Monday, September 6, 2010

How Jesus made everyone mad: first century politics and the sermon on the mount

What Jesus' first hearers probably most remembered from the sermon on the mount was Jesus' unambiguous repudiation of the political ideals of virtually all of his contemporaries.  His references to first century politics probably provoked the same sort of emotional responses as Vietnam war protesters caused in conservative Americans.

Politics, theology, and moral issues have always been tightly intertwined in the middle east, and political opinions were determined by theology.  Most of us are aware that Jews of that day believed that God would achieve his purposes by reestablishing a kingdom very much like David's.  Most of the first century Jews probably thought that this had almost happened with the Maccabees in the second century BC.  After the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV attempted to exterminate the Israelite religion, there was a revolt in which the Jews repeatedly defeated apparently superior Greek forces, and eventually created an independent kingdom and restored worship in the temple.  However, within a generation or two, it became clear that the Hasmonean rulers (the successors of the Maccabees) were not reestablishing God's kingdom, despite God's evident blessing on the Maccabees' military operations; they were just as corrupt as any non-Jewish rulers.  (Besides, they never even pretended to be from the line of David.)  A century after the creation of the Jewish state, it was ended when the Roman general Pompey intervened in a Jewish civil war between the Saducees and the Pharisees (each favored a different Hasmonean brother; the Pharisees were fighting against blatant Hasmonean corruption).

But of course the dream of the kingdom lived on, because God's promises could not be false.  If the Maccabees were not God's kingdom builders, then someone like them would come and do the job right.  In first century Judaism in Palestine, you could either (1) compromise with the Romans and abandon the Jewish hope of the kingdom, or (2) you could live in expectation of the time when God would call his people to fight against the Romans.  Option 1 (abandoning the kingdom) was chosen by those Jews who abandoned the covenant entirely (some even tried to remove the marks of circumcision).  Others like Herod and his followers did not go so far as to embrace paganism fully, but lived as if God had no plan that had any bearing on the present.  Others perverted the Jewish hope into something more acceptable to the pagan world; for example, the renegade Jew Josephus in his later years argued that God had decided that his kingdom would be brought about through Roman rule.  All of these were considered traitors to the people and the covenant.  Option 2 (living in expectation of the kingdom) also had many variations (Essenes, Pharisees, hard-core Zealots); there was much disagreement about how the kingdom would come and who would lead it, but there was no disagreement that the eventual solution would be military.  Some of these groups were already preparing for war, while others were just praying and waiting expectantly.  At that point in history, there was no third option--until Jesus.

The sermon on the mount is Jesus' kingdom agenda, where he announces in systematic form what his plan for the kingdom is.  Jesus gives the sermon "on the mountain", which is a clear reference to Moses receiving the law on the mountain.  What we have here is a new giving of the law.  The old law started with the "ten words", which are nine commandments; there are nine statements of blessing in the sermon on the mount.   (Why nine, you may ask, when everyone always is talking about 10 commandments?  In Hebrew, the decalogue is never called the "ten commandments", it is called the "ten words".  It is really one introductory word--"I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt"--and 9 commandments.  Christians have misunderstood this, and attempted to divide them so that there are 10 commandments; but we don't even agree on the divisions.  Catholics and some Lutherans treat "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" (Deut. 5:21a) as a different commandment from "You shall not covet your neighbor's house, or field, or ..." (Deut. 5:21b), which feels like an arbitrary distinction.  Also it is not supported by the text; the account in Exodus 20 does not permit this division since the order of things we are not to covet is different.  Non-catholics treat "You shall have no other gods before me" as a separate commandment from "You shall not make for yourself an idol," which in the ancient world would have been indistinguishable.)  Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said to them of old... but I say to you...".  The old law concluded with blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 27-28); the new law also concludes with blessings and curses (7:24-27).  At the end, the people are amazed because Jesus speaks as one with authority, unlike the other Jewish teachers of his day (7:28-29), who were always citing earlier sages, trying to be faithful to the oral tradition which they believed came from Moses.  Jesus does not respect the oral tradition (and in fact in other places in the gospels he plainly says that pieces of it are wrong); he is the new lawgiver, and does not need to appeal to Moses' authority filtered down through the stream of tradition.

In the rest of the sermon, Jesus emphatically affirms the Jewish hope in the promises to Abraham, but just as emphatically he rejects the plan of the Zealots, too.  Using the words of Psalm 37:11, Jesus reaffirms God's promise to give the land to his people--but not to the Zealots who were fighting for it: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."  (Note that in the New Testament, the "land" has turned into the whole earth--see for example Romans 4:13.  This is not inconsistent with the Old Testament, since the giving of the land and Israel's authority over the nations was understood even then as a beginning of the restoration of the entire creation, which is to be ruled by a descendant of Adam who would faithfully carry out the commission to Adam to rule.)  Jesus reaffirms God's mercy on the Jews--but not on those whose ambition was to kill the Romans: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."  Jesus reaffirms God's special relationship with Israel ("Israel is my firstborn son," Exodus 4:22-23; speaking of Israel's king, he says, "I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son," 2 Samuel 7:14)--but not with those who are for waging war against the Romans: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God." This is again in line with Old Testament teaching. In discussing the promise of sonship for David's descendants, 1 Chronicles 22:8-10 says that David was not allowed to build the temple because he was a man of blood, but his son Solomon, whose name means "man of peace", would build it.

Other parts of the sermon touch on the same theme.  "Do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also....  And if anyone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles."   This is a clear reference to the Roman rule that soldiers could compel natives to help them carry their pack (which could weigh 70 lbs) for one mile.  "Judge not, that you be not judged."  "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun to shine on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust."  This does not sound like what the heroic Maccabees did, or what most Jews in the first century were hoping to do.  Jesus has a different conception of God than they had. He tells us that we can infer from God's actions that God must be patient and kind to his enemies, so we ought to be the same way.  No one else before him seems to have drawn this conclusion from God's behavior, though it is hinted by some Old Testament passages such as the book of Jonah.

Throughout the rest of his career, Jesus consistently poured cold water on the dreams of the zealots.  This can be seen in many places in his teachings and parables, if we look for it.  (The best discussion of this I have seen is scattered through N.T. Wright's series of books beginning with The New Testament and the People of God.)  Several short examples of this:
  • In his debates with the Pharisees, he says, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."  This passage has a number of subtleties, but no one could possibly miss the message that he endorsed paying taxes to Rome.
  • When they tell him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (Lk. 13:1-5), he tells them, "You must repent, or you will likewise perish."  By "likewise", he presumably means by falling masonry (like those on whom the tower of Siloam fell) and Roman swords (the ones whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices)--which is what happened.  Here Jesus calls his countrymen to repent of their sinful attitudes which would lead to the disastrous revolution.
  • In his discourse on the destruction of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24 and parallels), he warns his followers not to follow the false messiahs in revolt against Rome.  Instead, he says, when you see the armies coming, run, don't stay and fight.
  • In Gethsemane, when Peter starts attacking the soldiers, Jesus renounces this kind of violence to further his kingdom, and tells Peter, "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword."  In other words, if you act like the Zealots, you will die like them.
If I had imbibed from early childhood the Jewish hope of finally being free from Roman rule, restoring self rule, and reestablishing the kingdom promised to David, I would think that Jesus was being a traitor to the Jewish cause.  He was advocating compromise with the Romans!  He was unpatriotic!  He was undermining Jewish resistance!  He proclaimed God's forgiveness to the traitors!  He said that God would destroy the temple, the most important symbol of God being with his people!

Jesus demanded that they choose between his concept of the kingdom, and theirs; and they did choose.  They chose the way of the insurrectionist Barabbas rather than Jesus' way.  So, ironically, they worked together with the evil Roman oppressors to eliminate him.  They were hoping that crucifying him would completely discredit him as Messiah (that's why they did not just lynch him, as they did to Stephen).

What was ultimately discredited, however, was the first century Jewish concept of the kingdom.  Within forty years of Jesus' death, God confirmed Jesus' judgment of the Jewish revolutionary movements, when the Romans crushed the Jewish revolution by A.D. 70.  Even if you did not believe Jesus, you could not possibly argue that God supported the revolutionary movement which had ended in such a fiasco.  Still the Jews clung to the hope of a physical kingdom that dominated the Gentiles, so God apparently showed the same thing again, more emphatically, in A.D. 135.  In A.D. 132, Simon bar Kokhba led a full scale revolt, triggered by Emperor Hadrian's plans to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman (pagan) city.  It took the Romans 3 years of very difficult fighting, but they eventually crushed the Jews even more brutally than in A.D. 70.  The majority of the Jewish population in Judea was killed, enslaved, or deported.  Hadrian prohibited the Torah and the calendar and attempted to execute Jewish scholars, and Jews were not permitted even to enter Jerusalem until 438 AD.  He changed the name of the province from "Judea" to "Palestine" (Latin for "Philistia", after the Philistines, the ancient enemies of the Jews).  The center of Jewish learning and culture was no longer in Judea; it was in Galilee for a while, and, ironically, it later shifted back to Babylon, where there was still a thriving Jewish community.  Given the history of the covenant, it was hard not to see the destruction of the temple and the ejection from the land as a second exile, caused by the revolutionaries.  Thus until modern Zionism, Judaism abandoned the concept of literal possession of the land, and turned instead to other markers of the covenant (keeping the law).

Jesus said as the conclusion to the sermon on the mount, "Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed."  They attempted to build a kingdom on something other than Jesus' words, and so the house they were trying to build did come down with a great crash.

So what exactly was wrong with the first century Jewish view of the kingdom?  Wasn't it written in the scriptures that the Jews were to have the land, and to dominate the nations?  What could be wrong with wanting that to be fulfilled?  Isn't that exactly what Joshua did in the conquest?  And why does Jesus choose to antagonize his hearers by speaking so directly about this?  I hope to deal with these questions in a subsequent post.