By Seth Vopat
November is here!
I am counting down the days until my mailbox will no longer be stuffed with the same negative jargon of competing political candidates. I cannot wait until our television will no longer be bombarded with repeated fear-mongering remarks of why the opposing candidate will bring an end to life as we know it.
This year my home state of Kansas has become a battleground state for the national scene. How do people function in other states which are regularly seen as places where the pendulum could shift in either direction depending on how much money is thrown into the races?
During this time of year one of the assumptions routinely made is on what side of the aisle Jesus would sit in Congress. More conservative and evangelical circles automatically assume Jesus is a Republican. Jesus is a Democrat in more liberal congregations of faith. I say assumption because it seems seldom is there room for dialogue about it anymore. The time and investment necessary for dialogue is hard to cultivate in a sound bite, overbooked, time starved culture.
The problem is these assumptions about where Jesus would stand draw from the same shallow pool as the idea that church would thrive if only we could get back to practicing church the way they did in the first century. Simply take first-century Jesus and place him in the 21st century. What Jesus said before translates into now.
W.W.J.D. sound familiar?
Simply taking Jesus’ words and inserting them in today’s context is like preparing and training to play baseball only to find out when you get to the field you are actually playing soccer. The rules are different. One game requires great eye hand coordination. The other requires quick footwork. One is broken into halves. The other is played by innings. One uses a net. he other requires bases. The games could not be more different.
I love the fact that government cannot dictate what I believe. Separation of church and state is something I strongly affirm and believe in. When I read the red letters in the Scripture my mind immediately goes to thinking about how they shape me spiritually.
This was clearly not the case in the first century.
When people heard what Jesus said they were not hearing a critique of the current religious practices of the day. They were also hearing a political critique. Jesus’ words were as political as much as they were religious. There was no separation of politics and religion. Caesar was both political leader and divine.
So often we like to conjure images of Jesus being the kid who comes on the playground and gets all the other kids to play nice with each other. But this clearly was not the case. Jesus didn’t carry enough military zeal for the Zealots. Jesus wasn’t interested in secluding himself from a compromised polytheistic Jerusalem like the Essenes. Jesus wasn’t comfortable with the rich and powerful Sadducees who were running the Temple. Even with the Pharisees he would come into disagreements.
Jesus clearly connected with pieces of the visions cast by these different Jewish religious/political groups, as can be seen by the calling of Simon the Zealot to be one of his disciples. However, none of these groups could fully contain Jesus’ vision.
This enmeshment of politics and religion in Jesus’ day should stir inside of us deep questions as Christians and our posture towards politics. Even Jesus’ closest disciples who walked with him on a daily basis were struggling with what exactly this profound mystery of the incarnation — divine and human bound together — meant for the way they lived life as they were faced with the question by Jesus:
“Who do you say that I am?”
Wrestling with Jesus’ words calls us to compassion and love toward our neighbors, even those we might want to dismiss quickly by trusting in labels and stereotypes. Jesus was familiar with labels in his own time — labels like sinner, Samaritan, adulteress, tax collector — and quickly moved past those to see the person made in his image, God’s image.
I have no doubt Jesus would call us to be good stewards.
Following Jesus requires us to let go of our assumptions that we can directly insert first century Jesus into the 21st. Instead, it will require us to spend time pondering and doing the tough work of dialoguing over issues which clearly are less than black and white.