Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Was Jesus Political? A New Testament Perspective - 2

This is the second installment of the full text of my lecture for the Inaugural Dialogue organised by OHMSI. The first part can be found here.

1) The Self-Understanding of Jesus and his Mission
One does not need to go far to consider what others believe to be the political significance of Jesus life and ministry. Because of time, let’s limit our discussion to the birth narrative. Reading Mary’s Song in Luke 1:46-55 would have heightened our awareness just how political his mother thinks the birth of his son would be:

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:51-55)

While many of us are accustomed to spiritualising Mary’s song, when we read it in close context, it is nothing short of being very political. Not only will humility be exalted above pride, the rulers will be deposed, the hungry fed and the rich turned away. The outpouring of God’s mercy on the poor and those who fear him will no doubt bring significant change in the social order in which reversal of status is anticipated. As such, the mission of Jesus is seen in light of what is prophesied by Amos and the other prophets in the Hebrew bible – his birth is going to bring about the anticipated social justice.

Further political evidence surrounding the birth narratives of Jesus is also too strong to be ignored. For example:

  • the significance of Bethlehem as the city of David (Luke 2:4; cf. Matt 2:1, 5-6);

  • the angels’ proclamation of “peace on the earth among whom he is well pleased” to the shepherd (Luke 2:8-14) – this undermine the pax romana – peace is now from God and not Rome;

  • Herod’s fear and the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem ensuring no rival competitor for the throne of Israel could possibly survive (Matt 2:1-16);

  • the expectations of both Simeon (Luke 2: 25-35) and Anna (Luke 2: 36-38) that underscore the political significance of the coming of the Messiah, particularly in the appointment of Jesus “for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” (Luke 2:34).

We have seen how the multitude perceived the political significance of Jesus. What about Jesus himself? Time only permits us to look at one particular synagogue incident in Luke 4:16-21 where Jesus read the scripture from the Isaianic scroll.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-20)

In reading Isaiah 61:1-2, Jesus understood himself as fulfilling Isaiah’s vision of an eschatological jubilee year. The proclamation of Jubilee is itself a political declaration. Properly observed, it would severely limit the concentration of power and wealth by the rich. Isaiah’s vision anticipates a new world order where God’s justice is administered; wrong will be made right; the injustices which lead to oppression and captivity will be reversed; and God’s people would receive the full measure of his blessings. Proclaiming “liberty to the captives” and “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” could mean nothing more than liberation from Israel’s enemies – Rome. And Jesus publicly announced the inauguration of this new age “today” (Luke 4:21), and not in a distant future.

2) The Message of Jesus
Jesus began his ministry with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). One cannot help but to be impressed at the precise vocabulary carefully chosen from the political realm. It hardly needs to be argued that “kingdom” is a political terminology. What is less prominent for many of us is that the “gospel” is also political. Originally, gospel refers to the kind of report or important public announcement highlighted by the Roman government deserving attention and celebration when it is received. But with the ministry of Jesus, the gospel is no longer good news of the deeds and works of Rome, but it is now the retelling and re-enacting of the works of God climaxed in the story of Jesus. God has now finally acted in and through Christ.

The kingdom represents the long awaited hope that Yahweh would one day save his people by fulfilling his covenant promises toward them, bringing both vindication and restoration to Israel by defeating her enemies. By proclaiming the fulfilment of this expectation publicly is itself a very political move of Jesus.

What about the teaching of Jesus? How would others perceive the teaching of Jesus? One of the most common teaching methods of Jesus is parables. We have only time to consider one – the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In this parable, a lawyer approached Jesus with this question: “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus told the parable that is highly political in nature. The best species of the Jewish people – the priest and Levite, representing the law and temple, did nothing to help another fellow Jew in the ditch. This would be totally unacceptable. The only person that came to his rescue is a pariah of the Jewish society – a Samaritan. This Samaritan demonstrated his godly compassion (as reflected in the Greek word, splagcni,zomai in Luke 10:33 – it is very unfortunate that NIV misses the nuance by translating this word simply as “took pity”) on the wounded Jew by helping him and bandaging his wound, and going the extra mile in ensuring that he was taken care off until he recuperated completely. At the climax of the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, “Who is a neighbour to the wounded Jew?” and exhorted him to “go and do likewise.”

In this parable, Jesus overturned the question of the lawyer and replaced it with one that is more fundamental. If the issue is about love of neighbour, the question one should be asking is that of how one is to express that love and compassion, not to whom it should be expressed. Could there be more subversive instructions with greater political overtones in this parable? This parable crosses the divide between culture, race and creed. It talks about unjust crime, racial discrimination, hatred, exploitation and prejudices. It even impeaches the religious leaders who are turning a blind eye and are unwilling to do anything about these problems. The national and ethnic loyalties are abandoned. The Samaritan is no longer the enemy, but a neighbour. Therefore, the ethics of the kingdom challenges one to reconsider one’s relationship with others. To ask the question, “Who is my neighbour?” (10:29) is grossly mistaken because in effect, one is asking “Who is not my neighbour?” Once we can define who our neighbour is, we are also in effect defining who our neighbour is not.

3) The Activities of Jesus
In what ways do the activities of Jesus inform us of their political significance? One thing without doubt, Jesus did things that got him into trouble and caused controversy. Consider the following activities:

  • his preference to participate in table fellowship with the most unlikely group of people – sinners and tax collectors - instead of the pious, holy and respectable figures of his days (e.g., Luke 15:1-2);

  • his decision to do things on Sabbath that were considered sacrilegious by others – such as healing and performing miracles (e.g., Mark 3:1-5);

  • his choice of allowing the untouchables prostitutes to anoint him (e.g., Luke 7:36-50);

  • his act of over turning the tables of the corrupted money changer in the temple courts during a Jewish sacred festival (e.g., Luke 19:45-46);

  • his harsh criticism of the ruling authorities by calling Herod a fox (Luke 13:32).

In addition, the choosing of the Twelve disciples is also a highly symbolic act that could not have been understood other than in light of the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel and the end-time reconstitution of Israel. The miracles that Jesus performed and the acts of exorcisms are collectively pointers to the present reality of the kingdom of God. Finally, the ministry of Jesus is not only limited to the Jews as well. He also chose to reach out to the Samaritans and Gentiles, groups of people considered outcast by the pure-blooded Jews.

All these acts of Jesus simply point to one thing: they are not merely acts of mercy or compassion. They are prophetic symbolic acts. Jesus clearly knows what he was doing and what others would say when they saw him performing these acts. They revealed Jesus as one with a specific mission to the nation of Israel. It is no wonder that the religious establishment had him crucified as a criminal – a death befitting a person charged with sedition and for causing political uprising.

To be continued.....The final part, Part 3: The Implications for the Church Today.

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