Political Jesus: The Agitator
Rev. April S. Blaine, Given on January 5, 2014
Today we begin a new series on the Political Jesus. For the last two years, we have used the month of January as a time to stretch and challenge ourselves and to approach some “edgier” topics.
The idea that Politics and Religion don’t mix is a prevalent one in our culture.
We have a tendency to de-politicize the person of Jesus – saying that he dealt more with individuals and was more of a “wisdom teacher” – teaching a “different way to live” that had more to do with freedom from law than the political and social context…
But there are a few things we need to understand about the nature of Jesus’ community –
When the Roman empire took over the region of Palestine, they quickly subjugated the people in the region. Torture and violence toward people who rebelled made it clear to the people who had the power. One of their most prevalent ways of squashing rebels was to publicly crucify them.
Second, they would tax heavily. As Rome continued to conquer and take over new regions of the world, the city of Rome itself began to surge with people and citizens. The city grew to over a million people. In the interest of public order, the emperors and Roman elite had to provide the populace with adequate food and entertainment. It required them to import 200 to 400,000 tons of wheat annually.
And where was this extracted? From the regions where they had conquered.
It was a tribute – often 30% of the grain produced by a family was taken away and sent to Rome to feed the people there.
Not only that, but any new building project, any new military conquest – was paid for by taxing the people.
Lastly, the people’s priestly rulers were really just puppets of the empire. They enjoyed the riches and power and status of the Romans in exchange to appointing people and operating in ways that were in line with the Empire. Even their own rulers were corrupt.
In a setting of such oppression, one that threatened the very viability and continuation of the traditional Jewish way of life…
It should not be surprising that the people both resented their situation and resisted it.
Integral to the Jewish tradition was the idea of a resistance to foreign rule. Many people believe that this was why the Jewish people fought the oppression of the empire so much more deeply than many of the other oppressed groups.
At the time Jesus was born, around the city of Nazareth – there were movements, there were uprisings – where men of humble means were lifted up as a new king – ones that would establish a new order and remove the yoke of the empire on the people.
And so - Jesus’ sayings and teachings – the stories that were recorded in the Gospel – they were oral traditions, shared within communities – in a context that was politically charged – to a people who were being violently and economically oppressed – people who consistently resented and resisted the oppression in which they were under and also a people who consistently raised up leaders within a movement to overthrow the rulers and create a new more egalitarian society.
SCRIPTURE – John 6:1-15
2 things to point out from Scripture – 2 things that Jesus does that agitate the current political situation -
- Question to Philip – where can we go to buy food for all these people? The answer was obvious to the crowd and to Philip –
There is no such place and even if there were – there is not enough money and funds to do so. The food and the money go to Rome. In the kingdom in which we live – there is not enough – it is not possible.
- In the face of the reality that everyone is living – in the face of a world of scarcity where there isn’t enough for everyone - he tells the people to sit down, blesses what has been given and then passes it out to them. And they EAT until they were full. This is unheard of - To eat until they were full was a luxury – one reserved for the rich and elite.
In the face of scarcity – Jesus allows them to experience abundance. So much abundance -
And there were leftovers…
Have you ever seen a glorious sunset?
I mean the kind of sunset that stops you in your tracks and begs you to take it in.
If you are out in public when you see something like this – you’ll often notice the strange phenomenon of people stopped – fixated on the sky – taking in the unbelievable beauty.
Moments like these have a way of shifting our perspective – helping us to see and appreciate that there is something bigger, something more beautiful going on… that there is more going on in the world that the limited things we can see from our purview.
Part of what Jesus did over and over again – in his healings, in his miracles – in his teachings – was to shift people’s viewpoints. To point to something beyond themselves, something big and beautiful – he was pointing to the Kingdom of God.
But even more than that -
This beautiful kingdom, Jesus said was coming near. This kingdom was
actually the reality through which God has always intended them to live.
Today is the Sunday of Epiphany – the day when we would typically be reading the story of the Wise Men – traveling from the East to come and see this child who had been born.
The word epiphany itself means to have a sudden realization about the nature or meaning of something.
Part of what agitated the crowd on that day after the feeding of the 5,000 is that they had received a real glimpse of the beautiful way in which God intended them to live together. They had received an experience of the kind of abundance – the kind of sharing, the kind of grace and trust in which they were intended to live all the time
And the experience of not just seeing it – but tasting it – participating in it was stirring them to action –
Jesus doesn’t have to say a word about Rome - but
Something about experiencing the abundance of this moment - exposes the deep flaws and brokenness in the systems of the empire Their injustice, their flaws, and their WEAKNESS in the face of God.
What the Roman Empire wanted to portray is that THEY were the source of peace and prosperity. The empire itself was the bearer of good news – and that the emperor was the savior of the world – fulfilling the hopes and longings of all humankind.
But in that moment – on that field – after that meal.
All of that was exposed as a lie
And so it is not surprising that they wanted to make him their king.
They wanted to force him into a position to lead a revolution against Rome.
But Jesus had something else in mind. Revolution indeed – but the kind of work that would set the entire WORLD free.
The challenge for us when we read Scriptures – and we allow ourselves to try and enter the world of Jesus.
Is that we are not the oppressed minority people whose rights are crushed every day. We are not familiar with what it is like to never eat a meal and be FULL.
We are not living in a time or context where we wonder if our words or voice will get us killed or whether we will have enough resource to literally avoid starvation.
We don’t like to admit it – but many of us have more in common with the Empire at the time…
But the thing about this story and about so many of the stories of Jesus – is that they
agitated the hungry.
But they also agitated the wealthy.
Something about this story of abundance – something about the lavish grace – begins to open our eyes - begins to reveal to us the very depths of our own fears…
Because the picture of the way God intended the world to be – this idea that there is ENOUGH.
This Gospel of Abundance – this idea that we can trust in God – and that when the spirit is moving and working – there is never a need to fear whether there will be enough - it radically challenges the whole social order in which our society is built.
The problem with the society that the Romans built and to be honest the one we have built is that it’s grounded on fear. No matter where you sit. The poor feared for their lives and for their utter starvation – and the wealthy and the powerful feared losing the things that they had.
Feeding the 5,000 - The Gospel of Abundance was radical in Jesus’ time and it’s radical today –
Because if we can really see it – if we can really experience it – if we can really taste it – if we can trust it and stop living in a state of fear - then we won’t be able to help but start to work toward a world that is different. To start building something different.
This is exactly what was so powerful about the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When he talked about the dream that he had – he was describing a world that was radically different. And it wasn’t just different in the way that it would make things better for a few people – it was different in this kind of cosmic, divine way – as if it was always the way the world was intended to be. And when people could see THAT world – they certainly couldn’t remain in the status quo. They couldn’t stand by complacently accepting the way things were.
So we hope on this day of Epiphany – and during this month as we explore – the stories of Jesus – that there might truly be an epiphany for each of us. That we might be agitated from our places of comfort – and that we might come to a place where we are wrestling with the places where we live in fear and the places where we simply cannot trust that God’s abundance and grace will see us through.
And that these realizations would help us move toward individual lives that look more like the kingdom of God and life together as a community where we are not afraid – but we are deeply trusting – and WORKING – to build something different – so that there is ENOUGH for everyone and in fact, there are leftovers.