Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Bible and Politics, 5.1

The Gospels

Today we turn our attention to the use of Scripture in political situations in the New Testament, specifically in the Gospels. Again, since only the briefest of surveys is possible, please fill these ‘lectures’ out with your own thoughts.

From the coming of John the Baptist to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Gospels place Jesus’ life and ministry firmly within the world of the Hebrew Scriptures. Each of the Gospels regards John the Baptist’s coming as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3—John prepares the way for the Lord who comes to gather and feed the people of God. Jesus’ mission is thus framed as ‘political’ from the start, a mission to gather a people and provide them with some basic social services (e.g., feeding and healing). As far as I understand it, a body that administers social services for a gathered people is one way of defining ‘government.’

Jesus does begin to gather, feed, and heal people in Israel, and he does so in a way that brings him into direct conflict with the political and religious authorities of his day. Choosing an official group of 12 disciples was likely part of the problem, as the number references the 12 tribes of Israel. ‘In my ministry,’ Jesus seemed to be saying, ‘the political unity of the 12 tribes is restored’—and Jesus was at their head. So the numerous debates in the Gospels over the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures cannot be seen merely as debates over the role of ritualized religion, but as conflicts over who had the authority to lead the people of God. Of all the Gospels, Matthew is perhaps most explicit on this point, as he orders Jesus’ teachings in 5 blocks to reflect the 5 books of the Torah; Jesus, for Matthew, was the ‘new Moses’ who leads and orders God’s people through his authoritative teaching.

Perhaps the most overt use of scripture for political purposes in the Gospels occurs in the temple action near the end of Jesus’ life. Upon entering the Jerusalem temple—headquarters for Jewish religion and politics—Jesus physically and verbally attacks the temple’s economic and ritual systems. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus quotes Jeremiah 7:11 and Isaiah 56:7, echoing the prophets’ condemnations of the unjust and exclusive temple system. Lest we think this critique is solely ‘religious,’ let us recall that Jeremiah was critiquing the oppressive treatment of ‘the alien, the orphan, and the widow’ (7:5). The political consequences of Jesus’ temple action become obvious in the trials that lead to the cross: one of the main charges brought against Jesus is that he claimed to replace the temple (Mark 14:58; Matthew 26:61).


1) Again, think about the similarities and differences between the political structures in Jesus’ day and our own. What would be the location of a ‘temple action’ in our day? How appropriate would it be to quote Isaiah and Jeremiah in a political speech at the capitol building?

2) Here we begin to get into the idea of the church as a political community—if Jesus’ mission was ‘political’ in some sense, what is the political role of the church now? What role does the Bible play in the church’s politics?

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