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Jesus & Justice: The Political Jesus
Luke 6:20 - 6:26
January 30, 2022
Reverend Jason Harris
Do Christianity and politics mix? The answer isn’t as simple as a yes or no. While we should be concerned about the politicization of the American Church and the ways in which the pursuit of political power has undermined the Church's integrity as well as its witness, it's possible that Christians can fall into the opposite trap of quietism. It's not possible to remain neutral in the face of the world's injustice, so how do we strike the appropriate stance? In this sermon, we take a closer look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 to explore the politics of Jesus, the platform of Jesus, and the plan of Jesus to usher in a new kingdom.
View Sermon Transcript
I don't know about you, but for me the most jarring image from one year ago on January 6, was when rioters broke into the Senate chamber, and one man shouted out from behind the vice president's desk: “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name.” Then Jacob Chansley, the so called QAnon Shaman, took off his horned helmet and his fur hat and proceeded to offer a prayer from the Senate floor, saying in part,
“Thank you divine creator God for surrounding and filling us with your divine omnipresent white light of love and protection, peace and harmony. Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn. Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government. We love you and we thank you in Christ’s holy name we pray. Amen.”
That right there is why so many people within the church, as well as those outside, have said that religion and politics don't mix. That's why they say Christians should stay out of politics altogether. And for the most part, they're probably right. Religion and politics don't mix very well. We should all be deeply concerned about the ways in which the church has been politicized in recent decades. The church, at least in America, has been used as a pawn by different factions in order to secure more political power, which only serves to undermine the church's integrity and its witness. We've all seen how the polarization within our broader culture has seeped into the churches creating disunity, where there shouldn't be battle lines drawn between fellow believers. With that said, it's also possible that Christians can fall into the opposite trap of quietism. If Christians were to completely withdraw from sociopolitical issues, like the Amish, then you'd have to give up explicitly Christian leaders like William Wilberforce, who dedicated his life to the abolition of the slave trade and finally won with an Act of Parliament passed in 1807. Or you would have to give up explicitly Christian leaders, like Martin Luther King, who dedicated his life to the Civil Rights Movement. It's actually not so simple to simply say that Christians should stay out of politics altogether because that can lead to an abdication of responsibility. Inaction often results in maintaining the status quo, so it's not possible to remain neutral. The late Desmond Tutu said,
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
We're engaged in a series focused on the topic of justice, and though justice is inherently complicated, potentially contentious, and personally challenging, it remains a central aspect of the Christian hope. Over these several weeks, we will specifically consider some of the things that Jesus had to say about justice in the gospels. In this sermon, I'd like us to focus on the political Jesus. I'd like us to consider the politics of Jesus, the platform of Jesus, and the plan of Jesus by taking a look at Luke 6. This is often referred to as Jesus' Sermon on the Plain. It is Luke's corollary to Matthew's Sermon on the Mount. Let me invite you to open up a Bible to Luke 6. I'll be reading Luke 6:20-26,
20And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
22“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
25“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
26“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love.
I'll come back to Luke 6 in a moment, but first I want to ask, in what sense was Jesus political? As in all things, it depends on how you define your terms, so what do we mean by politics? Broadly speaking, the word politics comes from the Greek word, “Polis,” which means city, so politics has to do with the life of the city. It's concerned with life within human society. Politics is the art of living in community together. In a more narrow sense, politics is the science of government. It's focused on developing policies and enacting laws, and therefore, politics in that narrow sense is about gaining political power in order to create social change. So is Jesus political? Definitely not in that narrow sense. As others have written, Jesus never ran for political office. He never formed a political party. He never organized a political protest. He never wrote a political manifesto. He never tried to influence the policies of Herod, or Pilate, or Caesar. He deliberately renounced any kind of political career. That has led many to conclude that Jesus was apolitical. He was a spiritual leader, not a political leader. He was focused on personal holiness, not social structures. He came to save souls, not to change the world.
Here's the problem with that. If Jesus' kingdom has nothing at all to do with the real world in which we live, then it's very difficult to come up with an explanation for why the powers that be felt that it was necessary to kill Jesus. Rather than having nothing to do with this world in which we live, the kingdom of God has everything to do with the world in which we live. That's why people were so scared. The people in power considered Jesus to be a threat. We have to remember that Jesus was executed for specifically political reasons. He was sentenced to death on the charge of treason—treason against the state of Rome. In this narrow sense, no, Jesus was not political. He certainly was not involved in partisan politics. But in that broader sense, his whole ministry was political because he came to introduce an entire new way of structuring human society. He didn't acquiesce and accept the way things were. No, he launched the long awaited kingdom of God. He directly challenged the status quo, and turned the values and the standards of our world upside down.
Let me give you one little example of Jesus' political resistance. If you turn to Luke 13, you'll see that the Pharisees come to Jesus. The Pharisees were often the target of Jesus' criticism, but regardless, they come and warn Jesus that Herod Antipas is seeking to kill him. In v.31 they say, “At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Why does Herod want to kill Jesus? In his book, Reading While Black, the New Testament scholar Esau McCaulley writes,
“Herod did not see Jesus as a danger because he was a compassionate healer who spoke of justice, repentance, and transformation. Herod saw Jesus as a threat because his ministry of healing was a sign of the in-breaking reign of God. Whether Herod believed that God was at work in Jesus is beside the point. Herod displays no fear of God. Power was Herod’s god. What he feared was the hope that Jesus might give to the disinherited. A populace that believed that god was on the verge of breaking in was dangerous. Rome ramped up security every Passover because Passover always threatened to rekindle the memory of God’s mighty act to save. It was precisely inasmuch as Jesus was obedient to his Father and rooted in the hopes and dreams of Israel that Jesus revealed himself to be a great danger to the rulers of his day.”
The Pharisees warn Jesus, get out of here because Herod is seeking to kill you, and how does Jesus respond? I love this. Jesus turns to them and says,
“Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’”
Jesus calls Herod a fox. Herod, the puppet king, who is backed up by the empire of Rome, thinks that he's a true ruler, but Jesus calls him nothing more than a fox. Let me assure you, that's not a compliment. In Jesus' day, perhaps as in our own, to be called a fox meant to be called a deceitful, conniving, cunning person. What exactly is Jesus trying to get across? Esau McCaulley continues,
“What about Herod might have led to Jesus calling him a fox? Herod Antipas did not maintain his rule over Galilee because the people believed him to be the rightful ruler, but because he had the backing of the empire. His power was not real. His position was secured through posturing, compromise, and intrigue. Insomuch as his concern was first and foremost his own survival and not the good of the people, the poor of Galilee could not look to him for succor. The point here is that fox is not simply an analysis of Herod’s limited piety. It is a description of his political activity as it relates to the inevitable suffering of the people. This is a statement made in full view of Pharisees and sure to become a matter of public record.”
Yes, Jesus was political in the sense that he spoke truth to power. Christians, who likewise call out injustice in our world today, follow in Jesus' footsteps, but if Jesus is political in this broad sense, then what was his platform? What was he trying to accomplish? That brings me back to Luke 6. Just as Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet with God and then came down the mountain to establish God's covenant with his people, Jesus assumes the role of a new Moses, who is renewing God's covenant with his people by placing himself now at the center of it all. Here, in his Sermon on the Plain, Jesus spells out what life in the kingdom of God looks like. He's ushering in God's new society, which is unlike anything the world has ever seen before. Just as that original covenant in the Book of Deuteronomy contained a long list of blessings and curses, here, Jesus issues four blessings and four woes—four promises and four words of warning. Jesus said in his inaugural address, at the synagogue in Nazareth, that he had come to proclaim good news to the poor, and now we understand why. Jesus is inaugurating God's reign of justice, which means that he's going to put right everything that had ever gone wrong, and the kingdom of God will turn the norms of this world upside down. Perhaps, it might be better to say Jesus' kingdom is going to turn the norms of this world right side up again.
Let me put Jesus' words in context. In the Old Testament, you often come across what some people have referred to as the "Quartet of the Vulnerable." It's striking how often the writers of the Old Testament connect justice to specifically four groups of people: widows, orphans, sojourners, and the poor. We see this in Deuteronomy 10,
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.”
Or in Isaiah 1:17, God says,
“Seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.”
This is the Quartet of the Vulnerable—the widows, the orphans, the sojourners, and the poor. But why does God single out these four groups of people? Because in the ancient Near East, these were the most vulnerable members of society. Widows, orphans, sojourners, and the poor had no one to advocate for them, so God in effect is saying, If no one is there to stand up and fight for you, I will. And I expect my people to be a voice for the voiceless. But God doesn't show partiality. He says that right there in Deuteronomy 10. God loves the rich and the poor alike. If that's true, why this emphasis? Why this emphasis on the Quartet of the Vulnerable? I think because you can't get around the fact that the wealthy and the well connected may suffer episodes of injustice from time to time. You might be mugged, or mistreated, or taken advantage of, but the most vulnerable members of society—the widows, the orphans, the sojourners, the poor—they experience injustice on a daily basis, not merely episodes. This is a regular experience within their existence. With that context, we look at Jesus launching his kingdom and laying out its values, and it becomes clear that Jesus is going to lift up those who've been cast down. He's going to draw in those who have been cast out. His ministry is about lifting up the downtrodden and drawing in the previously marginalized. In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus expands the circle of concern beyond merely the Quartet of the Vulnerable and introduces his own quartet. He says, blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep and mourn, and those who are hated, excluded, reviled, and scorned for Jesus’ sake.
Let me address a couple questions here. When we see the values that Jesus is putting before us, we need to stop and ask ourselves: Who are the poor? Why are they blessed? What does this mean? It's curious that in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,“ but in Luke's account, Luke omits those words “in spirit” and simply says, “Blessed are the poor.” As you can imagine, commentators down through the centuries have debated, what is Jesus talking about here when he says, “Blessed are the poor?” Is he talking about spiritual poverty or is he talking about material poverty? If you know me, you won't be surprised to hear me say the answer is both. He's talking about both. How do we know that? Once again, we have to look at the Old Testament context because there, again and again, we see throughout the Psalms and the prophets, that when the Scriptures speak of the poor, in the Bible, they're talking about the impoverished and the oppressed, who, in the midst of their plight, look to God alone by faith as their only hope for rescue. The two go together.
What does it mean to be blessed? Some people translate that word blessed as happy. That's a terrible translation because to be blessed by God does not describe some subjective feeling like happiness, but rather, it describes an objective state, regardless of what your feelings might be, regardless of what your circumstances might be. If you are blessed by God, it means that you have been accepted by him—approved by God. You've found favor in God's eyes. It means that you can enter into relationship with him. It means that he is drawing you into the heart of things. You can be blessed by God, regardless of how you feel, regardless of what your circumstances might be, and therefore, the spiritual poor are those who, regardless of their material conditions, recognize their spiritual bankruptcy. They realize that they have nothing to offer, nothing to give God. They have no claim on God, and they put all their hope in him for their rescue and deliverance. They know that they receive God's favor by faith and by faith alone. They are the ones who can sing, "Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross, I cling." If the spiritual poor also happen to be materially poor, then they are also likewise blessed because they find within the kingdom of God, a new passion for justice, and a new dignity as members who belong to the people of God. Matthew emphasizes one and Luke the other, but it's got to be both. Why? Because there's nothing inherently good or virtuous about poverty or hunger. That's why people try to escape poverty, not enter into it. So why does Jesus say that the poor are blessed? Is that some kind of cruel joke? No, because Jesus understands that in the normal course of things, those who lack material resources are often under less illusions about their true spiritual condition. They more readily see their need for Jesus, and therefore, they more readily receive the message of the kingdom. Whereas those who tend to be well off or well connected might dupe themselves into thinking that they already have everything they need for their existence. That's why throughout the Scriptures, Jesus repeatedly calls the rich fools. The wealthy might be very wise when it comes to the ways of the world, but they are often fools when it comes to the ways of the kingdom.
What does all this mean? If we put this together, we can say, blessed are the poor because they have found favor in God's eyes. They've been accepted by faith, and therefore, the kingdom of God is theirs. It belongs to them. Blessed are those who hunger for food and for justice, for right relationships with God, as well as with one another, because they've been accepted by faith. They have found favor with God, and therefore, they shall be satisfied. Blessed are those who mourn and weep over their personal sin and over the social injustice all around us because they've been accepted by faith. They have found favor with God, and therefore, they will find laughter within the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who, right now, are hated, and excluded, and reviled, and scorned for Jesus' name because they have been accepted by faith. They have found favor with God, and therefore they can rejoice and leap for joy within the kingdom of God knowing that they stand in the long line of prophets, who likewise set their eyes on a much greater prize.
Along with these four words of blessing, Jesus also issues these four words of warning. If we fail to see Jesus for who he really is, and if we fail to acknowledge our desperate need for him, then he's got nothing left to offer us but a word of woe.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets [not the real ones].”
The question is, who do you want to be like? Jesus warns us now in order to spare us later, and therefore, you've got to listen up because now's our chance. Later on, you don't want to hear Jesus say, I tried to warn you, but you weren't willing to listen. Because his kingdom is breaking in even now, and when it does, it will lead to a great social inversion. That's what he's telling us. Do you see how the kingdom of God flips the norms, the standards of our world, upside down? Or perhaps better, we should say, right side up.
If that is Jesus's kingdom, if that's his platform, then what's his plan? How will he bring this platform to fruition? How will he put it into action? I want to show you something. When the Virgin Mary first receives word that she is going to bear God's son, she sings about the social inversion that God's kingdom will bring to the world in which we live. She sings about it in the song which is known as the Magnificat which is contained for us in Luke 1. There she sings in part,
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things,and the rich he has sent away empty.”
What does this lifting up and this casting down amount to? Is Jesus instructing his followers that they should push down those who are at the top of the social heap in order to lift up those who were at the bottom while leaving everything else the same? Is that what he's suggesting? Is he just going to change the players? Some think so and that's why they would say: See, the Marxists were right. Jesus is a social revolutionary. But I would say, hold on. Not so fast. I don't think so, because that's not the way in which the kingdom of God works. We have to remember, first of all, that Jesus categorically rejected the way of violence, but second of all, we have to remember that it's so easy for today's oppressed to become tomorrow's oppressors. Jesus is not interested in simply swapping out the players, while leaving everything else essentially the same. No, the social transformation that Jesus will bring is even more radical than what the revolutionaries would describe. He's more radical than the revolutionaries because Jesus is focused on the radix, the root of all of our problems, which is the human heart. Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it like this,
“Jesus did not mean, literally, that justice requires that beggars become kings and kings become beggars. The beggars would soon start acting like kings. The clue to the meaning of the theme of social inversion lies in this sentence, ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ The coming of justice requires the humbling of those who exalt themselves. The arrogant must be cured of their arrogance; the rich and powerful must be cured of their attachment to wealth and power. Only then is justice for all possible.”
I have to say that there's a beautiful kind of social inversion that's already taking place, right here, within this church. As a church in New York City, we draw people from across the social spectrum, from the homeless shelter to the penthouse apartment, from the uneducated to the Ph.D. What other organizations do you know like that? You're just as likely to rub shoulders in the pew with the rich and powerful as the poor and the hungry. There's no social organization in the world like the church. No other organization can do that. We're not only drawn into relationship with one another, but there's also a remarkable kind of redistribution taking place here. This is not the forced redistribution of wealth by the government. No, this is the voluntary redistribution by the church. It's far too generous and sacrificial to call it merely capitalism, far too free and voluntary to call it as something as simple as socialism. What is this? This is the economics of the kingdom—the economics of the kingdom of God. What happens here? People give according to their means, and even beyond their ability, radically and sacrificially, in order to meet the needs of those within our community and beyond—so that we might aspire to the goal of the early church, where we could say that there is not a needy person among us. It's not just about money. It's about making sandwiches in order to keep people from going hungry. It's about scrubbing floors in order to keep people from being evicted from their apartments. It's about providing counseling and support in order to keep people from feeling like abortion is their only option. No, they can keep their babies. It's about watching one another's kids in order to keep them from being forced into the foster system. It's about providing jobs. It's about putting people through seminary. It's about visiting the sick, the dying, and the lonely. It's about rescuing people from abusive relationships. You may not see this, but let me assure you, this is happening. This is happening in our church right now, and it is a sight to behold.
But how does this happen? How does this take place? How do we become cured of our attachment to wealth and power? How do we come to the place where we can acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy and recognize that we have nothing to offer, nothing to give, God. We have to throw ourselves upon his mercy alone. How does that happen?
Only through Jesus. You have to look at Jesus who underwent a dramatic social inversion of his own. Talk about rich, as the second person of the Trinity, the one and only Son of God, Jesus had it all. The cattle on 1,000 hills, all the kingdoms of this earth, they already belong to him, and yet he gave it all up. He died in poverty without a penny to his name. Do you realize that when they crucified Jesus, they took the shirt off of his back. They gambled for his clothes. He died without a penny and without a shirt. Oh, and talk about full. Jesus lacked for nothing, yet he emptied himself. One of his final words from the cross were, “I thirst.” Oh, and talk about laughter. Jesus enjoyed perfect harmony with his Heavenly Father through the bonds of the Holy Spirit, yet his laughter, his joy, turned to tears as he cried out in the garden, “If it's possible, let this cup pass from me.” Oh, and as for acceptance and approval, for all eternity, Jesus basked in the glow of his father's adulation, but on the cross for the very first time, he was excluded. He was shut out, not because of anything that he had done, but because of what we have done. He bore our sin in our place, and so he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” One of the criminals who was crucified by his side, used his dying breath to curse Jesus.
Jesus didn't have to do any of this. It was all voluntary. It was all free. So why would he put himself through that? The only answer is for you. He did it for you—to transform your poverty into riches, your hunger into satisfaction, your mourning and weeping into laughter and joy, your curse into blessing. Do you see that? You have to look at Jesus, study Jesus, consider Jesus, worship Jesus until it melts your heart. When it does, it'll forever change you. Only Jesus can humble you out of your pride in order to exalt you, and that's when the real social inversion begins. It's happening now. We all have a chance to be a part of it. Whether you're among the rich and the powerful, or the poor and the hungry, or anywhere in between, you all have an opportunity to be part of it. And it begins right now.
Let me pray for us.
Jesus, we thank you that you are ushering in a kingdom that is unlike anything the world has ever seen before. Far from thinking that this kingdom has nothing to do with the real world in which we live, no, this kingdom has everything to do with the real world in which we live. That's why we need you so desperately. Help us to acknowledge our spiritual poverty, our spiritual bankruptcy. Help us to throw ourselves entirely upon your grace so that you might transform us and so that through us, you might continue to transform our church and our impact on the world around us. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.