Part 14 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?
In my last post, I outlined some of the ways Jews in the time of Jesus answered the question: How is the kingdom of God coming? Though there were a variety of answers to that question, almost all Jews in the first century agreed that the coming of God’s kingdom would include the expulsion of Rome from Judea. The Zealots and others of revolutionary ilk were convinced that this would happen as human beings did the heavy lifting, with some help from the Lord. Others preferred to wait for God to lead the charge. (In the end, the Zealot-option prevailed as the Jews waged war against Rome in A.D. 66-70. The end of this effort, of course, was the utter destruction of the temple and the devastation of the Jewish people.)
Jesus perplexed many of the Jews in his day by his unwillingness to support a revolt against Rome. He healed the servant of a Roman centurion (Matt 8:5-13), praising this leader in the oppressor’s army as a paragon of faith (v. 10). He hung out with Jewish tax collectors who had collaborated with Rome in order to become rich (Luke 19:1-10). He even appeared to support paying taxes to Rome (Matt 22:15-22).
But, far more confusing than this was what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. God will bless those who are meek, merciful, peaceful, and persecuted, not those who use human strength to fight against Rome (Matt 5:3-10). Moreover, Jesus taught that one should “not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matt 5:39-41). More troubling still, Jesus called his fellow Jews to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matt 5:44). In context, there could be no question in the mind of Jesus’ audience to whom he was referring in all of this: the Romans. Don’t fight against the Romans, he said, but love and pray for them.
Can you imagine how controversial this must have been? Here was Jesus, proclaiming the kingdom of God, doing miraculous works to prove that God’s reign had arrived, and yet opposing what most of his peers believed to be an essential element of the kingdom’s coming – the expulsion of Rome and the punishment of all who had oppressed Israel.
For us this can seem very theoretical, far removed from real human experience and emotion. But suppose Jesus appeared on the scene right now in Israel. Suppose he went around telling Israeli fathers whose children had been killed in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks that they should turn the other cheek and love their enemies, and that this was somehow the way to peace. When we put matters in these terms, it’s easier to understand not only why so many people were confused by Jesus, but also why many were so angry at him.
Jesus seemed to be saying that the kingdom of God would come, not through human strength, but through weakness, not through military victories, but through apparent defeat, not through hatred, but through sacrificial love. How could this be possible?
I’ll continue to work on this question in my next post.