Was Jesus a Liberal or a Conservative?

January 16, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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People love to claim Jesus.  This is especially true in the realm of politics.  At the beginning of the year, the Pew Research Center published a report about the faith commitments of those serving in Congress.  As it turns out, Congress is a very religious place:

The U.S. Congress is about as Christian today as it was in the early 1960s…Among members of the new, 115th Congress, 91% describe themselves as Christians. This is nearly the same percentage as in the 87th Congress (1961 to 1962, the earliest years for which comparable data are available), when 95% of members were Christian.

Among the 293 Republicans elected to serve in the new, 115th Congress, all but two identify as Christians…Democrats in Congress also are overwhelmingly Christian (80%).

In a society where people who claim Christianity are on the decline, the fact that so many members of Congress would continue to identify as “Christian” is worthy of our attention.  But claiming Christ is not always synonymous with following Christ.  Indeed, both of our nation’s two major political parties have had moments where their actions did not comport particularly well with Christ’s commands.

Regardless of what politicians and parties may say about Jesus or how they may represent Jesus, in His own day, Jesus demonstrated a persistent refusal to be co-opted by any political power.

In Matthew 22, the Sadducees come to Jesus with a question about a woman who had been married seven times to seven brothers.  Their question has to do with whose wife she will be at the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day: “At the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her” (Matthew 22:28)?  Sadly, their question is dripping with insincerity because the Sadducees did not even believe in the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day (cf. Acts 23:8).  They were too enlightened to believe in something so outlandish.  Another theological distinction of the Sadducees is that they accepted only the first five Old Testament books of Moses as canonical rather than the 39 books that other Jewish religious groups accepted.  Though I have no historical proof of this, I am pretty sure the Sadducees had these five books printed in red and called themselves “Red-Letter Jews,” claiming that the rest of the Old Testament canon did not really matter – only what Moses had written.  In today’s terms, the Sadducees would be aligned with theological liberals.

As Matthew 22 continues, on the heels of the Sadducees come the Pharisees.  If the Sadducees were the theological liberals of their day, the Pharisees would have been the theological conservatives.  They also have a question for Jesus: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law” (Matthew 22:36)?  This was a hotly debated theological question in the first century with no uniform answer.  More progressive teachers like Rabbi Hillel summarized the law like this: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary” (b. Shabbat 31a).  Other more conservative rabbis asserted that, because all Scripture is given by God, to try to distinguish between greater and lesser commandments in the Bible is foolish.  When the Pharisees present their question to Jesus about the law, they want to know whether He will answer liberally or conservatively.

Whether it is the Sadducees or Pharisees who approach Him, Jesus refuses to play according to their liberal and conservative assumptions.  Contra the liberal Sadducees, Jesus affirms the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:29-32).  And contra the conservative Pharisees, Jesus says there is indeed a greatest commandment, but it is much weightier than the one postulated by Rabbi Hillel.  One should not just avoid doing injury to someone else, one should actively love that other person in the same way he loves God Himself (Matthew 22:37-40).

Ultimately, the problem with both the Sadducees and Pharisees was this:  both groups were self-assured.  They were smug in their superiority and blinded by their own self-styled orthodoxies.   And because they were so sure of themselves, they never could quite be sure of Jesus.

Of course, there is a third group of people with whom Jesus interacts.  The Pharisees derisively refer to this group of people as “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11).  This group, however, out of all the groups of people with whom Jesus comes into contact, seems to get Him the best – not because the people in this group are so spiritually astute, but because they need an assurance they cannot find in themselves.  So they find it in Jesus.

Regardless of your political persuasion, Jesus asks us: “Are you so sure of yourself that you cannot find security in Me?  Are you so smug in your superiority that you cannot see the shamefulness of your own sin?”  In the Gospels, Jesus lays bare all those who trust in themselves, whether conservative or liberal.  He will not be co-opted.  But He can be trusted.  Where does your faith lie?  In you, or in Him?

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jon Trautman  |  January 16, 2017 at 8:54 am

    Really profound stuff here—thanks Zach!

    Reply

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