Approaching politics, religion, money like Jesus
By Dr. Jeffrey A. Johnson
Three taboos of courteous conversation are politics, religion and money. Surprisingly, the last week in the earthly life of Jesus (Palm Sunday to Good Friday) included all three — and all three in abundance. Actually, at times, one fed into the other. Or one might say that one was in cahoots with the others.
Each of the gospels devotes a large portion of its writings to those seven sequential days in Jesus’ life. Obviously that time period is considered important. It’s a third of Mark (11–16), a third of Matthew (21–28), a quarter of Luke (19–24), and nearly half of John (12–20).
During that week were examples of political domination, religious illegitimacy and societal exploitation, in which the few controlled so much and so many. Jesus confronted each several times. No less is this true than Thursday evening to Friday morning, when Jesus was shuffled from the residences of Pilate, Caiaphas and Herod. Each institutional leader attempted to point out His deficiencies. Jesus made evident their hypocrisies.
Politically. As Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east with humility and simplicity on a donkey, Pilate came into the city from the west on a steed with all the pomp and circumstance his office afforded him. Clearly, there were competing views of “kingdom” for the Romans, the religious leaders, Jesus’ disciples, the crowd and for Jesus himself. Jesus made clear the kingdom was so much more and other than what people imagined.
A leader asked Jesus if the Jews should pay taxes to Rome. If Jesus said “yes,” he would be viewed as a sympathizer to the occupiers. If Jesus said “no,” he would be seen as an anarchist. His words had to be chosen carefully. He asked for a denarius, the coin of taxation. In response to Jesus’ request, a leader instinctively reached into his robe and pulls one out. That one act turned the tables. No graven images of real persons, mythological deities, nor even animals were permitted within the temple complex where this dialogue occurred. Jesus asked, “Whose image is that on the coin?” People standing around realized what had just happened. Here was an individual trying to incriminate Jesus but, instead, incriminates himself by carrying into the temple a coin that depicted the emperor, who was seen as a god. Jesus stated that the government is to be respected but not revered, and its leaders definitely not worshipped.
Religiously. According to temple rules and regulations, a sacrifice that was brought to the city had to be examined over the course of five days to ensure it had neither faults nor flaws (Exodus 12:5). During this week, Jesus was tested by the religious leaders on a handful of different matters at a handful of different times, examining “the Lamb” to ensure perfection, without blemish (I Peter 1:19). Jesus pointed out that religious leaders had the right beliefs, but, sadly, that didn’t play out in righteous actions. They had a solid orthodoxy but a hollow orthopraxy. They said one thing but did another. We aren’t to follow their example.
The money changers exchanged unaccepted coinage at payday-loan rates — one of the reasons Jesus chased them out of the temple a second time. The sacrifice sellers marketed animals bearing the system’s exclusive stamp of approval, causing exorbitant prices. These individuals took advantage of other individuals who needed to fulfill their religious obligations but now had to do so at marked-up percentages. People who were already in debt to sin now were indebted by the system.
Jesus’ crucifixion was the culmination of a week’s worth of examples of the corruptness of individuals and institutions. Systems are broken because the people that lead them are broken. It is the reason that Jesus said, “This is my Body, broken for you” (broken for yourselves and your systems). Jesus’ ultimate and substitutionary sacrifice was to redeem both because neither could do so on its own.
Socio-economically. Jesus valued the widow society viewed as a throwaway. Systems are judged by their care of the marginalized. The widow gave sacrificially. Jesus acknowledged the worth of her gift but, more importantly, affirmed the worth of her humanity. Here we are — 2,000 years later — continuing to reference her. That’s worth something!
Another woman anointed Jesus in the home of a healed leper. Her character was not questioned, but her conduct was. Someone asked the reason that the expensive oil was not sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Maybe instead of giving a check to the poor, we should check in with the poor. Instead of doing ministry to the poor, we should do ministry with the poor, as they have something to contribute as well.
Just like Jesus did, we should speak into the hypocrisies and injustices of each system. People see them. We should name them. A widow is living in poverty in the shadow of the gilded temple. How can we justify one out of 10 people (half of whom are children) living in poverty in the most prosperous nation in the world? A woman is seen as a fanatic for Jesus. In a country that calls itself Christian — the only nation on this planet that does so — why are we the third largest unchurched/non-professing Christian nation in the world? A Palm Sunday crowd shouts for a new reality, different from the past. Why, in a country that claims freedom for all, are voices silenced? They are made out to be the enemy. They are vilified. They are crucified.
Just as Jesus addressed hypocrisies and injustices in only one week, we should do so now continually. Actually, how else do you think he speaks to such matters today, except through us? That one week was seven days that changed forever!
Dr. Jeffrey A. Johnson is American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ national coordinator of Evangelism and New Church Planting.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.