Have you ever heard a preacher preface his remarks with this statement, "Now, I know you should never mix politics and religion…"? Why do church leaders feel the need to do that? What is it that makes us assume that blending these two topics is inappropriate and that politics have no place in the pulpit? Why do we engage in schizophrenic spiritualism, dividing our Lord's Day convictions from our election day choices? What has led us to this divided psyche?
Without question, the primary reason Christians operate with a split personality is because they have wrongfully concluded that Jesus never engaged in political debate. They justify their on again off again values by assuming that Jesus believed in the separation of church and state.
They are wrong. They simply do not understand the political landscape of Jesus' day.
One of the greatest joys of my college experience was being able to study two of my favorite subjects simultaneously. Little did I know when I received a minor in History that it would become such a wonderful complement to my major in Bible. Recently, it was that very combination that opened my eyes to an important historic principle - the politics of Jesus.
Jesus lived in a culture that was governed by one of the most diverse governmental systems in all of human history. In technical terms, Jesus lived within a theocratic tetrarchy of imperialistic oversight. In less technical terms, the culture of Jesus' day had three overlapping spheres of political power, somewhat like our local, state and federal governments.
The inner sphere was the most honored and, in many respects, the most powerful. Webster defines a theocracy as "a government by a person or persons claiming to rule with divine authority." (Webster's New World Dictionary) In other words, the most influential political power in Jesus' life was actually a group of rulers who had religious/secular authority. The High Priests, Teachers of the Law, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin and other Jewish officials, not only wielded great influence over religious matters, they were also given wide latitude to govern secular matters. Much like the period of the Judges, they addressed both the spiritual and the physical sides of government.
Because of this theocratic arrangement, it is fair to say that anytime Jesus spoke about regulations governing the physical realm, He was, to some degree, making a political statement. Let's consider just one of the more obvious times He did so.
Matthew 23:1-3 (NIV)
"Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.'"
"Moses' seat" is a reference to another period in Jewish history when theocracy was also the political structure of the day. Go back and read the life of Moses. Read about the responsibilities he had both religiously and secularly. In this passage, Jesus is about to launch into a stinging indictment of those who have placed themselves in the same seat as Moses. The entire passage is about the religious/secular politics of His day. Read it again, and this time keep His comments within the context of a theocracy. Yes, Jesus took political positions and He addressed them openly.
The next sphere of governmental influence was called a tetrarchy. When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided into four sections and given to three of his sons and a sister. The Herod who ruled Galilee and Perea during Jesus' ministry was referred to as a "Tetrarch" meaning "ruler of a quarter." He was responsible for the death of Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist, and would Himself make sport of Jesus during the trials before His crucifixion.
Herod was a wicked and shrewd ruler. As a result, he was the target of rebuke by John the Baptist and at least two politically charged statements by Jesus.
Mark 8:15 (NIV)
"'Be careful,' Jesus warned them. 'Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.'”
Notice that, in this statement, Jesus gives an unabashed warning about the influence of both the theocracy (Pharisees) and the tetrarchy (Herod). Much like you and I might warn our fellow citizens not to trust the promises made by some of today's representatives of government, Jesus warned His friends to be careful about the level of trust they placed in their political leaders.
Luke 13:31-33 (NIV)
"At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, 'Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.' He replied, 'Go tell that fox, "I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal." In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem.'"
This passage gives us several striking insights into the way Jesus reacted toward the politics within the tetrarchy.
First, notice the disparaging remark He makes about Herod. Jesus does not honor him with his proper title or even his name. Instead, He boldly dismisses the primary government official of that region as simply "that fox." In Exodus 22:28 the Old Law commanded, "Do not … curse the ruler of your people." (NIV) Was Jesus guilty of violating this law or was His statement true and thus justified? Is there an application for a Christian's political expression today?
Secondly, notice how Jesus waves off the political pressure to stop His work, "I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal." (Luke 13:32, NIV) This could rightly be concluded as an act of civil disobedience. To read about another Christ-inspired act of civil disobedience, study Acts 4:18-20. Yes, Jesus both engaged in and inspired others to engage in civil disobedience whenever government conflicted with the mission of God.
Thirdly, notice that even though Jesus does not run from the political pressure, He does not allow it to distract Him either. With a laser sharp focus on the mission He declares, "In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day…." (Luke 13:33, NIV)
Lastly, please notice the brutal sarcasm Jesus uses to describe the theocratic assassinations which occurred in His own nation's history, "...for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem." (Luke 13:33, NIV) In this statement, Jesus not only affirms His disdain for political hypocrisy, He acknowledges that sometimes a person's religious responsibility conflicts with the politics of the day. On that occasion, Jesus would tell us to press on! He would also remind us, "...whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God." (Luke 12:8-9, NIV)
In these two passages, Jesus provides a very compelling example of just how Christians might, at times, need to respond to their own governmental leaders.
During Jesus' life, the largest sphere of political influence came from the imperialistic rulers of Rome. Here, too, Christ expressed Himself openly.
Before noticing some direct quotes, it is interesting to note that Jesus made no effort to hide His regular association with the Roman oppressors known as tax collectors. On one occasion, He even stopped the entire entourage in order to validate Zacchaeus, a most hated minion of Rome. Furthermore, Jesus personally selected polar opposites, a tax collector and a Jewish zealot, to be part of His inner group of disciples. (Matthew 10:2-4) Few things are more political than taxes and political activism. Christ used men from both backgrounds to reach His intended purpose.
But perhaps the most obvious reactions of Jesus toward imperial Rome came during the two following passages:
Matthew 22:15-22 (NIV)
"Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. 'Teacher,' they said, 'we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?'
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, 'You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.' They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, 'Whose image is this? And whose inscription?'
'Caesar’s,' they replied.
Then he said to them, 'So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.'
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away."
First, it is important to notice the two groups that were sent to test Jesus. The Pharisees hated Roman rule and the Herodians did their best to promote it. They were truly at opposite ends of the political spectrum. It seemed like the perfect trap. Jesus had been drawn into a political controversy that had no solution. What would He do?
"So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s." (Matthew 22:21, NIV)
Brilliant, a simply brilliant response to an impossible question!
Unfortunately, many have viewed this response too superficially. They conclude that Jesus' answer was intended to place distance between Himself and politics. They further conclude that, by His response, Jesus actually validated a "separation of church and state." But think deeper.
Consider the logical conclusion to Jesus' statement, "give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s." What could Caesar possibly own that does not already belong to God? What is there to "give back"? With this statement, Jesus does not validate the "separation of church and state," just the opposite. He acknowledges the theocracy in which He lived. God is over all, and with regards to politics (taxes), whenever it is morally possible, Christians must honor those who God has placed over our physical context. (Romans 13:1-7) Jesus' statement was deeply political and, to many, it was also very abrasive.
Conclusion: Yes, Jesus participated in political debate. Although His position was not popular, He did engage the system. He also taught His followers the proper response to a political issue that might be inconvenient, but does not involve a conflict with God's law.
Matthew 5:38-42 (NIV)
"You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."
This section of Scripture is taken from what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, one of the Lord's most practical presentations on life. Throughout that lengthy oration, Jesus addressed everything from religious tradition to secular law and even the proper response to political oppression. While there are many things within the Sermon on the Mount that we could point to that relate to civic duties, one of the most obvious is that one little sentence, "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles." (Matthew 5:41, NIV)
As you may know, many of the imperial soldiers of Rome were fond of humiliating the oppressed. It was Roman law that a soldier could demand a subject to stop what they were doing and carry his baggage a certain distance. As you can imagine, this infuriated the Jews and many of them refused to go one step beyond what the law required. It was within that abusive political climate that Jesus makes a rather abrasive decree. "Don't just go one mile, go the extra mile."
While the spiritual applications to this teaching are plenteous, it is the political ramifications that we are interested in here.
1. Jesus acknowledged the authority of Rome. While much of Roman rule was seeped in paganism, Jesus still acknowledged the empire's authority and encouraged submission whenever possible.
2. Jesus honored the authority of Rome. He didn't just encourage obedience, He taught second-mile servitude to those who have political power.
3. Jesus exploited the authority of Rome. With this teaching, the Lord encouraged cooperation with political minions. What is the difference between this passage and the examples of civil disobedience found in Luke 13 and Acts 5? This inconvenience didn't interfere with the mission, it actually had the potential to advance the cause of God. Is it possible that it was this very teaching that opened the doors of goodwill and led to the conversions of several Roman officials, not the least of which could have been Cornelius?
Conclusion: Jesus encouraged political cooperation in order to reach a higher purpose. Not unlike today, His approach to politics was greatly looked down upon by the pious religious hierarchy. They viewed Him as being guilty by association. They saw it as compromise. Jesus saw it as opportunity.
Obviously, the point of this material is to show the unexpected abrasive nature of Jesus within politics. So what have we learned?
I realize you are not likely to agree with every conclusion that I've drawn in this section. But surely you would agree that the preponderance of evidence points to at least one thing - much like today, Jesus lived in a politically charged culture and He did not refuse to engage it boldly and publicly. May we be courageous enough to do the same.
In the next section, we will examine the other side of Christ's character. When necessary, He was abrasive, but He could also be the congenial Christ.
Missed the first three lessons of this series? Take a look!
Gentle Jesus? Not Always!: "Introduction"
Gentle Jesus? Not Always!: "The Lord of Balance"
Gentle Jesus? Not Always!: "The Abrasive Savior: Religion"
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