Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Jesus and Politics, Part II

If you consider Jesus selecting a group of men who were typical of the surrounding culture, then the disciples had to include someone who was nationalistic, with a political solution to Israel's problems.

I discovered there were perhaps two such men; these men were "Zealots," who were part of a radical political movement to remove Rome from Israel, by any means necessary.

Jesus didn't ignore this particular group; He picked these men to join Him as He proclaimed the Kingdom of God.  Interesting, huh?  These men were, by their membership in the Zealot movement,  proclaiming the same thing.

Or were they?

Their very name, kana'im, signifies a person who is zealous on God's behalf. As the article in Wikipedia puts it, 

Josephus' Jewish Antiquities states that there were three main Jewish sects at this time, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. The Zealots were a "fourth sect", founded by Judas of Galilee (also called Judas of Gamala) in the year 6 CE against the Census of Quirinius, shortly after the Roman Empire declared what had most recently been the tetrarchy of Herod Archelaus to be a Roman province. According to Josephus, they "agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord." (18.1.6)(1)

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Zealots:

Judah of Gaulanitis is regarded as the founder of the Zealots, who are identified as the proponents of the Fourth Philosophy. In the original sources, however, no such identification is anywhere clearly made, and the question is hardly raised of the relationship between the Sicarii, the upholders of the Fourth Philosophy, and the Zealots. Josephus himself in his general survey of the various groups of freedom fighters (War 7:268–70) enumerates the Sicarii first, whereas he mentions the Zealots last. (1)

So, it would appear that there was a defining moment when the Romans took Israel over completely.  Herod and his family were not exactly pious Jews (far from it) but they still had some connection to Judaism, however slim.  But Rome had none.  The Romans, with their emperor worship, infanticide, homosexuality, child brides, and abortion, (2) made them despicable in the eyes of the Jews.  In fact, Romans 1 is an extensive list of their sins, and yet Paul also takes the Jews to task in the second chapter of Romans.  The Jews weren't perfect, but they could at least point to their special status with the one true God and His word spoken to them by His prophets.  

Who wouldn't be angry to have such rulers?  The Romans were the ultimate nationalists; they were proud of who they were and made no bones about their status as the rulers of the world.  They could point to their mighty buildings, roads, conquered lands and peoples, wealth, luxurious lifestyle (only for the rich and famous, of course), their entertainments (with their astonishing venues), their art, literature, their architecture (still standing) and their Pax Romana--a peace secured and maintained by a superlative military force and infrastructure. 

What's not to like?

To the Jews, well, everything.  So, enter the Zealots with their uncompromising stance against Rome.  The other groups in Israel at that time--the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes--took a more measured approach.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees accommodated the Romans; the Essenes exited  into the desert and waited for the end of days. 

Enter Jesus, who confronts Rome through Pilate in His own way:

28 Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”
30 “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”
31 Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”
“But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. 32 This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die. 33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”
40 They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising.
(John 18:28-40)

At first, Pilate doesn't wish to get involved: It is a Jewish matter, pure and simple.  But, the Jewish leaders have a problem:  They cannot execute anyone, and yet their law calls for death, for Jesus has committed blasphemy, by making Himself equal to God. (Matt. 28:63-66)

I would love to have been in the hall, witnessing this encounter between the King of the Kingdom of God and the power that is Rome.  Pilate wants to clarify who Jesus is, by His own words, not just the from the hearsay of the religious leaders.  Yet Jesus wants Pilate to clarify who he thinks Jesus is.  Pilate quickly distances himself from the Jewish leaders--he is not a Jew and doesn't interact with them unless he has to--and he wants Jesus to state His case.  

Jesus is saying in effect, that His kingdom is not here--the proof of that would be that His followers would rally and fight on His behalf.  That's the model for earthly kingdoms:  Loyalty to the leader with war and violence to maintain the stability of the kingdom, and to uphold the leader.  

In other words, Rome.

But what do we have here?  

Jesus says that if He were the type of king Pilate understands, His followers would have fought to prevent His arrest.  That's what earthly kings and their people do:  Fight.  But Jesus says His kingdom is of an entirely different kind.  His is a kingdom built on His testimony of the truth:  the truth of His Father and the truth of His words.  This kingdom is built and maintained not by violence and human pride, but by His words, and soon, His life, pouring out for sin.  

Pride is the seed of destruction sown in all human kingdoms:  It starts in the human heart and manifests itself in human deeds:

13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (James 1:13-18)

Jesus is very clear to Pilate why He is here: not to build yet another earthly kingdom based on human pride and will, but on the truth, on Himself as the Truth.  

Pilate shoots back the classic response:  "What is truth?"  I hear Pilate saying,

Truth is relative, Jesus.  Rome is the truth.  The Emperor is the truth.  Our coins even say on them that he is the son of god.  Truth is might, power, the sword and whatever the Emperor says it is to keep the peace and spur Rome on to mightier heights of glory and power.  We are the truth, Jesus.  We have a mighty empire, wealth beyond measure, a beautiful flowering of the arts and an army that is taking over the world.  Who are you?  A ragged, arrested, trouble-making preacher whose own people have brought you here into Rome's mighty courts.  They want you dead.  You angered them so much that they are petitioning us--the very ones they despise--to have you executed.  And you dare talk of truth?

Jesus choose truth over politics, alliances, policies and civic debates.  He knows that the only basis for a just society, where the weak are protected, the poor are assisted, and power has limits on it, is the truth:  the truth of a transformed heart, cleansed and made new in the Son.   

Paul distills Jesus' work and truth into a brilliant verse in Galatians:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (2:20)

But the Zealots, like the Romans, took the human way of building a kingdom, and the Jewish people (even those who were not Zealots) paid dearly for their belief that changing the society (i.e. getting rid of the Romans) would bring about a better people and a better life:

The Zealots had the leading role in the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE). The Zealots objected to Roman rule and violently sought to eradicate it by generally targeting Romans and Greeks. Another group, likely related, were the Sicarii, who raided Jewish habitations and killed Jews they considered apostate and collaborators, while also urging Jews to fight Romans and other Jews for the cause. Josephus paints a very bleak picture of their activities as they instituted what he characterized as a murderous "reign of terror" prior to the Jewish Temple's destruction. According to Josephus, the Zealots followed John of Gischala, who had fought the Romans in Galilee, escaped, came to Jerusalem, and then inspired the locals to a fanatical position that led to the Temple's destruction. They succeeded in taking over Jerusalem, and held it until 70, when the son of Roman Emperor Vespasian, Titus, retook the city and destroyed Herod's Temple during the destruction of Jerusalem. (3)

Jesus' message to the Zealots amongst His disciples is this: Change your heart, then you will see clearly enough to change society.  It must be based and maintained on My Truth:  My words, My blood, and My power in you to do the work of My Father's kingdom, with its values.  

Any other basis (no matter how well-intentioned it might be) will not end well, for the human heart is not to be trusted:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. (Jer. 17:9)

In our highly politicized world, are we like the Zealots, well-intentioned at times, but ultimately driven on by hearts that will lead to our destruction?  

Or, are we already there? 





(2)  Stark, Rodney.  The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.  HarperOne.  New York:  1996.



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