Lent 1a 2017, The Politics of Jesus (Matthew 4-1-11)

I honestly can’t even with this stuff.

You know what I’m talking about, right? You can’t turn on the news without a head-on collision with it.

I can’t go out for a leisurely cup of shade grown Uganda Chema Sipi Falls without hearing the insufferable hipsters at the next table over complaining about it. (See, because I’m not an insufferable … never mind.)

The lady at Kroger with a cartload of Cheetos and organic radishes wants to hear your take on it—or perhaps more likely, wants you to hear her take on it.

The bank teller, the guy who changes your oil at the Jiffy Lube, your kid’s wrestling coach, the traffic cop who’s busy writing a ticket (you notice with a small amount of guilty satisfaction) on the giant yellow Hummer with a Jesus Fish on the tail gate parked in front of you, the woman in your neighborhood out walking her Labradoodle—they all want to engage you in conversation about it.

And seriously, do not even go on Facebook or Twitter if you’re looking for a break from it—because it’s not happening. It’s everywhere.

We were up in Plymouth, Indiana on Friday picking up our new English Mastiff puppy. We go into the house, with four fully grown English Mastiffs and three puppies. Lot of commotion. Baxtor, the 220 lb. uncle of our new puppy jumped up on the breeder, stuck his right forepaw directly in the guy’s crotch, which (as you might imagine) elicited an extended bout of frantic protest from the breeder.

While everyone was preoccupied with the possible traumatic injury taking place at the end of the couch, the daddy Mastiff, Duke, nudged my elbow. When I looked down, he whispered in my ear, “Can you believe what’s going on in Washington right now?”

Not knowing this dog’s particular political leanings, I cautiously intoned, “Ppphhh! You’re telling me.”

Mustering up the English wit from generations of proper breeding, he sniffed with an air of superiority, “It feels to me like the monkeys are running the circus right now. I never thought I’d see the day. What a state you yanks have gotten yourselves into.”

By this time, sensing I was out of my league with this dog, all I could muster was a sheepish, “Boy, you’re telling me. But, I mean seriously, you’re a dog. What do you care?”

“What? Because I’m a dog, I can’t have an opinion? Look mate, I’ve got to live here too.” Which, when put that way, made a certain amount of sense.

He gave me quick wink and moved on to see about his master’s newly acquired groin injury. I thought about it a minute, and I guess he’s right: We’ve all got something at stake in our politics.

But man, seriously?

I woke up yesterday to accusations from our current president accusing our former president of wire-tapping his condo. Russian political manipulation. The Affordable Care Act. Muslim ban. Refugee moratorium. Crack down on undocumented immigrants. Transphobia. #BlackLivesMatter. #BlueLivesMatter. De-funding Planned Parenthood. Sanctuary cities. Sanctuary churches. The state takeover of Metro government. State takeover of U of L. State directives to Jefferson County Public Schools about busing and religion in the classroom.

Politics. Yeah, I know what you mean.

And what makes it worse is that—as much as politics are everywhere—so many people think we shouldn’t talk about it.

I know that not talking about politics is sometimes a last ditch effort to avoid conflict among family and friends. Nobody wants to hear uncle Kevin waxing political about the latest email forward he got from a highly reliable source on the “dark web” about the impending collapse of turnip futures … All because of nefarious collusion between the Illuminati, George Soros, and a shifty turnip cartel based in an undisclosed location in the mountains of eastern Washington state.

Yeah, no. I get it.

But there are also those well-meaning concern trolls who are convinced that talking about politics is divisive, and wouldn’t it just be better for everyone if we stuck to safer things like cat videos or reminiscences of that golden era before there were cell phones and carpal tunnel syndrome?

And some church people have moved to the front of the line when it comes to denouncing political talk … as somehow beyond the purview of true Christian interest. Christians should avoid politics, they often argue with me, because we have no record of Jesus ever having a Hillary Clinton sign in his front yard, no documentary evidence of Jesus ever wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. Jesus, in their argument, was spiritual leader who was primarily concerned with saving people’s souls—not with the problems associated with such pedestrian concerns as Social Security or providing clean drinking water for everyone.

Jesus, they remind me, was definitely not political. He never tried to get the Roman government to look out for “the least of these” by providing things like a minimum wage or universal healthcare.

To which I answer, “Well, I guess that’s true as far as it goes. On the other hand, providing universal healthcare wasn’t even a twinkle in Bernie Sanders’ eye when Jesus was roaming about causing trouble in the ancient Near East. Jesus also didn’t say we shouldn’t drop nuclear bombs on one another either—but that doesn’t mean that if he were alive, roaming about causing trouble inside the Washington Beltway in 2017 he’d be cool with it.”

Moreover, the idea that Jesus wasn’t political is a fiction typically maintained by middle class white folks who’ve more or less benefitted from the political status quo—who have the luxury of not thinking about politics, because politics has typically been pretty good to them—and they have no reason to fear that that state of affairs won’t continue for the foreseeable future.

But if you’re among that increasingly large group of Americans who haven’t fared so well as a result of how our political systems are designed, the idea that Jesus had no interest in politics is unintelligible to you. If you’re among that group of folks who have historical reason to fear the power of the political class, then you can’t afford to sit back and see how everything will shake out. You’ve seen how things have “shaken out” in the past, and you have little confidence that if you just shut up about politics things will work out fine for you and yours.

Jesus was all about politics. Oh, not American Democratic politics, not twenty-first century electoral politics; I’ll grant you that. But our current politics don’t exhaust the meaning of “political.”

Politics, at heart, are the convictions publicly expressed about how best to form a polis—which is to say, a community where people can flourish. What truths, for example, do we hold to be self evident about the way we organize our common life?

Who should get the biggest slice of the pie?

How should we care for those who’ve lost the means to care for themselves? Do we have any special responsibility to the poor, the imprisoned, the disabled, the oppressed?

These are all political questions. Again, that doesn’t mean that the answer to these questions necessarily is a program promoted by politicians—but it also certainly doesn’t mean that that’s not an option.

The question, therefore, isn’t whether Jesus engages in politics, but what kind of politics defines Jesus’ understanding of the reign he’s announcing.

Remember, this is the very beginning of his ministry. He’s just been baptized. Now, he’s in the desert arguing with the tempter about just what kind of kingdom he’ll champion.

As we’ll see later in Matthew’s Gospel, everyone is convinced that Jesus’ political commitments lean toward the insurrectionist. Everybody, from his disciples to the religious leaders to the Roman authorities are pretty well convinced that Jesus is an ancient Near Eastern Che Guevara—an insurgent who will rally the freedom fighters to throw off Roman oppression, and restore Israel’s glory.

But Matthew wants to make certain we understand that Jesus has his sights set higher—he’s concerned with the way in which God will reclaim all creation—not just the Jewish part of it.

The tip-off is Matthew’s tying of Jesus’ temptation to the temptation story of Adam and Eve: “You want food? It’s yours for the taking. Just reach out and pluck the fruit from the tree—turn these stones to bread. You can’t trust God to take care of you. You need to take the initiative to take care of yourself.”

And that’s a politics we understand, isn’t it? A politics that suggests we’ll perish if we don’t grab what we need, a politics that assumes, as we said last week, that we can’t trust God to take care of us. We want it all figured out in advance how God’s going to make it come out right. We don’t want to leave anything to chance.

“Show us the map, Jesus. We love you, but we want to see for ourselves that we aren’t going to be left in a lurch.”

But—as Jesus will show just a couple chapters from now when he teaches the disciples to pray—followers of Jesus only ask for enough bread to make it through the day.

Why?

Because what drives Jesus isn’t hunger, but trust. Hunger, the motivation of the old kingdom, drives us to forget the needs of others. It prompts us to exploit and to use anyone or anything to satisfy the gnawing emptiness. The hunger helps us justify our inclinations to seek wealth and stability on the backs of the poor and the voiceless.

Trust, on the other hand, requires of us to believe that in God’s new reign there will be enough, that our hunger can never be satisfied by anything we can make on our own—but only by the world God desires.

The second temptation plays into the messianic expectations Jesus is about to unleash. The messiah is here, which conventional wisdom says will be a military leader who will unseat the politics of the old order, and establish a new political order. That Jesus doesn’t take up arms in claiming his messiahship, should in no way fool us into believing that he didn’t come to overthrow the old kingdom, in order to establish a new politics.

Again, the question isn’t whether Jesus is political, it’s merely a matter of what kind of politics he will pursue.

The second temptation suggests that whatever else may be said about the new reign Jesus envisions, it won’t come through the strategic application of power. No swords. No chariots. No guns. No tanks. No drones. That is to say, whatever God Jesus worships, that God, unlike the rulers of this world, doesn’t need force to achieve the just goals of the new reign.

Rather than subjugating others, Jesus will soon argue that his messiahship is about rescuing and restoring, about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies, about not storing up for ourselves treasures that can be stolen or spent, about looking out for the “least of these.”

Politics not as domination and isolation, but as empowerment and embrace.

“Oh, but it could come much more quickly,” the tempter says. “We could do it in one fell swoop. No long campaigns (military or political). You can get all you want with a little flash. No suffering. No hard work. No dying. Do this one little trick, and you’ll have it all. Just do something outlandish, like … say, oh, I don’t know … jump from the top of the temple. You’ll be fine. The angels won’t allow you to hurt yourself. Do that, and I promise you’ll have ’em eating out of the palm of your hand.”

The third temptation is an attempt to get Jesus to take a shortcut. The crown of glory that comes from this little spectacle will sure be a lot nicer to wear than the crown of glory he’ll get at the end of the story down in Jerusalem.

“Do it this way and you get a crown of gold rather than thorns, a scepter instead of a cross.”

It’s really a no-brainer, when you think about it.

But Jesus says no.

Wait, what?

Jesus’ no is tough to conceive. Living in a world programmed to teach us to say “yes,” we have a difficult time understanding Jesus choosing something other than the easy way.

Oh, people talk about “the road less traveled,” but I mean, come on, the reason it’s less traveled is because it’s difficult. And most folks avoid difficult like the Kardashians avoid anonymity.

It’s hard to imagine a world in which the difficult is not only possible, but every bit as good as it’s cracked up to be. It’s tough to picture a world in which there is enough for everyone, where the poor and the forgotten are just as important as the politicians who so regularly forget about them, where the embattled and the beleaguered can find some rest because everyone else is vigilantly standing watch over them, where the depressed and the addicted can find support instead of stigma and punishment, where straight kids and trans kids and gay kids can become who they’re meant to be without sacrificing who they are on the altar of conformity, where black parents don’t have to have “the talk” with their children in an attempt to inoculate them against the officially sanctioned harassment and violence that still exists for them in this world?

Yeah, right. Wishful thinking.

But what if God’s got bigger plans than can be pictured in our limited imaginations?

What if Jesus is busy unleashing a politics that asks of us not that we find what’s working and transform ourselves, but that we trust that the hard work of bringing good news to the poor, bringing release to the captives, bringing sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free is the work that will bear witness to the new age, the reign of God being poured out on the world?

What if the politics of Jesus asks us simply to act faithfully for its own sake? To do the right thing because that’s what God expects of us?

What if Jesus is counting on us to trust that God’s new age will be unveiled in us … those who seek justice, those committed to welcoming the stranger, those who sow peace in a world devouring itself from a hunger that no amount of bread, no amount of power, no amount of spectacle can satisfy?

The world needs folks who know how to say no, who withstand the desperation, who refuse to take the easy way, opting instead to trust—following Jesus down that long road to Jerusalem.

It’s a different kind of politics, to be sure. But make no mistake, it is politics.

It’d be nice if we could find a more comfortable path, one with more guarantees for our safety and survival, one without all the sacrifice and potential suffering.

Unfortunately, the politics of Jesus , which almost invariably avoids the easy way is what we’ve got. But it’s exactly what a desperate world needs.

—Amen.

Last updated about a month ago on March 5, 2017 5:32 am