The Politics Around Jesus
It is said that Jesus didn’t get involved in politics. That is mostly because today religion and politics are separated into different categories. Not so in the ancient world…
Jesus Tosses His Hat
“After John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:14-15
I just want to let you know, before I begin on this story, that I’m not really a fan of sports and especially not boxing. But here goes, anyway.
In the 18th century, boxing had a much more open field than it does today. The boxing ring used to be a circle, which is why it is called a “ring” and the crowds, almost all men, would crowd around to see the series of bouts. A single boxer would come out the winner at the end of the night. At this point, anyone who wanted to challenge the winner from the crowd was welcome to come up and take their chances. But instead of a number of people shouting, the challenger would take off their hat and throw it into the ring to declare their challenge. This is why Teddy Roosevelt used the phrase, “I am throwing my hat into the ring” when he was stepping forward to run for president. And that’s the source of this saying.
When Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand, believe in the gospel,” Jesus was making a religious statement, but even more than that, he was throwing his hat into the ring— in the sense of Teddy Roosevelt, not like a boxer. Because there already was a kingdom of God that almost every Jew recognized. And Jesus was saying something decidedly political here. That a new kingdom is coming. A new king is coming. And he is set to take over. This was Jesus’ political speech.
In the ancient world, all the way until the time of the Protestant reformation, there was no separation of religion and state. They were constantly and continuously united. If you were talking about politics, you were certainly talking about a religion. They weren’t separated. Every king had their own god, sometimes their god was themselves— like Pharoah or Alexander the Great. A political leader was also the head priest of the nation and they led the worship of the nation. A battle is an act of evangelism— a war is the battle between two gods and the general that wins the battle declares their god as more powerful than the god who lost. And the loser must acknowledge that the winner’s god is more powerful than the loser’s god. The loser might still worship their own god, but they also have to worship the victor’s god.
Except for one group, the Jews.
A hundred and sixty some years before the birth of Jesus, there’s this Greek ruler called Antiochus Epiphanes. “Epiphanies” meant that he was calling himself “god on earth”. But his main God was Zeus, and so he decided that that every national temple under his control had to be dedicated to Zeus, including the temple to Yahweh in Judea. After all, the Jews were the losers, they lost to the Greeks. So they should properly dedicate their main temple to the winner, Zeus. So he sent his soldiers to Judea, gathered some faithful Jewish servants of the Greek overlords and sacrificed a pig to Zeus in the Temple of Yahweh.
Not everyone was okay with this. One of them was a old guy named Matthias and his sons. He was a descendent of Aaron, so in line to be the high priest of Yahweh. When the soldiers came to sacrifice a pig on his altar, he sacrificed them, instead and called his sons and anyone else to stand up and fight against these Greek savages that desecrated the Temple of Yahweh. You see, because Jews were taught that no matter who won a battle or war, Yahweh was always in charge, always ruling the whole earth and all the nations. So they weren’t going to accept someone disrespecting Yahweh.
After seven years of battle, Matthias and his sons, the Maccabees, gained freedom from the Greek oppressors and rededicated the temple to Yahweh, which is what the holiday Haunakah is about. Matthias passed away and one of his surviving sons, John, became ruler of Judea. He was primarily the High Priest, but he was also the king, in charge of the nation of Judea. This nation was going to go back to Moses’ law and that would be the law of the nation. He set up a council of elders called the Sanhedrin, and they would meet together regularly to discuss how to interpret the law and apply it to all Jews. John was not only the king of Judea, but to all who would come to the Temple to worship, to all Jews throughout the world— in Babylon, in Persia, in Egypt, in Turkey— everywhere. This was a remarkably powerful position. John was the king of the Jews, the anointed one, the Messiah, both priest and king,
But even if you agree on the god and agree on the law and agree on the priest and king, there is still a lot of room for interpretation. Thus, political parties were born. There were three main ones:
-The Sadducees. They were kind of like the ancient Jewish Republicans. They were very conservative in their interpretation of the law, and they also had the ear of the wealthy. They were generally the favorite of the high priests, and so stayed around Jerusalem and Judea, near their patrons.
-The Pharisees. They were kind of like the ancient Jewish Democrats. They were more flexible with their understanding of the law, bringing in new ideas. They were the populists, and many more people appreciated the Pharisees as leaders. They were seen as strict purists by some, but they just had a long tradition.
-The Essenes— They were the rebels. They saw that Matthias and John’s line to be the wrong line of high priests and they had stepped in front of the true line. So they preferred not to worship with the other Jews, and had their own compounds in which they would bathe and clean themselves. They were the real purists, much more than the Pharisees.
And we may see these groups as just arguing about legal or religious matters. Not true. John’s son, Alexander Jonathan became king after him, and he openly sided with the Sadducees, so that really ticked off the Pharisees. So the Pharisees invited the Greek king to come and take over Jerusalem. He said, “Great! I’ll be right over” and he brought all his troops to take out Alexander the High Priest and to take over Judea. The Pharisees realized that he was pretty much overstepping their request, so they joined Alexander and the Sadducees to take out the Greeks. Thousands of people died, but they pushed the Greeks back. When it was all done, Alexander decided to punish the Pharisees by crucifying 800 of them. About a decade later when Alexander’s wife, Salome had taken over as queen after his death, the Pharisees convinced her to kill of a number of Sadducees in revenge for the crucifixions. Politics was terrible and bloody in those days.
After about a hundred years of this infighting, some Jews invited the Roman general Pompeii to help them. He came in and never left, taking control of Jerusalem and the Romans from that point on appointed the office of High Priest, ruler of the Jews. Herod the Great came up later and, with Roman permission, took over Judea, Galilee, Idumea and Syria. He called himself “King of the Jews,” but since he was not of the nation of Judea, many Jews didn’t accept him as a real king. The High Priest was still the real political ruler of the Jews.
And then comes Jesus in this complicated political situation. You have Pharisees, Sadducees, Herods and Roman governors and you also have Essenes in the countryside, stirring up trouble.
All this is essential, because everyone thinks that in their action, in their party, in their communities, in their temple, in their battles— this is all, they think, building the kingdom of God. Sure, some people get killed, some people are exiled or destroyed. But that is all part of the work of God.
And Jesus is saying, “Listen to the gospel: the kingdom of God is here, repent and believe in the good news.”
When Jesus said, “gospel” he used the Greek word, “Euangelidzo” from which we get the word “evangelism”. This is the word that Greeks and Romans used when they were proclaiming a new king or emperor was coming up. He was proclaiming a new king.
For most people, they think that this is the last thing they need. There have been so many kings and governors and upstarts and rebels all trying to rule, all trying to tell everyone what to do. The last thing they need is another one.
But Jesus also said something else, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”
This means two things, right off the bat. First, that all these priests and kings and parties— everyone thought they were working in the kingdom of God, but they weren’t. Jesus is saying, “All the politics and religious action and building of the Temple and setting up compounds and battles and fighting— none of this, none of it is the kingdom of God.”
Jesus rejects all the political parties, all the battles, all the maneuverings, all the arguments, all the legal battles— none of it represents God or his will.
Secondly, Jesus is saying that at his voice, at his speaking, it is time for God’s kingdom, God’s will, God’s politics to begin. Now is the time. It begins right now. Not in a little bit, not in a few years, not in 40 years, not in 1000 years, but now.
When Jesus was saying this, what was he talking about?
He is talking about all the healing. All the uplifting of the poor. All the changed lives. The deliverance of the mentally ill. The offering hope and love to people who have had nothing. A politics of giving, not of taking. A politics of love, not of demands. A politics of listening to the impoverished and not the wealthy, or even the middle class. A bottom-up politics.
This is the kingdom Jesus demonstrated early on. His first actions were healing and restoring the mentally ill. His first teaching was, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of god.” He spoke to the Jews no one listened to in Galilee, instead of the important ones in Jerusalem. This is the politics of God— the kingdom of God. Start with love. Start with the weakest. Start with offering hope, real, practical hope. That’s the kingdom of God.
So when we see politics today, arguing about which wealthy person will be in charge. Or which army will win. Or which god is more important than the other god. We who stand with Jesus— this is not the politics of God. This is not the kingdom. The kingdom is with the lowest, with the poor and we know what it looks like, not by who is beaten, but by who is healed.
That is the only politics that counts.