2.2.5 Just government: (3) Jesus

Back to 2.2.4

Unit 2 Contents

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At the start of the page giving ‘An outline of biblical history’ (2.2.2), I quoted from Unit 1’s introduction to Christian faith (1.2.1):

Christian faith is in God.

The central claim of Christian faith is that God is love and that God has freely chosen to reveal his love in the world. God has done this in a special way, namely in a particular history.

That introduction summarized this ‘special way’ in three bullet points.  The first of these was to do with ancient Israel, which we have just been looking at.  The second was this:

  • God has revealed his own being supremely in a human person, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the unique Son of God. Jesus of Nazareth lived on earth 2000 years ago, a member of the people of Israel. We learn about Jesus through the New Testament, especially the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

We now come to the New Testament, and so to Jesus.  As we begin, look again at that outline (2.2.2), focusing on the events from 588-587BCE onwards.

After their exile to Babylon in 587, the people of Judah began to return to their homeland in the later part of that century.  It was by this time, and in part through being exiled in a foreign land, that they had become widely known by the name Yehudim, which means ‘people of Judah’.  This is the Hebrew word from which, many centuries later, the English words ‘Jew’ and ‘Judaism’ came into use.  Therefore it is accurate in historical terms to refer to the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as ‘the Jewish people’ from around the time of the Exile.

After the people returned to Judaea, however, they were not politically free and independent.  They remained under the control of two external empires – the Persians followed by the Greeks – for nearly 400 years, through to about 160BCE.  Then they had about 100 years of independent Jewish rule, under the Hasmonean dynasty.  But this came to an end when the Romans took control of Judaea and neighbouring areas in 63BCE.

Two decades after this, in 40BCE, the Romans installed a nominally Jewish king in Judea, called Herod.  This “king of the Jews”, who became known as Herod the Great, had sons who continued his dynasty.1. One of them, Herod Antipas, ruled Galilee during the time of Jesus’ ministry.  However neither Herod the Great nor his sons had independence of Rome, and they had little concern with maintaining distinctive Jewish identity, overcoming injustice and poverty in Israel, or promoting faithfulness to the Torah.  One of their major interests was in massive building projects, including a rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple on a vast scale.

When Jesus appeared on the scene, therefore, the Israelites had been under the control of the Roman Empire combined with the Herodian dynasty for about 70 years.  Behind this, there were 500 years of frustrated aspiration for freedom and for restoration of an independent monarchy – of which the Hasmonean era had given a taste.

This background is very significant for understanding Jesus.

Recall that the question we are still addressing on this screen is: what should government do?  On the face of it, there is much less about this directly in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Scriptures.  But what there is has been very significant for how the Church has thought about politics and government – and so for what we find in CST on these subjects.

To begin to understand this, we need to go back to what you have already learned about the main message which Jesus proclaimed.  That was in 1.2.2, entitled, ‘The Christian Gospel: God Saves’.

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Reflection

Can you recall the central message that Jesus announced?

If you need to, have another look at 1.2.2.

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Against the background of several decades of Roman and Herodian domination, Jesus announced the ‘good news’ that the ‘reign of God’ is coming!

That is how Mark’s Gospel sums up his message (Mark 1:15).  It is easy to see that this was an explosive announcement.  If God’s reign, or kingship, was coming, the existing regime must be on the way out.  This is no doubt how many would have heard Jesus’ proclamation.

Moreover, in Luke’s Gospel, the start of Jesus’ ministry is described in even more dramatic terms (as we saw in 1.2.2 also).  He stood up in the synagogue in his home town and proclaimed the arrival of the year of jubilee that the Torah spoke about – as you now know (Leviticus 25; see 2.2.3).  He did so by quoting the prophet Isaiah’s reference to that special year, when there would be release for the captives and freedom for the oppressed in “the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61).

So God’s kingship was coming, in which what the Torah had called for and the prophets had promised would finally become a reality.

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Reflection

Can you see why Jesus’ announcement of the coming of God’s reign would have been heard as challenging the rule of Herod Antipas and of Rome?

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Let us unpack Jesus’ message about God’s reign a bit more.

Many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially several Psalms, make very clear that the Israelites’ faith was that their God, Jahweh, was the supreme king.  “Jahweh is king! Let the earth rejoice!” says Ps. 97.  Pss 93 and 95-99 are together known as the ‘royal psalms’ because they all emphasize God’s kingship.

When studying the vision of an ideal king in the Hebrew Scriptures on the last screen, we didn’t give attention to that background to it.  But the connection is pretty straightforward: the role of Israel’s earthly king was to mediate God’s perfectly just kingship to the people.  So the earthly king represented God’s rule.

This means that talk of the ‘coming of God’s kingship’ would have been heard as promising restoration of the Israelites’ earthly monarchy – the throne of David.  What could ‘God’s reign’ mean in practice unless it was mediated to the people through a real, flesh-and-blood king, a son of David, who would represent Jahweh properly?

We are interested in the question: what, according to the New Testament, is the role of government?  On the face of it, Jesus’ message seemed to promise a restoration of the Israelite monarchy in the ideal form portrayed in the Old Testament texts we studied on the last screen, such as Psalm 72.

Yet in one vital way, Jesus stood for something different from this, a profoundly new interpretation of the Jewish hope for a new king.  What was this difference?  Jesus completely refused to depend on the normal means by which political outcomes are achieved in the world: taking power, coercive imposition, military force.  The kingdom of David and Solomon had been a military achievement and they defended it as such.  So was the Roman and Herodian regime.  Jesus radically repudiated dependence on any such means for the coming of the rule he proclaimed.

God’s reign was coming, but not in that way. Jesus taught love of neighbour, unlimited forgiveness of enemies, service of other people – and, to this end, willingness to bear pain, to ‘take up the cross’, even all the way to death.  His own radical commitment to this was why he ended up freely allowing himself to be crucified.

This vision of what it meant to represent Jahweh came from a very different reading of the Hebrew Scriptures from that which interpreted the promise of God’s reign in terms of a revived earthly monarchy that would replace Roman rule.  One way to understand it is in terms of God’s covenant with his people.  We saw that God made a covenant with Abraham at the very beginning of the story of God’s chosen people (Gen. 15, 17) (2.2.2).  We saw too that God’s covenant with his people was renewed and given new content, the Torah, when the people were in the wilderness, after deliverance from Egypt and before entering the Promised Land (2.2.3).  The Sinai covenant was about how they should live as a liberated people, always remembering what God had done in the exodus.

We can see Jesus’ ministry as calling the people to recover a true vision of how to be God’s covenant people.  This helps to explain the powerful emphases in Jesus’ message on repentance, on one hand, and on meeting the needs of people who were poor and at the edges of society (like ‘lepers’), on the other hand.  We’ll see examples of these in readings from the Gospels in a moment.

Jesus called a ragbag community of people to become his disciples, and to imitate his way of loving God and loving neighbour – and this would be how God’s reign would come.  It is as though, for Jesus, whether David’s earthly monarchy would be revived was basically a distraction.  It wasn’t this which would bring in God’s reign.  After all, in biblical history the covenant with Abraham and then with the freed people at Sinai, came long before the monarchy of David.  So the latter was not essential to the covenant.

But this poses a problem for addressing the question of how the New Testament sees the role of government.  At first, it looked as though Jesus stood for a pretty straightforward answer to this: he was affirming the Old Testament vision of God’s kingship exercised by an heir of king David.  But, while he certainly didn’t reject the view of the role of government we identified in the Hebrew Scriptures, the primary concern that drove his ministry was for a more fundamental renewal of the common life of God’s covenant people than could ever be achieved by an earthly political ruler.  In Jesus’ way of making a reality of shalom, what worldly power does seems to have been a side-issue.

To sum up, Jesus’ message that God’s reign was coming led people, understandably, to hear him as proclaiming that David’s kingdom in the Promised Land would be restored.  But by his action and his teaching, he put across a deeply different vision of what it meant both for God’s kingship to come and to be God’s people.  For Jesus, the renewed community of love of God and love of neighbour into which he called people was far more important than whether the earthly Davidic kingdom would exist again.

Jesus recast the question about human government, making it of secondary importance.

Can this way of understanding Jesus’ message be right?

To help us to assess whether it is, we are going to do some study of the most famous statement in the Gospels about government.  You may well know what this is.  In responding to a question about whether Jews should pay a tax imposed by the Roman Emperor, Jesus said:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.  (Mark 12:17, Revised Standard Version)

Or in the NAB translation:

Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

What does this mean?  Cryptic though Jesus’ reply is, the passage in which it comes is well worth studying closely.  The next screen gives you the opportunity of really getting to grips with this hugely influential statement.

But before then we should do some background reading from the Gospels.  We need to do this in order to encounter directly the portraits of Jesus that they give us, to place in context the study of Mark 12:17 that follows, and to become aware of ways in which the Gospels are especially important for CST.

First, here are some passages from Jesus’ teaching that have been significant in recent CST.  The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the first here, has been referenced several times in CST texts since Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes in 1965.2The second, about the judgment of the nations, is one of the most powerful pieces of Jesus’ teaching.

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Reading (2pp)

The links for both readings take you to the start of the respective chapters, so scroll down to the start of each passage.

Luke 16:19-31

Matthew 25:31-46

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Reflection

Whether these passages are new or already familiar to you, what do you find most striking about them?

Does Jesus’ teaching here seem to you easy or difficult to understand?

Do you think it is challenging teaching?

Especially with reference to the second of them, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren” (#1033).

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We now turn to St Mark’s Gospel.  You are asked to read a large part of it, roughly the last third – which, as Mark is the shortest Gospel, is in fact not a great deal.  The aim of doing this longish reading here is twofold:

  • To enable you simply to take in the Gospel’s vivid narrative of the last part of Jesus life, including his sharp exchanges with the religious leaders of Judaism, and his trial and death at the hands of both those leaders and Roman imperial power. 
  • To enable you to have a good sense of the context in which Jesus says, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”.

The reading is split into three parts, with brief notes on screen about each.

The half-way point in Mark’s Gospel comes at the end of chapter 8, when Jesus begins to say to his disciples that he is going to be killed, and that following him means taking up their own crosses (8:31ff).  From then onwards, the focus is increasingly on what lies ahead and Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified.

We start reading not very long before Jesus reaches Jerusalem.  This first reading includes his arrival (which the Church celebrates on Palm Sunday), and the sharp debates with other Jewish leaders and teachers that followed.  There is a huge amount in these chapters that is very important for Catholic Social Teaching.

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Reading (5pp)

Mark 10:17 – 12:44

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The next chapter is hard to understand.  It is known as the Little Apocalypse, by way of comparison with the last book in the Bible, Revelation, which is also called the Apocalypse.  This chapter in Mark presents Jesus’ warnings of what was going to happen in the future – at least in the immediate future, that is, the period up to when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple around the year 70.  Jesus’ point in this chapter, or at least one of them, can be put roughly like this: because the Jewish leadership have been doing things the wrong way, failing to be faithful to the covenant and in effect leading the people astray, there will be a bad outcome.

It is obvious that the first part of this chapter is about the immediate fate of the Temple and of Jerusalem.  It is less obvious whether the later part of the chapter is also about what is due to happen in the first century.  This is because it uses cosmic imagery (in vv. 24-27) and appears, therefore, to speak about the end of human history and the second coming of Christ.  There is currently a debate among biblical scholars about this, i.e. whether the whole chapter is about first century events or whether some of it is about the end of the world.  While this is an interesting question to explore, you need not spend time on it for the purpose of the study of this module.  I suggest read chapter 13 and move on.  However if you would like to investigate it, see the footnote.3

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Reading (2pp)

Mark 13

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The final reading from Mark needs less introduction than chapter 13.  If you are a church-goer, everything here may be very familiar.  Try to read it with fresh eyes.  I suggest make a point of reading it without interruptions.

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Reading (6pp)

Mark 14:1 – 16:20

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Jesus was executed as a political prisoner at the hands of the dominant world power of his day.

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Reflection

What have you learned through reading a third of Mark’s Gospel?

Near the start of this screen, I said:

[I]n one vital way, Jesus stood for something different [from reviving the earthly kingdom of David], a profoundly new interpretation of the Jewish hope for a new king.  What was this difference?  Jesus completely refused to depend on the normal means by which political outcomes are achieved in the world: taking power, coercive imposition, military force.  The kingdom of David and Solomon had been a military achievement and they defended it as such.  So was the Roman and Herodian regime.  Jesus radically repudiated dependence on any such means for the coming of the rule he proclaimed.

God’s reign was coming, but not in that way. Jesus taught love of neighbour, unlimited forgiveness of enemies, service of other people – and, to this end, willingness to bear pain, to ‘take up the cross’, even all the way to death.  His own radical commitment to this was why he ended up freely allowing himself to be crucified.

From the part of Mark you have read, does this statement fit with how Jesus is portrayed there?

How would you summarise what Jesus stood for?

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End of 2.2.5

Go to 2.2.6 Just government: (4) God above Caesar

Module B outline

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  1. Among other ancient references to that designation of Herod the Great, one is by the Jewish historian Josephus in The Jewish War, 1.14.4. 

  2. See Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, #27.  Cf. Pope John Paul II, Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), #33.  According to Donahue, this is “one of the texts most often cited in modern social teaching” (Donahue, ‘The Bible and CST’ [cited on 2.2.3], 14). 

  3. For one brief introduction to debate about Mark 13, see the following blog entry by Michael Kok: http://ntmark.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/n-t-wright-on-mark-13/ (accessed 26 April 2013).  One issue at the centre of this is whether Mark 13:26 refers to Jesus descending to the earth at his second coming (the parousia, from the Greek for ‘appearing’), or ascending to the Father after his death and resurrection.  The Church has generally read the text to mean the former, but the latter is proposed by some interpreters on the strong basis that Mark 13:26 reflects Daniel 7:13 where the ‘son of man’ comes to God (the ‘Ancient of Days’).  Kok’s blog refers primarily to N.T. Wright who is one leading advocate of this second view; see Jesus and the Victory of God (SPCK, 1996), 339-368. Another is Mark Hatina whose detailed article on the topic, ‘The Focus of Mark 13:24-27: The Parousia, or the Destruction of the Temple?’, Bulletin for Biblical Research 6 (1996), 43-66, is accessible (at 2 May 2013) at: http://www.ibr-bbr.org/files/bbr/BBR_1996_05_Hatina_Mark13Parousia.pdf

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