practical’ task of how we should conduct our lives in society or give leadership in public life.

Holding this false view of a Jesus uninterested in politics, people then derive their political views from other, secular, sources. Political activists of Left-wing persuasion turn to Marxism for their political analysis and strategies. Political conservatives of the Right seek to preserve or justify the traditions and status quo of society. Neither side realises that there is a specifically Christian approach to politics, one espoused by Jesus himself.

Jesus’ Political Manifesto

What we could call Jesus’ ‘Political Manifesto’ is contained in Luke 6:27-38. Here he teaches a radical response to such real life political issues as:

• How should we treat enemies or those who don’t agree with us?

• How should we respond to unprovoked violence?

• What should be our attitude to property and possessions?

• What principles should guide our economic life and the distribution of wealth?

• What should we do when our property is forcibly requisitioned or taken from us?

In answer to these intensely practical questions, Jesus gives the following counsel:

• We are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us or oppose our views, and speak well of and pray for those who abuse us.

• We are to offer the other cheek to those who strike us; that is, we are to overcome violence with love, in this way retaining the initiative by not letting the violent person gain control over us or provoke us into reactive violence.

• We are to give to those who request our assistance, and not ask for our goods back if they are taken from us, thus displaying our confidence in God’s justice and provision.

• We are to have a generous attitude towards our property and possessions, lending freely - which the early Church consistently interpreted as meaning without interest - and not expecting anything back in return.

The leading element in this political manifesto of Jesus is the ‘surprise factor’ - the concept of acting differently than what is expected of us, of going further than what is commonly viewed as normal or natural in human relations. It is natural and normal to care for our own. It is unexpected and surprising to love those who are beyond our natural circle of affection, or to do good to those who are disagreeable or hostile toward us.

The other element in Jesus’ social teaching is the note of reliance on God: a God who is just, fair, generous, and unstinting in his philanthropy towards us. ‘Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.’ (Luke 6:35-36). This is not an ethic of retaliation (‘You hit me, and I’ll hit you’), or even an ethic of reciprocity (‘You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours’); it is an ethic of responsiveness, an ethic of response to God’s grace, an ethic of mercy (‘God loves the undeserving, so we love the undeserving too’).

The Politics of Palestine

We can appreciate how unique and radical Jesus’ political manifesto is when we compare it with the different viewpoints in the political spectrum of his day. Palestine was under Roman occupation during the lifetime of Jesus. It was a situation of imperial domination, denying Jews their political, economic, religious and cultural independence. This situation provoked a variety of reactions from different groups, all which can be seen in the Gospels:

1. The Pharisees

The Pharisees were the party of religious and cultural purity. Orthodox Jews, they wanted to preserve distinctive Jewish religious and cultural values. Politically, they were conservatives. Religious quietists, they were not actively involved in political life except where matters affected their own self interest.

2. The Sadducees and Herodians

The Sadducees were religious liberals. Like many liberals today they did not believe in a resurrection or a life to come, and consequently put their energies into politics and the affairs of this life, in partnership with the Roman administration. The Herodians were supporters of the Herods, the Jewish puppet kings through whom the Romans ruled Judea. These two groups were collaborators, cooperating with the Roman occupation.


3. The Zealots

The Zealots were at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Fanatical Jewish nationalists, they were crusaders, freedom fighters, and revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of Roman tyranny, if necessary by means of terrorism and violence.

The Politics of Jesus

Against this background we can see how unique Jesus’ political viewpoint was. He seems consciously and deliberately to have renounced all three options available to him in the politics of his day.

1. He was not a conservative, defending the traditions of the Law in the manner of the Pharisees. In his debates with the Pharisees he frequently presented an option of radical obedience to God against its weakening in the interpretations of their rabbinical traditions. ‘You have heard that it was said, but I say unto you...’ (Matthew 5:21-48).

2. He was not a collaborator, supporting the legitimacy of the dominant Roman power. He clearly affirmed that the highest human allegiance was to be given to God not to the state. ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ (Matthew 22:15-22).

3. He was not a crusader, espousing revolutionary violence against the occupying power - though accusations brought against him at his trial tried to suggest that he was (Luke 23:1-2). He uncompromisingly taught nonviolence and love for enemies (Matthew 5:38-48).

John Howard Yoder, in his ground-breaking book The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1972, p. 98), sums up Jesus’ political stance in relation to the political options of his day as a ‘threefold rejection’ of ‘quietism’, ‘establishment responsibility’, and ‘the crusade’. Yoder is an American New Testament scholar and a member of the Mennonite Church - a Christian pacifist denomination that has sought to follow Jesus' example of non-violence since its origin during the Reformation of the 16th century.

The Arrest of Jesus

Luke's account of Jesus’ arrest and trial (Luke 22 & 23), has a sequence of events which vividly illustrates the distinctiveness of Jesus’ political viewpoint in practice:

• When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper he showed an awareness that he had come to suffer and give his life as a sacrifice for sin, as the agent of a new covenant. ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’ (22:20). He is conscious of being the instrument of God’s coming kingdom. But contrary to current Jewish ideas of a political kingdom, involving the restoration of national sovereignty and independence from the Romans, Jesus seems to have clearly understood that entry into God’s kingdom requires a willingness to suffer rather than the exercise of conquering power. ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ (22:16, cf. Luke 24:25-26, 46-47).

• When a dispute about status arose among his disciples Jesus used the occasion to teach about servant leadership - contrasting this with the self-serving, domineering and authoritarian styles of leadership which were so common in his day, as they continue to be today. ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. . . . I am among you as one who serves.’ (22:25-27).

• The account of the skirmish that took place during Jesus’ arrest (22:35-38) makes it clear that his endorsement of sacrificial service should not be misconstrued as social indifference or political quietism. Quite the opposite, in fact. It appears that on this one specific occasion Jesus deliberately arranged for his disciples to be in possession of weapons, so that even though he was not a criminal, he might be arrested as one. ‘He let himself be taken as a criminal,’ says the Jerusalem Bible translation (Luke 22:37). Curiously his intention was not to have the weapons be used to defend him, because a short time later he rebuked Peter for using his sword (22:49-51, cf. John 18:10-11). Rather, it was so that he would be ‘numbered with the transgressors’, thus fulfilling the Biblical prophecy that his death would be a vicarious sacrifice for sinners (Isaiah 53:12). He who came to bear our sins chose to identify in his death with criminals and the outcasts of society.

The Politics of Redemption

All this has important implications for the person who wishes to follow Jesus’ way of radical discipleship today. It means that Christians today, like Jesus in his day, should choose to suffer themselves rather than be the cause of others’ suffering. It means we should be willing to ‘take up the cross’ of unpopularity and nonconformity, not as a non-political cop-out, but as the most profoundly redemptive and effective form of socio-political action there is.

Following Jesus’ non-violent alternative to the secular political options of the day, Christians will be misunderstood, marginalised, and often rejected. As Yoder says: ‘Representing as he did the divine order now at hand, accessible; renouncing as he did the legitimate use of violence and the accrediting of the existing authorities; renouncing as well the ritual purity of noninvolvement, his people will encounter in ways analogous to his own the hostility of the old order.’ (p. 98).

But following the way of Jesus will also mean that Christians will acquire the independence of a radical viewpoint, and find themselves able to relate to a wide range of people regardless of their politics. We will be able to bring Jesus’ distinctive non-violent option into situations of political polarisation, social distress or civil violence - precisely where other political options may have failed. Far from espousing political uninvolvement, Jesus calls us to play our part in a truly redemptive politics, the politics of peacemaking, reconciliation and economic justice.

Rob Yule
2 March 1997

© 1997, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand