Make no mistake: the Gospel is political.
Politics refers to “the affairs of the city” and “influencing other people on a civic or individual level.”
Throughout his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is political. He influences people to live into the Kingdom of Heaven. For Jesus, Heaven is not essentially some place off in the distance where you go after you die. No, Heaven is a way of life to be lived right here, right now. We see this clearly in the prayer he taught his disciples:
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey on Palm Sunday, he was performing a political act. But it was a political act unlike any other.
Let’s contrast the politics of Jesus with the politics of Rome. Rome spread its Gospel, its “good news,” in a very deliberate way. As Fr. John Dear points out,
We’re so used to that word “Gospel,” that it’s lost its original meaning. But in those days, when the Roman empire went off and conquered another land in the name of their god Caesar, and killed all the men, raped all the women, and destroyed all the homes, the soldiers would come back parading through the land announcing “the Gospel according to Caesar,” the Good News of the latest victory of Caesar, that another land has been conquered for their god Caesar, and that Caesar’s enemies have been killed.
The Gospel is political. I don’t want to pick on ancient Rome because ancient Roman politics was essentially like the politics of every other nation. We influence other people through power, coercion, and violence.
In spreading its Gospel, Rome was spreading the Pax Romana. Rome genuinely believed that it was spreading peace and its method for spreading peace was violence. They praised their gods that the enemies of Roman Peace had been killed.
That’s the politics of Rome.
But that’s not the politics of Jesus.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus revealed an alternative way of being political. A political ruler’s entry into a city was of great importance in the ancient world. Roman rulers would enter a city on a war horse to show power and domination. Jesus rode on a donkey. Indeed, this was to fulfill the ancient prophecy of Zechariah, which Matthew quotes:
Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The large crowd spread their cloaks on the ground and waved their palm branches as they shouted “Hossana to the Son of David.” The Jewish Annotated New Testament states that the cloaks and palm branches were meant “to connect Jesus to the kingship of Israel.” The term “Son of David” was also a clear messianic reference that hoped for a new political ruler, but just what kind of king was Jesus? Matthew gives a hint. Many today might accuse Matthew of playing fast and loose with his quote from Zechariah 9:9-10:
Shout aloud, O daughter Zion!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Notice that Matthew omits that the king will be “triumphant and victorious.” Was Matthew lazy? Did he just forget?
No, Matthew was deliberate. He knew that Jesus was a different kind of king and that the Kingdom of Heaven is a different kind of politics. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was revealing that the reign of God is in stark contrast to the reign of Rome and every other political system that seeks triumphant victory by influencing people through violence and coercion.
The Gospel of Jesus is different. This Gospel is the politics of humility, service, forgiveness, and a nonviolent love that embraces all people, but especially those we call our enemies.
Tragically, we tend to live by the politics of Rome, not the politics of Jesus. Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, American or Russian, whenever we seek to influence others through coercion and violence, we are following the politics of Rome.
Fortunately, Jesus revealed the alternative. He called it “The Kingdom of God.” It’s a political way of life based not on triumphant violence, but rather humble service. The politics of Jesus makes sure everyone has daily bread, it seeks to forgive debts and sins, it avoids the temptation to commit evil against our neighbors, and it calls us into a life of forgiveness.
But this is risky. We know that the politics of Jesus led him to Good Friday, where he suffered and died. And yet he stayed true to the Kingdom of God, speaking words of forgiveness even as he was murdered. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
This is not just a call to a personal ethic; this is a political ethic. Indeed, the politics of Jesus seeks to influence our personal lives, but it also seeks to influence our political lives. Wherever personal or political systems use violence, power, and coercion to be triumphant and victorious, Jesus beckons us to follow him into a different kind of politics – into the Kingdom of God that lives and dies by love, service, and forgiveness.