Jesus the Politician

October 16, 2011

Mary Caygill

Pentecost 18     Matthew 22:15-22

 

Believe it or not there’s more much more than the Rigby World Cup in the air and the obsessive fascination with Richie McCaw’s foot – whether it will or not last the distance, or dare I say Dan Carter’s and Colin Slade’s groin injury or whether the extra funding input of 4.5 million dollars given last week to set up an extra viewing screen and public area of the waterfront for grand final viewing will fully satisfy the desires and appetites of spectators. There’s also something more than spring in the air – yes indeed tucked in behind all the ongoing dramas there’s politics in the air – there’s always politics in the air – and if the Rugby World Cup or spring brings headaches to us how much more does politics bring a headache and confusion to us or maybe sadly to many more a weary yawn.

 

In 6 weeks time we join with other citizens of this nation and by the casting of votes declare our point of view and choice in the form and texture of central government for the next three years.

 

How we respond has a great deal to do with our taking seriously our mutual responsibility to shape the kind of and ordering of New Zealand society and its relationships with local and global contexts.

 

Today through the lens of the Gospel reading we are given the opportunity to reflect on our involvement in the political process as we endeavour to relate our Christian confession to any political choices we might make.

 

The Gospel reading from the narrator known as Matthew provides us with opportunity for reflection. The portion read grants to us a glimpse of “Jesus the Politician” – not a run of the mill politician of the sort we might more easily recognise and be acquainted with but rather a politician exercising a distinctive kind of political involvement that emerged and was in complete harmony with his practice of living into the manner and being of God.

 

Rather than treat today’s read Gospel as an isolated incident in the life of Jesus I want to set today’s Gospel’s reading within the larger frame of Jesus’ total ministry.

 

From beginning to end the ministry of Jesus was and is political. Jesus displays through the witness of his daily living a refusal to divide life up into sacred and secular, spiritual and political. All of life is lived as being of one unity where God, the divine is to be found in every part of life.

 

How more political could his ‘maiden speech’ be to gathered members of the public than his opening address at the commencement of his public ministry – an address not recorded by Matthew but by the witness of Luke.

 

He stands in the synagogue in Nazareth and from the book of Isaiah reads...

 

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me.

 He has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim

 release for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the

 broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Is 61)

 

Those who first heard this proclamation from Jesus would have been in little doubt that Jesus has uttered a political statement which if acted upon could affect every part of their life.

 

Those familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, would have recognised that in his reading and subsequent teaching in the Nazareth synagogue that Jesus was declaring the visionary advent of a Jubilee Year. According to Jewish tradition each 50th year was to be marked and celebrated as a Jubilee Year. During that year all soil was to left fallow so the earth could be refreshed, all debts were to be set aside and regarded as having been paid, slaves were to be freed and returned to their original family circle, and all property bought during the preceding years was to be returned to the original owners.

 

The idea was that each 50 years injustices were to be righted and those for whom life had been harsh were to be given a fresh start.

 

There is no record of the Jews ever keeping the Jubilee but they retained the invitation in their scriptures as a portrayal of how they saw God’s vision for the ordering of anew society. It is like what some sociologists and historians call an imagined community (which is of course not the same as an imaginary community, like having an imaginary friend): an imagined community – the community of the human imagination, which allows you to ‘image’ and imagine yourself in a particular way, with consequences for the other communities that you are part of.

 

The Jubilee vision gave shape to the ministry of Jesus. It was an imagined community where life was to be so ordered in ways that accorded to the purposes of God. An imagined community where all come to enjoy an abundance of life and, all having a stake in society, live together in peace and harmony. A community – a polis – city – household – a society. One’s belonging as St Paul later spoke of in one of his letters as a politeia, a political unit wherein your citizenship was given from God – the new community of the new creation.

 

Early Christianity formed as a political unit after the manner of Jesus thus from the start said that, whatever may be the case in the political arrangements around you, there is another polis, another city, another political unit, in which whatever your status in this world, you have non-negotiable rights and dignities.

 

There is a human community, never mind the political arrangements around you, in which you have a voice, a gift to share; in which you have the dignity of being a decision maker and a capacity to build and sustain the environment in which you find yourself. The Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ perfectly encapsulates this: as British economist Hannah Skinner puts it,

 

 Shalom is a powerful concept that describes God’s societal harmony, order,

 blessing and prosperity. It describes the biblical vision of the ‘good life’. It

 covers total wellbeing in all aspects of life and describes a situation of

 abundance in which people have more than they need and communities

 live in peace.

 

It is a new economics – the term “economy’ itself in its origins simply the word for “housekeeping”.

 

The vision and concern of Jesus was greater than could be captured by any political programme or party.

 

His politics and his economics were wider and deeper than that espoused by any of the groups who jockeyed for political power at the time. Jesus could not and would give to them the total allegiance which they demanded. His allegiance was solely to a vision of what the future could be imagined and enacted to be which came from the very heart of God.

 

The vision that we are given by God in Christ is larger than the policy of any particular group in any age. This means that though we may give our allegiance to a particular party or point of view, that allegiance must always be qualified by our greater obedience to the economics of God.

 

It seems to me that this is what the Gospel reading from Matthew this morning is pointing us towards.

 

It picks up one of the lively issues of political debate occurring among the Israelite people at the time of Jesus – significant that the question of taxes is still one of the issues of lively debate – the context changes – the issue stays alive.

 

The question posed to Jesus – should Jesus pay taxes to the Emperor Caesar or not? Some felt that to do so was to tacitly acknowledge the right of Rome to rule in Palestine.

 

All in all it was a trick question asked by those who sought to embarrass Jesus. If he said yes, he could be labelled a traitor and his hold on the people would be broken for to pay the taxes was regarded by many as the supreme indignity imposed by the Roman army of occupation.

 

If he answered no he could be arrested and charged with stirring up a rebellion against the government.

 

Jesus replies with equal cunning – give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. Give to God what belongs to God. Tricky!

 

This is the phrase so used and dare I say by politician soften feeling uncomfortable and affronted with the church meddling in affairs that should not concern them. Such a view of course is based on the suggestion that Jesus advocated the dividing of life into separate worlds – one the world of Caesar – the world of true politics and economics – and the other the world of God – to do with just the spiritual aspects of life.

 

Look again at what Jesus is saying – render to God what belongs to God - well from a Hebraic view – all of life belongs to God. God has to do with the polis of life – the economics of the household – the personal, the communal, the public, the private, all that is part of the created world.

 

Jesus never really answered the question about taxes to the Emperor. In true form as the most skilful of politicians he left his hearers with much to think about in relation to the essence and ordering of life.

 

It is not possible to ever make a clear distinction between what belongs to God and what belongs to any Caesar of the age. God created and continues to create – all that makes up the whole thus belongs to God. All that is part of the common household carries with it essential moral obligations. Will all that is available as created resource for life be shared with and for the common good of all. Only then can a truly humane society begin to be enacted and become more than an imagined possibility.

 

Central to that vision was that of mutuality – a mutuality found in the sharing of the common good. The union of those who come to be identified with this Jesus politician has at its core an organic quality, a common identity shaped by the fact that each depends on tall others for their life. No element in this new polis – this household is dispensable or superfluous: what affects one affects all, for good and ill, sine both suffering and flourishing belong to the entire organism not to any individual or local grouping, party in dominant power.

 

The politics and lived actions of this Jesus make it quite explicit that the new polis – household of God cannot exist when certain categories of people are systematically excluded. It is an imperative that the wholeness of the community requires them to be invited.

 

If my wellbeing is inseparable in God’s community from the wellbeing of all others, any economic ethic for the ordering of the common good which takes for granted the indefinite continuance of poverty or disadvantage for others is surely then immoral to the heart of God’s economics and must not deserve our allegiance.

 

To ever separate our destiny from that of the poor of the nation or world, or from the rejected or disabled in our own context, is to compromise the destiny of God and to invite a life that is less than whole for ourselves as the created household of God.

 

Politics is indeed in the air – whenever is it not?

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