The Cosmic Cathedral

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What’s the Point We’re Missing? — Reading The Politics of Jesus

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John Howard Yoder The Politics of Jesus

Essay PostsI heard a sermon once titled “Adventures in Missing the Point.” At least I think that was what it was called. I’ve heard a handful of sermons like this, all attempting — though varying on the specifics — to rift on the same theme. This sermon was from the beginning of Acts (a fitting example, since it functions as Luke’s “Gospel: Vol. 2,” the first volume of which will be the subject of the main body of this post) where the disciples ask Jesus, just prior to his ascension, if now “is the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6)?

The preacher’s point was, of course, how out of touch these disciples, even seeing Jesus’ death and resurrection, still were. Here they were thinking Jesus was a messiah with some political aim while all along missing that what Jesus was about was a spiritual kingdom. The take away point — Jesus’ wasn’t political, his goals nothing to do with Rome, his aims and teachings moral and religious, not social and governmental — of course came down to something about how we expect one thing from God and he is always up to something else.

This baseline misconception of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death is the subject of Yoder’s second chapter, “The Kingdom Coming” in his The Politics of Jesus. This chapter takes us on a whirlwind tour of the Gospel of Luke, highlighting the germane passages to understanding the political nature of Jesus’ ministry. Yoder is not interested in providing a detailed exegesis of the relevant passages, rather he sees his task as merely outlining in broad strokes the picture of a political Jesus, here more concerned with establishing that Jesus had a political aim than explaining precisely what that aim might be.

His chapter divides into the following sections, which we will not examine here in detail, but will rather provide a few relevant details to help show the gist of Yoder’s argument:

    • The Annunciation: Luke 1:46ff., 68ff.; cf. 3:7ff.
    • The Commissioning and Testing: Luke 3:21-4:14
    • The Platform: Luke 4:14ff.
    • The Platform Reaffirmed: Luke 6:12ff.
    • The Bread in the Desert: Luke 9:1-22
    • The Cost of Discipleship: Luke 12:49-13:9; 14:25-36
    • The Epiphany in the Temple: Luke 19:36-46
    • The Last Renunciation: Luke 22:24-53
    • Execution and Exaltation: Luke 23-24

The birth of Jesus’ is marked by songs by both Mary and Zechariah who use language that places Jesus’ birth right in the vein of the Maccabean mood of a figure of radical social change. Later, when Jesus’ ministry is contrasted with that of John the Baptist, it is only a modern misreading with sees that contrast as one between the ‘political’ aims of John the Baptist on one hand and the ‘spiritual’ aims of Jesus on the other. While there certainly is a contrast between their ministries, it is not a political/spiritual one, since Luke does not make an effort to distinguish this difference. Luke’s introduction of Jesus supports, rather than detracts from, an interpretation of congruency between John and Jesus in regards to politics, the gospels going so far as to place John’s message, “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news” on the lips of Jesus without making any distinction in regards to the meaning of John and that of Jesus. The message on the lips of both men carries with it a similar meaning, not the former one of a political nature and the latter one of a spiritual one.

Yoder takes up the phrase “Son” found in the heavenly announcement at his baptism, identifying it as not a designation of metaphysical sonship but rather a commissioning of Jesus to be the historical messianic son and servant tasked with bringing God’s goodwill and promise to Palestine. It is this commissioning which Yoder sees tested in the wilderness temptation, finding supported in each temptation being prefaced by “if you are the son of God….” Each test represents a test of kingship, which, as Yoder points out, becomes a backbone for Jesus’ public ministry. It is the parallels between Jesus’ ministry and his temptation in the wilderness that will form the outline of how we will examine Yoder’s conclusions about Jesus.

 The temptation of turning the stones into bread is the economic temptation to win the people’s affections via the provision of socio-economic relief. Yoder later harkens back to this test when examining the feeding of the five thousand, where the provision of bread in the desert elicits the desire from the crowds that Jesus be installed as their king, a desire which Jesus refuses to satisfy. It is in this context of the bread in the wilderness, the first temptation played out on the public stage of Jesus’ ministry, where the first indication is made that Jesus’ messiah would be one of suffering.

Jesus has begun his minster as one announcing the coming of Jubilee, through social and economic reform, as seen in Isaiah 61. He chooses the twelve after a night of prayer followed by a proclamation of woes and blessings, all of which establishing Jesus’ ministry as having a new public dimension, the end goal of which would to all observers be a bid at kingship. Yet just as this opportunity presents itself at the feeding of the five thousand Jesus reveals the future of his mission not as one of taking power through economic relief but rather the suffering of the cross, a suffering that will define both himself and those who come after. The dichotomy here is not one between a physical kingdom on one hand and a spiritual kingdom on the other, but rather a modality of living by which the kingdom would come, on one hand by taking the kingship and on the other hand embracing the suffering of the cross.

The temptation to hurl himself from the pinnacle of the temple serves as the temptation to embrace his role as religious reformer. It is not just an elaborate opportunity to show off his divine protection, but rather an coming to the temple miraculously, as the one who would come, as Malachi 3:1-3, “suddenly to his temple to purify the Son’s of Levi.” As Jesus enters into Jerusalem this temptation becomes increasingly significant. To the shouts of the crowds “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” Jesus enters the city to crowds “praising God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen.”

In Matthew’s account Jesus goes straight to the temple, his clearing of the temple fitting into the Malachi imagery mentioned previously. He goes about driving out the livestock, turning over the tables of moneychangers. It is, as Yoder points out, at this point Jesus need only ride the wave of crowd enthusiasm, the disrupted confusion in the temple, to form the coup d’erat and take the Roman fortress. In the face of the temptation to take the power being thrust at him from the crowds, Jesus retreats to Bethany, his condemnation of the old order not willing to embrace the armed revolt of that order.

The gospel scene most often connected with the temptation in the desert is Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane. In the wilderness temptation Jesus is offered all the kingdoms of the world if he will only bow down to Satan. The temptation offers the logical progression of the Psalm 2:7 designation, “Son,” by presenting the Psalm 2:8 promise of the nations to rule over. What is happening here is not simply an appropriate offer by an inappropriate individual, i.e., Satan, but rather an offer that is a temptation to the  “idolatrous character of political power hunger and nationalism.” That is, a temptation to adopt a modality of living which runs counter to that of the servant-leadership which Jesus mandated.

Yoder sees this temptation mirrored in the agony in Gethsemane. He asks what Jesus might mean by asking for this “cup to pass.” Taking the question historically, we have to ask what type of action would have allowed for Jesus to avoid at this point the crucifixion, since the religious leadership had already decided to kill him. Might it have been a choice to slip quietly away to Qumran, or to redefine his ministry to the religious leadership, denying any bid to kingship and recanting his more radical claims, and continue simply teaching? Yoder does not find theses as compelling options, but rather sees, on the basis of the evidence in the text, especially the incident of Peter with the sword, the only serious option as the temptation to, here in the final moments, once again consider the messianic violence the temptation in the wilderness to take the kingdoms of the world had offered him. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter upon cutting off the servant’s ear is fittingly in the language of this temptation, “shall I not drink the cup which the father has given me?”

It is the temptation to draw swords with Peter here at the last which stands between Jesus’ drinking of the cup at the cross. Rather than carry out his counter cultural messianic ethic, Jesus is tempted to adopt the ethic embraced by all messiahs up to him and draw swords against Rome and attempt violence in order to bring the messianic vision to pass. Rather then bow to this temptation though; Jesus rather embraces the path of the cross. When the disciples on the road to Emmaus state, “we had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel,” this is not just another account of the disciples “adventure in missing the point,” their failure get Jesus’ real point, but rather a first hand account of the way Jesus’ had been heard and understood. Their missing of the point is not the expectation of a Kingdom when they shouldn’t have but rather their failure to see the messiah’s suffering and death as the inauguration of this kingdom. Their failure is not seeing that, as Yoder states, “the cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.”

Though Yoder’s over view of the ministry of Jesus only skims the surface of the questions, and our review of it here only touches very broadly on even the issues Yoder addresses, Yoder’s overall point stands. Any more thorough inquire will lead us closer, nor further away, from the conclusion that Jesus’ mission and aim were meant to be understood politically, and not as spiritualized substitutes for political questions or as spiritual and moral platitudes divorced from the political sphere. The adventure in missing the point is not a dichotomy between a physical kingdom on one hand and a spiritual one on the other, but rather between a kingdom established through violence and messianic holy war on one hand and a kingdom come through messianic suffering and death on the other. The ethic by which Jesus’ kingdom is to come is radically different from that of his predecessors, yet his kingdom remains staunchly this-worldly, Jesus’ redefinition on of ethic and not rather one of definition.

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Author: Kendall Beachey

I am an aspiring Biblical Studies and Theology student living in Kansas City. My goal is to attend seminary and give myself to Christian teaching and Ministry.

3 thoughts on “What’s the Point We’re Missing? — Reading The Politics of Jesus

  1. you (and Yoder) absolutely nailed it. I too have written about this in a variety of places… but the one post that resonates with the points you are making is The United States of Jesus? (http://brandonandress.com/2011/07/27/the-united-states-of-jesus/).

    I believe the root problem is that we, as Christians, are grievously unaware of the message of the kingdom. Despite spending the last seven years preaching and writing about the kingdom… I still believe most Christians view it as “another option” or “just another perspective,” rather than the foundation upon which the “Good News” is based.

    Anyway, thanks so much for your post!

    peace…

    brandon

  2. Pingback: >>?The Historical Jesus<< | We dream of things that never were and say: "Why not?"

  3. You are correct that Jesus ministry was political, but IMO wrong about the bigger picture.

    The question in Acts 1 is evidence that the disciples believed the kingdom to be precisely what the average Jew would have thought at the time: an earthly theocratic kingdom ruled by a Jewish king, who would represent YHWH. That they had this view indicates not that they were stupid and were unable to figure out what Jesus taught when they walked with him for years — no, rather it shows that what Jesus taught was almost certainly the apocalyptic belief held by many Jews at the time!

    The question reflects the message that Jesus taught during his ministry. Jesus didn’t come to establish a kingdom of the heart — he probably thought he was ushering in the Jewish kingdom that most everyone was expecting.

    Don’t get me wrong — Yoder’s view is a much more attractive version of Christianity than what is espoused by the average evangelical. But as history it is rubbish.

    How did Jesus reply to the question set by the apostles? “Good grief, how many times have I spoken about this existential kingdom and you knuckleheads still don’t get it? For the last time — my death inuagurated a spiritual kingdom of inner peace!” would be a normal response if they misunderstood the question. No, he affirmed the idea behind the question, but said he didn’t know when it was going to happen.

    The author of Acts still believed in the idea of the earthly kingdom, because he was telling his readers that it wasn’t a question of “if,” but of “when.”

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