Reflecting on the Politics of Jesus

Posted: March 4, 2012 in New Testament
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Before the mid-way point of the 20th century, most scholars attributed Jesus’ sayings and teachings to an apocalyptic, eschatological viewpoint.  In other words, everything Jesus did was aimed at some unknown future whereby thekingdom of God would suddenly usher in the end of time.  Marcus Borg, as well as many others, has challenged this framework.  Borg believes that Jesus’ life and ministry were very much aimed at the politics of the day.  In fact, Borg believes that Jesus’ conflict over politics with the various factions of Judaism eventually led to his death by crucifixion.

The “quest for holiness” had become an all-consuming endeavor in the life ofIsrael.  They painfully remembered the destruction of the first Temple and their subsequent exile into Babylon.  The prophets of that day had ranted against the injustices and unholy conduct of the covenant people. Israelhad fallen to idolatry and the syncretistic ways of the Canaanite nations.  However, God had been merciful, allowing them to return and to re-build the walls and theTemple in Jerusalem.  Ezra had led the charge to maintain the priestly code of holiness: separation and purity.  In order to maintain God’s blessing,Israel’s leaders reasoned, they must maintain the covenant through ritual purity and separation.

However,Israel’s holiness was soon threatened again.  The Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, conquered vast tracts of land, includingPalestine.  Hellenism became a real threat to the holiness of God’s people, not merely an inconvenience.  Syncretism threatened to seduce Israel once again into an unfaithful people.  How could the people of God be faithful?  In what ways did a faithful Jew live in such desperate days?  The Maccabean Revolt was such a reaction against the infiltrating Greek culture.  The true Israel would not sit idly by only to watch their way of life destroyed.

The revolt had been relatively successful. Israelhad been able to maintain their identity and separation from some of these cultural influences.  God, it seemed, had acted in behalf of His people and theTemple.  The rise of theTemple’s indestructibility became a popular understanding among the Jews.  However, greater powers from Rome now stood ready to take the helm of world power.  The Jews had invited the Romans into their region to preserve peace.  Soon, however, Rome decided to make Palestine one of its permanent residences.  Once again, Israel faced an invading culture that might desecrate the holiness of God’s people and land.

Several sects of Judaism became known during this time: Zealots, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes.  Each sect represented a view of how to maintain holiness for the people of God.  Borg maintains that the sect known as Zealots was not necessarily a separate sect but incorporated members from the various walks of life.  In other words, most people preferred Rome’s evacuation ofIsrael.  Thus, Zealots were not an isolated group within society.  The Essenes believed that rigorous Law keeping and total separation from the culture were the only ways to maintain holiness.  The Qumran community is the most well known representation.  As such, they had little bearing on the Gospels’ interactions with Jesus.  The Sadducees were the rich and powerful.  They believed that you could maintain holiness but that it was necessary to tolerate the Roman presence.  In this way,Israelcould survive and maintain the status quo, in some ways.  Finally, the Pharisees, although a relatively select group, believed that holiness must be maintained through rigorous observance of the Law.  For the Pharisees, three institutions were found to be most important for maintaining holiness: table fellowship, Sabbath, andTemple.  It was the Pharisees with which the Jesus movement found itself most regularly in conflict.

Borg asserts that the Pharisees, although a very faithful and devout group, found their downfall in their “quest for holiness.”  This quest is anchored in Leviticus 19 and Exodus 19:5-6.  The Pharisees adopted strict dietary laws only applied to priests, believing it should be adhered to by all faithful Israelites.  Likewise, “sinners” were those that did not tithe to God first, did not observe Sabbath, or cooperated with the Romans.  In opposition to this viewpoint, Jesus regularly dined with “sinners and tax collectors.”  Likewise, he befriended the social outcasts, which the Pharisees condemned.  Borg believes that Jesus replaced holiness with compassion as the modus operandi for faithfulIsrael.

Jesus’ actions and teachings, Borg affirms, were not devoid of historical, political motivations.  The Jesus movement was very much engaged in the politics of the day.  The historical, political realities of the first century give context toIsrael’s, and thus Jesus’, pursuit of holiness.  Merely relegating Jesus’ ministry to apocalyptic eschatology spiritualizes Jesus’ teaching.  As such, this focus discounts Jesus’ ministry as pertinent and applicable to historical and present circumstances.  Rather, it points toward a future kingdom while ignoring the present shaping of God’s kingdom.  Viewing Jesus as a political, historical figure grants weight in seeking to add value to our world through socio-political venues.  In other words, God is concerned with socio-political circumstances.  As God’s people, we too must be concerned with those systems in society.

Yet, Borg seeks to affirm that the quest for holiness, in Jesus’ eyes, was an illegitimate endeavor.  Rather, Jesus, says Borg, replaces the quest for holiness with the “quest for compassion.”  This value can be seen throughout Jesus’ ministry, especially in regards to the social outcasts found in Jewish society.  Jesus’ table fellowship most often was shared with publicans, sinners, and tax collectors.  The Pharisees saw these people as a threat to holiness.  Borg believes the Pharisees saw holiness potentially being defiled and overcome by society’s wickedness.  Yet, Jesus saw holiness as a force that would overcome evil, much like light overcomes darkness.  Compassion, undoubtedly, played a vital role in the life of Jesus.

However, Jesus shared one common thread with the Pharisees: concern for holiness.  Borg does not hold to a consistent definition of holiness.  Contradictorily, Borg says the Jesus movement rejects the quest for holiness by replacing it with the quest for compassion.  Yet, at other times, Borg seems to say Jesus was trying to re-define holiness.  However, Borg fails to understand that Jesus was not negating the quest for holiness.  Actually, Jesus was a part of the quest for holiness, trying to define what the faithful community should look like.  Jesus’ movement was concerned primarily with holiness, not merely compassion.

By relegating Jesus as a “Spirit Being” concerned only with compassion leaves Jesus as a philanthropic teacher.  Moreover, this viewpoint minimizes Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God.  Jesus was more than a good, moral teacher.  As Jesus himself claimed, he had not come to abolish the Law and prophets but to fulfill them.  As such, the concern for holiness had not been overridden but re-defined.  Jesus’ concern for holiness can be seen in that he did not depart from the institutions of Judaism. Temple, Sabbath, and table fellowship were vital aspects of Jesus’ ministry.  Yet, Jesus did re-orient the function and import of these practices.  Furthermore, Borg’s view of Jesus’ mission as the quest for compassion is wholly inadequate.  Rather, Jesus’ mission must be seen through the framework of Love which motivated compassion and was fueled through holiness.  Love and holiness enables unselfish compassion.  Jesus not only extended this to the social outcast, but to anyone who should come.

Gammie’s explanation of priestly and prophetic traditions best explains the conflict that erupted between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Namely, the Pharisees viewed holiness as purity and separation found in ritual observance of the Law.  Jesus, like the prophets before him, rejected this paradigm.  Jesus was concerned with the concepts of justice and compassion lived out in the lives of the community.  That is not to say that Jesus rejected the ritual observances of Judaism.  Jesus did reject ritual observance that did not manifest itself in transformation of heart.

Holiness in the Jesus movement was defined as the Two Greatest commands.  Relationship with God was primary, followed closely by love for our neighbors whereby we exercise social justice (these two, in fact, cannot be separated from one another).  Ritual observance was secondary when it was not life-giving, life-blessing, and life-preserving.  Holiness gave and preserved life when practiced under the proper stipulations.  John 3:16 states how holiness was embodied in Jesus’ ministry: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”


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