Saturday, October 23, 2010

THE POLITICS OF JESUS, lecture 1

Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount and Some Parables of Jesus

Note: The following series of Bible exposition on the teaching of Jesus was given to students at Uganda Christian University during the January term 2008.

Introduction

It is commonly said “Religion and politics do not mix.” This idea comes both from clergy and from politicians. The clergy say, “Politics is worldly and unworthy of our attention.” Politicians say: “When clergy speak on politics, preaching turns to meddling.” No doubt there is some truth to these common sayings, and we shall see why. But in another way, the attempt to separate religion from politics runs directly contrary to the teaching of Scripture, even of Jesus himself.

Politics and the Kingdom of God

The word politics comes from the Greek word for “city” or polis. Normally we think of a city as a sub-unit of a larger entity, of the nation or the state. However, the Greeks believed that the moderate-sized city was the ideal forum for human development to take place. The Greek idea of politics began with places like Athens and Sparta and was then spread around the Greco-Roman world by Alexander the Great and the Romans. St. Paul had a political strategy in the sense that his mission was aimed at key cities like Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth and Rome.

The Old Testament speaks of cities too, one in particular: Jerusalem, David’s city. The old city of Jerusalem is about a square mile, surrounded by walls that have been built over centuries, from David’s time to the present. The old city is divided into Christian, Muslim and Jewish quarters. Jews stand at the Wailing Wall, praying for the day when the Temple will be restored. Above this wall rises old Temple Mount, occupied by two Islamic shrines, among the holiest to Muslims. Wars have raged over control of Jerusalem, and world leaders in succession have tried to mediate a settlement over claims to the City – to no avail.

Six hundred years before Christ, the city of Jerusalem fell to the great empires: first to the Babylonians, then to the Persians, then to the Greeks and finally to the Romans. Politics – the art of managing a city – was swallowed up by empire-building. In one respect, this development reflected a biblical theme: that God is Lord of all the earth. So when Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, it was less a matter of city politics than a universal dominion.

Having said that, let me add that Jesus’ notion of God’s kingdom is significantly different from that of Rome or other empires. “You say you are a king,” Pilate asked, and did not wait for any answer. Although Pilate failed to see Jesus Kingdom as a threat, nevertheless, he crucified him with a mocking inscription: “King of the Jews.”

The thesis of these meditations is that Jesus not only claimed to be King, Messiah, and to bring God’s Kingdom into this world but that he also had some specific teaching about the nature of that Kingdom, and it is of practical importance for Christians in living their lives in today’s world.

Preparation for the Kingdom

The Gospel of Matthew introduces us to the birth of the Messiah in the days of Herod the King. Herod was a builder of monuments: he built a pagan city Caesarea, dedicated to the Emperor Caesar Augustus and to the Goddess Roma. He also rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, dedicated to the God of Israel. In fact, these were also monuments to his pride. Needless to say, Herod suffered no competition. When Herod heard that a child-king was to be born in Bethlehem, he took no compunction in killing all the male-children in the town. But Jesus had escaped, and Herod died soon after.

Thirty years later, Jesus came preaching: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel.” We might immediately jump to the conclusion that Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom is a spiritual matter, that he is proclaiming a spiritual fellowship, or if you will the church. And this is partially true. But I think we may be too quick to miss the political overtones of this announcement.

When Jews of the first century looked for a Messiah, they had very specific and, if you will, worldly ideas of what he would be like. They saw him coming as a warrior like David, defeating their pagan oppressors. Jesus noted that many “messiahs” would arise claiming “I am he,” and most of these were political rebels against Rome. In 132, a Jewish leader who called himself “Bar Kokhba,” “Son of the Star,” led another futile revolt against Rome. There is today a walled up gate in the Jerusalem city gate, and Jews believe that when Messiah comes, he gate will open to receive him.

Now to be sure, Jesus was merely a carpenter’s son from Nazareth, but when he began to preach and to do miracles, his words and actions had clear public overtones. His healing miracles were simultaneously a sign of great power but also pointed to the fact that his kingdom was one of shalom, of peace and wholeness.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount follows directly from his first preaching ministry. Matthew wants us to know that the Gospel of the Kingdom has a particular content, which is contained in the Lord’s teaching. The nature of this teaching is also captured in Jesus’ first parable, the Parable of the Sower or of the Soils.

Then he told them many things in parables, saying: "A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop-- a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear." (Matthew 13:3-9)

Jesus himself interprets the parable, and we learn that the sower’s seed is the message of the Kingdom. The parable is particularly focused on how people receive that message – or don’t. Because there are three kinds of people (soils) who do not accept the message, we may conclude that Jesus’ teaching is intended only for a tiny audience, a secret society of believers. But I think that misses the point. Note how he says the good soil – the person who does receive his word will produce 30-, 60- or 100-fold returns. Now what are the returns? I think the most obvious answer is: other disciples. So the farmer is not wastefully scattering his seed. He is purposefully planting a well-prepared field, from which some seed, but by no means the majority, is lost on bad ground.

My point is this. Politics involves a whole “commonwealth,” a body of citizens. If Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom was intended for a chosen few, it would not be political but gnostic, occult. But indeed his picture of the productive crop is hardly defeatist, especially when we think that a fruitful field will produce many more seeds to fertilize other fields.

There is one more point about the Parable of the Sower. I said it has to do with how people receive the teaching of Jesus. Jesus sums this up in the phrase: “He who has ears, let him hear.” What does this mean? Well, obviously we all have physical ears, so he must be referring to an inner ear. Some people will hear the sound of Jesus’ voice and it will stop there. Others will hear the sound, think about it, and then act on it. There is a famous Scripture Collect which says:

Almighty God, who has caused all Holy Scripture to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life…

“Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest…” That is what Jesus says is necessary to absorb his teaching of the Kingdom and to produce good fruit. In one sense this sounds obvious, but in another it is revolutionary. Jesus is saying that when people internalize his teaching it will change their lives for ever and they will then go on to change the society in which they live.

The Christian Gospel is intended be transformative. Now many Revival Christians (balokole) would agree with this assessment. When Christ comes into your life, you are a changed person, a new creation. However, the parable is not only about individual ears – ears to hear, ears of corn – but of a whole field of ears. Revival Christians have not been so clear about the wider social and political implications of this teaching. For instance, when one hears about the recent violence in Kenya, some will say: “well, what to do you expect from unconverted people.” Some will say: “we should just pray for a spirit of repentance to come over people.” These responses are not wrong, but I am not sure they are complete. They tend to treat Jesus’ teaching as a private possession, between me and my God. They also tend to cause Christians to be indecisive or inactive in the political affairs of the day.

I shall not be taking the route of the so-called “social gospel,” which reduces the teaching of Jesus merely to ethical advice or aligns it with a particular political ideology like socialism. But I am going to suggest that Jesus’ teaching has real political implications, and indeed that it has already transformed the way people think today, whether they know it or not, about how to relate to their neighbours.

Next week we shall look at the Beatitudes, where Jesus describes the character of those who have had ears and heard, those who have received the seed of the Good News and brought forth good fruit.

16 January 2008

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