For Christians, last week was Holy Week, the most important week of our year. During Holy Week we tell a story starting with Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We follow him to his Last Supper with his friends, his betrayal, arrest, trial, conviction, execution and burial. It appears that his work is a failure, until Easter Sunday, when his disciples experience the new life of resurrection.
In most churches we celebrate what that means for each of us as a passage from death to life. And that is good and true. But there is another significant theme I think bears witness in a newspaper column. Holy Week was a political event as well.
To the Romans watching from the Antonia Fortress, Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was a political statement. Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east, riding on a donkey. These were signs of the expected Messiah. The crowds recognized the meaning, and they hailed Jesus as the "Son of (King) David." They waved palm branches as symbols of victory and triumph.
The crowd clearly expressed its hopes for a coming Messiah who would expel the occupying Romans and restore Israel to power and prosperity. Their hopes were nationalistic and militant. The Messiah will make Israel great again. The watching Romans recognized the crowd's political message.
The primary metaphor Jesus used in his teaching was the "Kingdom of God" -- God's rule, God's reign -- how the world would be if God reigned rather than Caesar. Jesus could have picked a less political image -- the community of God, the family of God. He chose to use a political image, the Kingdom of God.
As Jesus imagined it, God's rule was an almost reverse image of Caesar's rule.
Rome ruled with military power, the Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome) enforced by the edge of the sword. Powerful Roman families competed with one another through multinational businesses exploiting the resources and wealth of their subject lands, concentrating ownership and power among their elite. Locals who cooperated with their occupiers shared in the spoils. Power, privilege and wealth were concentrated in the hands of the ruling class.
Jesus proclaimed an alternative. The Kingdom of God focuses on the bottom rung, not the bottom line. God rules with love and compassion, not power and threat. God's reign blesses the poor, the meek, the hungry and the outcast. "The Kingdom of God has come near," Jesus announced. It is breaking into reality here and now. Jesus enacted God's Kingdom by healing those who were ill or oppressed. He fed multitudes and welcomed outcasts to his table fellowship. Jesus broke every boundary of his society, reaching out to accept and to bless foreigners and enemies, the unclean and un-religious, the rich and the poor, the pious and the sinner. The only people whom he chastised were those who believed themselves more righteous than others.
In God's Kingdom, acceptance and forgiveness is free. Jesus challenged the Temple monopoly on forgiveness and its lucrative business, overturning the tables of the money-changers. He condemned economic exploitation and charged the rich with responsibility for the well-being of their poor neighbors. He simplified the religious law, teaching us simply to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. He offered an exalted vision of one humanity, living in vital union with God, and he claimed that identity for himself and all others.
Jesus made some powerful enemies. His vision of union with God was blasphemous to religious leaders, and his challenge to the Temple threatened them economically. In Caesar's Empire there was no room for another king. Rome was always sensitive to any potential Messiah. Jesus was arrested for claiming to be "King of the Jews."
If Jesus had acted like the expected Messiah, if he had summonsed "twelve legions of angels" as Matthew's Gospel claims was at his command, if he had thrown out the Roman legions by force, the people would have continued to hail him. But Jesus rebuked those who defended him with a sword, saying, "No more of this!" He maintained his non-violent, humble mission, offering only love and forgiveness in the face of power and threat. The people abandoned him. Rome executed him as an enemy of the state.
But the Kingdom of God continues to rise from the dead. And the kingdom-struggle continues in this Easter Week. The same choices remain. Love, compassion and nonviolence. Or power, privilege and threat.
To which kingdom will we pledge allegiance?
Commentary on 04/03/2018
Print Headline: The political Jesus