By Dr. Doyle Sager
Was Jesus political? Do you mean, “Was Jesus partisan, endorsing a particular political candidate or party platform?” No. Or do you mean, “Did Jesus attempt to use his voice and influence to impact life in the here and now?” Then yes, he was political.
On a recent visit to Israel (my first), I became more aware of some of Jesus’ subtle but provocative political moves. Whether the Sermon on the Mount was delivered on the exact spot we visited during our pilgrimage is not the point. The point is that Matthew depicts Jesus as ascending a mountain, announcing a new kingdom, complete with new values and a new King. The Nazarene did not hide in caves or valleys. He climbed high, for all to see, in essence declaring, “Here I am, Herod Antipas. Here I am, Emperor Tiberius, take your best shot!”
Matthew’s Gospel begins with a crazed, insecure King Herod trying to exterminate baby Jesus, his rival. Throughout this first Gospel, Jesus is continually going to high places to teach, heal and be transfigured. Matthew’s account concludes with Jesus once again mounting a hill to give to his followers his final (great) commission. History is clear. Kings occupy high ground. History is clear. Jesus was political.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus sought out tax collectors. Can you imagine a more politically subversive act than attempting to win over turncoats who were collecting revenue for the occupying empire? What could be more political than challenging the cozy relationship between church and state which exploited the poor and weak? Just before he was murdered, Jesus challenged the Temple scam of his day. He turned over the tables of loan sharks who were charging exorbitant exchange rates for Temple currency. The poor were also being gouged by merchants demanding outrageous fees for the animals to be sacrificed for Passover. You get the point. Jesus was political.And yet, Jesus of Nazareth was radical only in the classic sense of that word. Radical means “root.” Remember doing your radicals in school, finding square roots? In the truest sense, Jesus was a conservative, committed to recovering the root of God’s dream for Israel and all nations. He was passionate about returning — returning to personal and social holiness and wholeness. Along with the Hebrew prophets, Jesus chose to align his politics with the oppressed, not the oppressors. And that cost him his life.
Our church recently hosted a pastor from South Africa. He reminded us that during the ugly apartheid era in his country, the official church had sided with the government and thus legitimized white supremacy. Establishment religion went so far as to propagate the dominant white narrative: Afrikaners (whites of Dutch ancestry) were the chosen of God, called to rule the native “Canaanites” (blacks and coloreds). Simply stated, government doctrine and church doctrine were one. And to this very day, some South Africans are understandably suspicious of any church, believing it to be an arm of oppression.
Truth be told, we are all political, because we all seek to use our influence and power to improve our world. The warning from scripture and history is a simple one. Be thoughtful and humble about how you are political. Be cautious when cozying up to systems or empires. You just might lose your soul.
Dr. Doyle Sager serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.
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