Man of the People

References: Mark 11:35-44, Psalm 146

If we step back from our modern perspective of Jesus, seasoned by two millennia of history and analysis, can we see Jesus as contemporaries saw him? Difficult as it is to walk in the moccasins (sandals?) of those from long ago and far away, it does help to understand the conversation in the New Testament.

Palestinian Jews at the time, and for at least several centuries previously, were taught that a messiah was to be expected, who would save Israel and restore her people. For some time, Palestine, along with much of the known world, had also been occupied by the Roman Empire. Many Jews made their peace with that, and were economic migrants to a variety of cities throughout the Empire, and more or less integrated into the culture and politics of the Roman world. It is analogous to Irish history, where Irish people emigrated to the far corners of the earth and even to the heart of England, the nation occupying them. Yet even while adjusting to the political and economic realities, many Irish kept alive the hope that a free and independent Ireland would emerge at some point. In the case of First Century Jews, it was the hope that the promised messiah would be the leader who could throw off the Roman yoke. That included all those who oppressed them locally both economically and politically, especially the rather significant number of Jews who thrived in the environment of a Roman occupied Palestine.

When the rumors began flying that the messiah had arrived, the populace was rapt with anticipation. Soon the Roman yoke would be overthrown by the righteous armies of God, as in the good old days. God would again bless Israel and his people would be in power. The crowds who flocked to see Jesus were motivated by the thought. When some were cured of various health issues by Jesus, this was seen as proof that he was truly the messiah and had God’s blessing. Jesus’ ultimate entry into Jerusalem can be seen against this background.

The story in the passage from Mark noted above reflects what is happening. The people throng and when Jesus challenges the “establishment” they are delighted, Mark says. We are witnessing a populist rally, crowded with folks fed up with the arrogance, privilege, wealth and lifestyle of those in power. Nor does Jesus disappoint them with his comments about the obnoxious, prideful and generally outrageous behavior of the upper class. Further, he notes that a poor widow offering pennies out of her poverty is to be admired much more than the large and ostentatious gifts of the rich. The crowd around Jesus could almost taste the imminent revolution which would take down all these despicable people.

So, we can certainly understand the shock and bitter disappointment when, less than a week after his triumphal entry into the capitol, Jesus is arrested and swiftly executed. The expectations of the people were false. Jesus indeed condemns the selfish, ostentatious, hypocritical and arrogant. But his solutions to the needs of the people lie elsewhere than in violent revolution and yet another attempt at political utopia.

Soon we will be singing “Come thou long expected Jesus.” Perhaps it is a good time to ask what it is we are expecting. Jesus makes clear his revolution is one of restoration of the love relationship between God and his people. Jesus has no intention of trying to restore the political kingdom of Old Testament Israel. His new agreement or covenant, New Testament, is in an entirely different direction than political power or military might. Such human activities are always tainted with our sin, often ending up with consequences far different from those of the loving salvation and mutual love of neighbor characteristic of God’s Kingdom. Already centuries before Jesus, the Psalmist warns, “Put not your trust in princes” because they cannot save you (Ps. 146:3). The axiom applies to elected modern “princes” as well, whether Democratic or Republican.

Yet the history of Christianity is replete with those who expected Jesus to bless all sorts of political and military efforts. In the many European centuries of nations of Christians warring against each other, both sides confidently requested “God bless our troops.” The expectation of the Crusades was that those warriors were following the call of God into battle and conquest. Many Americans routinely expect Jesus is “on our side,” riding into battle against whatever foe “du jour” our government has identified. Likewise, over many centuries of Christian ascendancy, the Church defined success in power terms, the ability to control and dominate governments and peoples alike. Power replaced persuasion as the mission tool of the Church. Many still expect Jesus to come and restore the power. Indeed, efforts such as the legislative goals of the “Pro-Life” movement seek to short-circuit persuasion and love and simply power through legislative and punitive action.

If your hope and expectation is a Jesus who comes to smite, legislate and punish, be careful what you wish for. Most of us resemble the long-robed lawyers much more than the poor widow. Those who plead with God to administer justice usually add an unspoken exception for themselves. Their hope is punishment for their enemies, mercy for themselves. If you indeed ask for God to come and apply divine justice, you are asking for your own condemnation.

Populist movements come and go. They are exciting, and they arise from injustice and imbalance among peoples. Cesar Chavez, the great leader of farmworkers commented, “The poor have something the rich can never have: the justice of their cause.” From there, however, it can go sideways. Not many leaders share the devout Christian faith of Cesar Chavez. And populist movements are often captured by those who cynically use the energy of the movement to simply further their own selfish goals and often oppress others in the process. “Put not your trust in princes.”

The Lord has given us the gift of a beautiful and nourishing planet to have as our garden. He has given us our neighbors to help us in our stewardship of his earth. We, his humble servants, are empowered to do his will. That was the Lord’s hope. The expectations of 21st century mankind are closer to the first century Palestinians. Even after all the misery caused by human sin, so many still yearn to smite others, stomp on the enemy, be that another nation, another religion, another ethnicity, or just a bunch of poor people trying to escape from a hellish place, where the princes lording it over them have created societies far from Jesus.

The confusion caused by flawed expectations of Jesus continues to this day. It is difficult to put the blame on Jesus. The Gospels overflow with his expectations to the contrary. Nowhere does he call for overthrowing any government. Rather, he stresses that his followers should accept civil authority. Nowhere does he promote smiting your enemies. Rather, he repeatedly promotes the idea of loving them. As discussed last week, the Beatitudes, his ethical guidelines, outline a path of humility and love.

You and I cannot forbid others from following a god of smiting, political salvation, human division and tribal rule, a god who appears to be the image of fallen man. But we need to point out that his name is not Jesus Christ. If some would seek the real God, the real Jesus Christ, the real Man of the People, access to that information is readily available in the Gospels.