I’m currently reading The Politics of Jesus by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. It was published in 2006, but it seems to apply as much today as it did 13 years ago.
There are many nuggets in this book, especially in the first chapter. The section that caught my attention is on the prophets and their impact on Jesus.
Prophets would have had a significant impact on Jesus and his view of the world – especially his politics. Politics is a word loaded with much meaning. Often it is misunderstood. The politics of Jesus’ time wasn’t the same as the politics of our own. There were no Republican or Democrat parties in those days. There were no political parties at all. There was no America, and certainly no American ideals to be fought over. The idea of democracy, or any type of democratic ideal was not something that the average person would have known or thought about. All Jesus, and the people of the region would have known was subjugation by the Roman empire.
And it is with this foundation, that Jesus would have heard the prophets and their message.
Prophets had a particular roll in Scripture and in society. “Prophetic speech is characterized by two elements: an overwhelming sense of an encounter with God and a message of moral and political judgement that the prophet feels divinely compelled to proclaim, particularly to those in political authority.” (pg. 28)
More to the point, “…the primary purpose of biblical prophecy is to effect social and political change in society.” (Pg. 28). So much for the modern idea of keeping religion out of politics. That of course is a new concept too. Prophets of old were often heard by the kings and rulers of the ancient world for advice. Kings either listened or had prophets killed, depending on how well they liked the message.
So what did prophets prophesy about? Many things. The key here though is that these prophetic words still apply today. Humanity hasn’t changed all that much in thousands of years.
“They prophesied against unfair use of laws that ‘with a word make a man out to be guilty…and with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice.’ (Isaiah 29:21),” (Pg. 29)
“They stormed against corrupt economic policies: ‘Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,/ and his upper rooms by injustice;/ who makes his neighbors work for nothing/ and does not give them their wages…/ But your eyes and heart/ are only on your dishonest gain.’ (Jeremiah 22:13, 17),” (Pg. 29)
“They were outraged by gross dishonesty in the marketplace and the seeking of profits regardless of human cost: ‘Hear this, you that trample on the needy,/ and bring to ruin the poor of the land,/ saying,…We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,/ and practice deceit with false balances.’ (Amos 8:4-5),” (pg. 29-30)
“They even issued denunciations of political corruption and warmongering that could be spoken in our day: ‘Your princes are rebels/ and companions of thieves./ Everyone loves a bribe/ and runs after gifts.’ (Isaiah 1:23), and ‘Its officials withing it are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain.’ (Ezekiel 22:27),” (Pg. 30)
Did you notice a theme in these things and Scriptures? Justice, or rather injustice. Prophets speak out against injustice because it goes against God’s will. It doesn’t matter if that injustice is taking place through politics or economic means. Often, the two were and are tied together.
“…the purpose of biblical prophecy is never personal comfort or self-aggrandizement. Nor were the prophets’ proclamations ever directed solely against the personal habits of rulers; their primary targets were always the practices and policies that exploited and oppressed those the rulers were supposed to serve. In a word, prophets took their stand against abuses of power, not personal missteps or weaknesses.” (pg. 31).
Prophetic speaking still has a place today for this exact reason. Speaking prophetically isn’t about the individual and the personal. Instead, it is about the community as a whole. It is about unjust policies and practices.
Prophetic speaking is a rejection of bad theologies carried out in practice. Unjust policies and practices are just as much theology as they are anything else. Policies and practices are founded in beliefs and belief systems – beliefs about the world and God and the relationship between the two. Theologies answer the question – does God care what we do? Is God active and alive? Does God get any consideration?
Prophets answer these questions with God being the foundation. False prophets put other things as the foundation.
“How can a false prophet be identified? There are two telltale criteria: (1) they are silent about issues of social justice, and (2) they function as uncritical supporters of rulers and politicians, rather than as their moral conscious and dedicated arbiters of biblical justice. Instead of challenging political regimes – and all earthly regimes need to be continually challenged to do right – false prophets either align themselves with them or say nothing at all.” (pg. 31).
Being a false prophet is easy. It’s popular. Speaking with a prophetic voice is not. Prophets and those who speak with a prophetic voice usually end up dead because they upset the status quo and expose unjust systems and rulers as being unjust. Those that are practicing unjust practices usually don’t like to be exposed for this.
So how did all of this impact Jesus? “Like the prophets, Jesus does not condemn the rich per se, but those who gain or maintain their riches through unjust means: theft, subterfuge, exploitation, greed, stinginess, and especially violence.” (Pg. 33).
This is an important point. It’s not money that is the root of all kinds of evil, but rather the love of money that is. Jesus was influenced by the prophets who were opposed to unjust practices. In other words, Jesus was opposed to using wealth and power wrongly – in efforts that dehumanized, oppressed, or exploited people.
So what does this mean for us?
“Every minister’s prophetic duty as a servant of the God of the Exodus is to bring good news to the poor and deliverance to the oppressed, not to bow to the desires of those in power simply because they are in power. One witnesses the chumminess of today’s religious leaders with those in authority and wonders if these leaders realize that by catering to the powers that be they compromise their solemn prophetic responsibility and assume the role of false prophets.” (Pg. 33)
This is true not just for ministers, but for all people who claim the mantle as followers of Jesus.
The world was much different in 2006, when The Politics of Jesus was written. But every word of this applies just as much today as it did then.