Faith & Politics Pt 1: Christ’s Battle Against Corruption

When asked about the role of the Christians in shaping civic law, many point out that Jesus did not address the social injustice of Rome (implying that Christ’s mandate was spiritual, not political).  Here is my response:

Did Jesus Challenge the Social Injustice of Rome?
Did Jesus Challenge the Social Injustice of Rome?

 

Many biblical scholars propose that Christ’s mandate on earth was to preach and minister to the Jews, not the Gentiles. This is supported by Mathew 15:24: He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Other evidence includes the fact that Jesus never left Jewish territory while on earth, his conversations with the Samaritan woman, and many other New Testament passages (Matthew 15:4, John 4:22, Matthew 15, Matthew 10:5-6).  With that in mind, it makes sense that Christ would have focused on the social injustice of the Jewish political establishment, rather than the Romans.

Often sermons label the Pharisees and Sadducees as religious leaders only.  This is an underestimation of their power.  The Pharisees and Sadducees were politicians that wielded real power over Judea. They used Rome to progress their agenda, formed alliances with other client politicians like Herod, and could arrest people for disobeying the law (John 7:32-45).   

From Wikipedia, on the political rivalry of the Pharisees and Sadducees:

“According to Josephus, the Pharisees appeared before Pompey (a Roman leader) asking him to interfere and restore the old priesthood while abolishing the royalty of the Hasmoneans altogether (A dynasty established in 141 BC after the  Maccabean Revolt) (“Ant.” xiv. 3, § 2). Pharisees also opened Jerusalem’s gates to the Romans, and actively supported them against the Sadducean faction.[25] When the Romans finally broke the entrance to the Jerusalem’s Temple, the Pharisees killed the priests who were officiating the Temple services on Saturday.[26] They regarded Pompey’s defilement of the Temple in Jerusalem as a divine punishment of Sadducean misrule.  According to Josephus, Sadducean opposition to Herod led him to treat the Pharisees favorably (“Ant.” xiv. 9, § 4; xv. 1, § 1; 10, § 4; 11, §§ 5–6). Herod was an unpopular ruler, perceived as a Roman puppet. Despite his restoration and expansion of the Second Temple, Herod’s notorious treatment of his own family and of the last Hasmonaeans further eroded his popularity. According to Josephus, the Pharisees ultimately opposed him and thus fell victims (4 BCE) to his bloodthirstiness (“Ant.” xvii. 2, § 4; 6, §§ 2–4). The family of Boethus, whom Herod had raised to the high-priesthood, revived the spirit of the Sadducees, and thenceforth the Pharisees again had them as antagonists (“Ant.” xviii. 1, § 4).”   

So, now that we have established that there was indeed a Jewish political body that committed many social injustices, what did Jesus have to say about it? LOTS.  Christ openly condemned the Pharisees and Sadducees for their obsession with wealth, creation of man-made rules, oppression of the poor, and pride.  He called them vipers, and poison.  Given the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ Shakespearean-level skulduggery, Christ’s comments were apropos and brave.   Some examples: Matthew 23:1-12 (on wealth), Matthew 9:10-12, Luke 11:37-54, Luke 16:13-5 (on wealth),  Mark 7:1-15.

There’s more! Caiaphas, the Sadducee who spearheaded the prosecution against Jesus, was actually appointed by a Roman official, Valerius Gratus.  And, the Sadducees who ran the Temple refused to accept the common currency of the day because it featured Caesar’s face.  Pious Jews were required to exchange Roman coin for Judean coin, at great personal expense, before making sacrifices.  This coin was then traded by the Sadducees with Rome at a favorable (to Rome!) exchange rate (https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/605, http://israelvisit.co.il/beged-ivri/shekel/teachings/kadman.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyrian_shekel, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Jewish_Revolt_coinage).  When Christ famously overturned the tables of the money changers, he wasn’t just taking on the Jewish political establishment.  It could be argued He was also taking on Rome (John 2:13-17).

Based on these verses and historical context, I believe that Christ had a mandate that included the fight against corruption of national political establishments.  I believe that mandate was extended, along with salvation, to all cultures where Christians practice and worship.  In modern America, where once again we see a blending of political establishment figures and religious leaders that focus more on legislating morality than eliminating poverty, Christ’s mandate to engage politically would appear to be relevant.

One more thought on this, although it is more philosophical.  Christ actively engaged the local political establishment, the Pharisees and Sadducees, because it was His political establishment.  The Pharisees and Sadducees were active authorities in daily Jewish life and the citizens of Judea had the ability to participate, to a certain extent, with that leadership.  To engage the Roman establishment explicitly would have been to engage the political establishment of a foreign power.  Engaging the political establishment of a foreign power is a dicey and typically disastrous proposition.  Just look at the way Christians influenced a catastrophic law regulating homosexuality in Uganda or the way Franklin Graham supported the War in Iraq.

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