Jesus, Politics and Protests

By: Cliff Johnson

Are you feeling frustrated, confused, and angry? Me too. It’s never ok to talk about God and politics with people (oops), but right now, political conversations seem to be especially frustrating and emotional. All we can see right now are two parties, two platforms, two perspectives.

But what if we are missing something? What if there is a revolution happening in plain sight, but we are missing it?

Sometimes what we can see is not the entire story. Sometimes what looks like weakness is strength. Sometimes what looks like defeat is victory. Sometimes what looks like an execution is something so much bigger.

Looking at the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ final days as he was crucified on a cross, we might be able to see the big picture if we are willing to open our eyes.

Jesus’ run-in with politics

In what is widely considered the greatest message ever preached, Jesus Christ delivered the Sermon on the Mount to a large crowd gathered on the side of a mountain. Jesus demonstrated both his brilliance and his spiritual authority to bring a new teaching to the people. Several times Jesus stated, “you have heard it said… but I say…” Jesus was teaching as one with authority and the people were amazed. Let’s focus on a small part of this message.

Matthew 5:38-44 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The political climate during Jesus’ life and ministry was extremely volatile and dangerous. The Roman Empire had made its way into Israel and was an occupying force. King Herod and others hungry for power and wealth had sold out to the Romans and were essentially working for them. For the average Jewish person, there was a deep hatred and anger toward both of the political forces of their time. Jesus was bringing this message into a very hostile environment.

Jesus begins this section of teaching by refuting a common teaching of the day, one of personal retribution. If someone wrongs you, you have the right to pursue justice and see the punishment fit the crime. Jesus is taking a radically different approach.

Matt 5:39b – If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Let’s look at this for a minute. Most of the ancient world were right-handed. If I were to slap you in the face with my right hand, which cheek would I hit? The left cheek. What does the verse say? The right cheek. How does that work? It works if it is a backhanded slap. A backhanded slap was a very insulting way to offend someone. It was condescending. In Jesus’ day, the legal penalty was a double fine.

What does Jesus say to do? After taking the condescending blow to the right cheek, stand back up and offer the left. You are saying to the abuser, hit me again, but this time as an equal. I am not less than you.

Matthew 5:40 – And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

This is a ridiculous case for a courtroom. Judge Judy would throw this case out immediately. Here is what is happening in this scenario: the lawsuit involves someone that is so hell-bent on collecting on a debt, that they are taking everything the defendant has. According to the law, the only possession that could never be taken from someone is their outer cloak. It was meant to not only be the outer jacket, but it also served as a type of blanket on cold nights for someone that was homeless. The plaintiff knew that he couldn’t get the cloak, so he takes the absolute maximum that he could get. This was a lawsuit aimed at taking the man’s underwear!

What does Jesus tell the audience to do when this happens? “…let him have your cloak as well.” Pandemonium ensues with the judge furiously pounding the gavel in response to the suddenly naked man in the courtroom.

But yet, what would be the real effect of this action? It would really serve to reveal the naked greed of the plaintiff. He would rather humiliate and shame another person than to forgive a small debt. In doing so, the humiliation and shame fall on the greedy man. The defendant emerges as the sympathetic figure, victimized by a flawed system fueled by naked greed.

Matt 5:41 – If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

There was a practice in the Roman world called “commandeering” where a soldier could force people to carry heavy his heavy bag for a total of one Roman mile (not our mile – literally 1,000 paces). As you can imagine, this was not popular with the people. Sort of like a police officer in a movie that flashes his badge and takes someone’s car for an important chase scene. This was a humiliating act for one that is pressed into service. Imagine that you are spending a day with your family, minding your own business, and some drunk, arrogant, and smelly Roman soldier yells for you to carry his stuff. Not good.

What does Jesus teach his audience to do? Go another 1,000 paces. Go another mile. Willingly.

What does this show to the crowd watching? Generosity. Strength. Dignity. Self-control. You are choosing to honor this soldier as a free man for the second mile.

Matt. 5:42 – Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

This is referring to generous, openhanded giving. No strings attached giving. Giving without expecting to be paid back, ever. Not designated giving. Not giving with a side-order of judgment and opinion.

Jesus continues in his teaching by laying out some very controversial instructions:

Matt. 5:43-44 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The dominant theological teaching at the time involved loving your family and friends and hating your enemies. This was seen as totally compatible with a relationship with God. Jesus takes a common teaching of the day and turns it upside down. No more loving your neighbor and hating your enemy.

Love the hated Romans. Love the foul-mouthed soldier. The Greek word for love is actually “agape,” the highest and most sacrificial love in existence. We are to love and pray for our persecutors. As we are being beaten, whipped, and destroyed, we are praying for the ones inflicting the pain.

The Sermon on the Mount rocked the crowd that day, and it continues to make a huge impact on hearts to this day. But Jesus challenge that day was not only for the listeners, he put those into practice in a powerful way. If we want to make a difference in this world, we need to be like Jesus. Let’s look closer at his final hours on earth as we seek to be more like him.

Jesus’ final hours

After Jesus was betrayed by Judas, His disciples scattered, and Jesus was dragged into a trial in front of the Sanhedrin in the middle of the night. Over and over, as false charges were brought against Him, the Bible says that he was slapped and offered his face and back for more punishment. (Matt 26:67; Is. 50:6).

Jesus was taken by the soldiers into custody where they mocked him and stripped him naked before he was beaten. His clothes were taken from him, his cloak and his tunic, and lots were cast by the soldiers to keep them (John 19:23-24).

After Jesus was beaten and sentenced to die on the cross, Simon the Cyrene was “pressed into service” to carry the cross for Jesus. Simon obeyed the soldier’s command. In doing so – history remembers him as a man with generosity, strength, dignity, and self-control.

As Jesus is dying on the cross, there are thieves on either side of him. One recognizes Jesus as Lord and asks Jesus to remember him in Jesus’ kingdom. In the middle of the most painful death imaginable, Jesus gives to the one who asks him and does not turn him away. “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise.”

During his crucifixion, Jesus is showing love for the world, but he is also showing agape love to his “enemies.” He says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus is forgiving soldiers who know exactly what they are doing. They execute criminals for a living. Jesus is revealing that these soldiers have no idea what is really happening during the crucifixion. There is so much more going on.

As Jesus died, it looked as if He had failed. Another failed Jewish messiah. Another failed revolutionary. What a humiliating death. What a spectacle of Rome’s power and Jesus’ weakness.

But in the book of Colossians, there is a different summary of what had just occurred.

Col. 2:15 – And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

There was something much bigger happening. Bigger than the mighty political power of the Romans. Bigger than what anyone could see or understand. But there was even more happening at the cross…The book of Mark was written to Gentiles (non-Jews) during the height of the Roman Empire. His account of the crucifixion of Jesus would have sounded very familiar.

When it was time to Coronate a new Caesar in Rome, there was a special ceremony, called a Triumph. This ceremony was well known in the ancient world, and it would have been very familiar to the intended audience of the Gospel of Mark. This is how it happened:

  • – The Praetorian Guard (6,000 soldiers) gathered in the Praetorium. The would-be Caesar was brought in to the middle of the gathering.
  • – Guards went to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, got a purple robe, and placed it on the candidate. The candidate was also given an olive-leaf wreath made of gold and a scepter for the authority of Rome.
  • – Caesar was loudly proclaimed as triumphant by the Praetorian Guard.
  • – A procession began through the streets of Rome, led by soldiers. In the middle was Caesar. Walking behind him was a sacrificial bull, whose death and blood would mark Caesar’s entrance into the divine pantheon. Walking next to the bull was a slave, who carried an axe to kill the bull.
  • – The procession moved to the highest hill in Rome, the Capitolene (head hill). On this hill is the Capitoleum temple.
  • – The candidate stood before the temple altar and was offered, by the slave, a bowl of win mixed with myrrh. He took it as if to accept, and then gave it back. The slave also refused, and then the wine was poured out either onto the altar or onto the bull. Right after the wine was poured, the bull was killed.
  • – The Caesar-to-be-gathered his second in command on his right hand and his third in command on his left. Then they ascended to the throne of the Capitoleum.
  • – The Crowd acclaimed the inaugurated emperor. And for the divine seal of approval, the gods would send signs, such as a flock of doves or a solar eclipse.

This coronation was not just a way to acclaim the new ruler of the Roman Empire, but it also was a way of proclaiming him as a god. Caesar had come to be worshiped in the empire, and this was the ceremony in which he became deity as well as the human ruler.

Now listen to the way that Mark presents the crucifixion story of Jesus. In a moment in which the defeated and disarmed criminal is to be humiliated by walking through the city as part of an embarrassing spectacle, something much bigger was happening. Something no one could see.

Remember how a Caesar was coronated while hearing Mark’s account of the crucifixion:

  • – Jesus was brought to the Praetorium in Jerusalem. And the whole company of soldiers (at least 200) gathered there.
  • – Soldiers brought Jesus a wreath (of thorns), a scepter (an old stick), and a purple robe.
    Sarcastically, the soldiers acclaimed, mocked, and paid homage to Jesus.
  • – The procession began. But instead of a bull, the would-be king and god became the sacrifice, the bull. But he could not carry the instrument of death and be the sacrifice. So they stopped Simon the Cyrene and gave him the cross.
  • – Jesus was led up to Golgotha (in Aramaic – means “head hill”).
  • – Jesus was offered wine, and he refused. Right after, they crucified him.
  • – Next came the account of those on his right and left (not petty criminals, the word used in Greek, lestes, means terrorist or insurrectionist).

[1] this section was aggregated from Dr. Ray Vanderlaan, followtherabbi.com, Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne, and Robert Gundry’s commentary on the book of Mark.

Col. 2:15 – And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

When everything seemed lost and the political situation was at its lowest, there was a bigger plan in place. Think of how hopeless the followers of Jesus would have felt in that moment.

And yet, it was not a defeat. It was a coronation of the King of Kings. It was the greatest act of love and grace the world has ever known. It was power made perfect in weakness. It was the other cheek turned. It was the giving of the cloak. It was the extra mile traveled. It was the gift given openhandedly. It was love for his enemies. It was prayer for his persecutors.

This is what real power looks like. This is where we find ourselves right now. Many in the church feel helpless, lost, powerless, and weak. Good. The true gospel of Jesus Christ thrives in this sort of environment.

– Cliff Johnson | Kensington Birmingham, Lead pastor

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