The Truth about the Historical Jesus? — Part 3

With all the excitement about Barack Obama’s pastor Rev. Wright in the news, perhaps it is timely to think about Jesus as a political messenger. It is often remarked that one indisputable fact about Jesus that provides a key to understanding him is his confrontation with the moneychangers at the Temple (Mark 11:15-19; Matt 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-22). You just can’t say enough, or can’t over emphasize the subject of “Jesus and Temple” is the scholarly view! Please let me take a little of your time then, to weigh in on this matter, which, I believe is a matter of Jesus’ politics. In Jesus’ day, confronting the Temple was not just an act of religious protest, it was an act of political protest! I believe the Temple incident was a conscious act of religio-political, self-imposed suffering on Jesus’ part.

Without the Temple incident, we might infer that Jesus’ mission and message was focused on long term religio-social consciousness raising. A mission and message intended to remind everyone of their responsibilities to heal society by creating a egalitarian world community that loves and helps however possible, the poor, the lost, the outcasts, the sick, the needy, etc..

But it is the confrontation at the Temple that reminds us that Jesus’ mission and message came to an end with an ideological fight. Jesus placed importance on dismantling the religio-political apparatus that oppressed the multitude. That is why he attacked the moneychangers! Up to this point in his life, you might conceivably believe that Jesus was focused only on the mental conversion of individual persons that he logically felt must precede structural change in society. Jesus admonished his followers to imagine an Imperial Rule of God — a new way of sharing spirituality and material goods with each other and thereby, living more happily in this world together. But when Jesus lost his cool and attacked the Temple’s moneychangers, it is clear that he was unprepared for the power struggle with the authorities that would take place afterwards. Suddenly, his mission and message came to a strange political end!

What in God’s name was Jesus thinking? Did he believe that he had enough popular support to carry on his mission of consciousness raising on behalf of the poor and the kingdom, so as to mitigate any consequences of his action? Empowered by his own unmatched ability as a successful faith healer, did he think some powerful intervention of God’s Imperial Rule would save him from the dire consequences of his action? Did he just not care about the consequences? Had he had enough of being a suffering servant of consciousness raising for Yahweh, so the attack on the moneychangers was his way of saying, “I am now willing to die by fully suffering for the Imperial Rule of God that I preach?” Or was Jesus surprised by this crucial moment that brought about his death and by the silence of God in stopping it from happening?

We will never know what he was thinking. My own gut feeling is that his sense of religio-political rage got the better of him that day. It seems that shortly after the event at the Temple, Jesus began to teach his followers that his kingly mission for making the world a better place through consciousness raising was going to fail. Only God could bring the kingdom. At this point, Jesus seems to have begun teaching that he was an other-worldly, suffering servant, heir to a spiritual kingdom that he already glimpsed in his reading and thinking about the scriptures, and in thinking about the prophets of old most dear to him. He was now going to be killed for his political act against the Temple. If the purpose of his parables was indeed to haunt us into remaking a better world based on ridiculously radical love, then perhaps Jesus was haunted all along, knowing, especially after John the Baptist’s murder, that murder would be his fate too, just like the legends he knew about the murderous fate of many prophets before him.

Thus, I think it reasonable to believe that the Gospels tell us the true story of his days of passion. Jesus really did say sorrowfully, “Let her alone. Let her keep it (the thick nard upon my feet) for the day of my burial. The poor will always be with you ” (John 12:7-8), when a woman named Mary (Magdalene?) anointed his feet. Was Judas Iscariot so upset and resentful at Jesus giving himself up for burial, that he betrayed Jesus by telling the authorities this idiot thinks he is a king? If Judas betrayed anything, it must have been Jesus’ kingly secret that he only taught the disciples in private. After all, the sign above Jesus’ head read “KING OF THE JEWS”, a mockery of a now martyred, forsaken, political agitator. The question, “Are you a king?” Was superfluous to Jesus. In Jungian psychological terms of course Jesus was a king! He had a transpersonal authority (a king within) that enabled him to re-imagine the world anew, without any need for the hollow and shallow blindness of traditions. Jesus held to a radical love ethic that required protest, the mark of every religious progressive. This alone made him a king.

The political evidence that Jesus taught his followers to think of themselves as a new extended family that took care of each other’s needs is overwhelming. It was seen as madness. In the economic sense, Jesus lived in a religio-political, social group that shared everything from a common fund according to need. Jesus’ manifesto was, politically considered an extremely socialist manifesto. It redefined family as a group that shared everything and the leader served all in the group without any greed at all! In the end, we are faced with the blunt fact that Jesus attacked because he was angry at the moneychangers for ripping off the faithful poor, who could not afford the exchange for bathing and sacrificing, while the Temple rulers got richer and richer.

The political understanding of Jesus did not die with him! In the early Post-Easter period, it was blasphemous not to share, or ignore the poor within your group (1 Cor 11:17-34; James 2:2-9). If you did so, you were betraying the central political idea of Jesus’ mission and message. Consider also, the authentic political vision of Acts:

“Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, for they had everything in common….There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid them at the apostle’s feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32; 34-35).

Ultimately, I believe there is no escaping the fact that Jesus consciously made himself a suffering servant against political greed, because of his sincere hope for the betterment of human politics on the one hand, or the Imperial Rule of God on the other hand. These ends were one and the same to Jesus. When he gave it all away to the mystery of kingdom and love for the poor, he laughed and said, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt 6:3 = Thomas 62). This saying was probably remembered because it was another instance of Jesus’ sense of humor!

(Note: The subject of Jesus’ sense of humor is for another article. I think this is important. Jesus must have had a good sense of humor; otherwise he would not have been as popular and remembered! Some of the sayings that seem so solemn and serious were probably jokes Jesus told, or at least things he said with a playful smile and twinkle in his eye. Just as we today remember something someone says if it strikes us as peculiar, or heart-warming in some way).

I believe TCPC stands in a political place of radical love, which would have made Jesus happy.

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