This past Sunday my church community had a service centered around the Triumphal Entry and Mark’s account in Mark 11. I was really blessed by the sermon and the worship centered around Jesus as our King, the Messiah delivering all humanity from its’ own rebellion, from death itself and the devil. A question which I think we should think deeply about is “How were the Jewish expectations of the Messiah wrong, and how were they right?” Of course, different sects of Judaism would have different expectations: Zealots would be expecting an outright revolt, and with some speed! Perhaps others expected an organized, but slow movement towards full-scale war against Rome. I’m no Jewish scholar, just extrapolating. I want to offer one specific way that I think Jewish expectations were right, and another specific way (connected to it) that was wrong. Both of these have deep implications for followers of Jesus today, and we might be ignoring their logical conclusions.
One way in which I think their expectations were right, is that the Messiah would be political. What I mean is that prophecies about the Messiah were intimately connected to the throne of David, and the Messiah would change the power structures of the world in drastic ways. More specifically, the Messiah was to do something that would permanently establish freedom for Israel. As seen in Mark 11:10, the crowds were calling out about Jesus:
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!
In connection to this, Christians rightly point out that Jesus’ kingdom was “not of this world”, as he would say to Pilate several days later. But, we shouldn’t leverage this statement beyond its’ intention. It does not imply that Jesus’ kingdom is not supposed to have political ramifications! Jesus himself would quote deeply political prophecies, and one story in particular connects to the way in which I think Jewish expectations were wrong. In Luke 4:18-30, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth and reads a prophecy from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
This is all that Jesus quotes, but look at the rest of the passage! I highlighted the words which are tangible and almost impossible to simply interpret as “spiritual”.
They will rebuild the perpetual ruins and restore the places that were desolate; they will reestablish the ruined cities, the places that have been desolate since ancient times. “Foreigners will take care of your sheep; foreigners will work in your fields and vineyards. You will be called, ‘the Lord’s priests, servants of our God.’ You will enjoy the wealth of nations and boast about the riches you receive from them. Instead of shame, you will get a double portion; instead of humiliation, they will rejoice over the land they receive. Yes, they will possess a double portion in their land and experience lasting joy. For I, the Lord, love justice and hate robbery and sin. I will repay them because of my faithfulness; I will make a permanent covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations, their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that the Lord has blessed them.”
Jesus goes on to say that this prophecy is about Him, and everyone there is shocked, because he’s a hometown boy! It’s Jesus’ response to their unbelief that he is the Messiah, and their response to him, that really enlightens the Jewish attitudes about this “Son of David”:
“There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, yet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, forced him out of the town, and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.
Woah there, maybe an over-reaction no? The Jews were rightfully expecting a political Messiah, but they were wrongfully expecting a political Messiah only for the Jews. Because Jesus was here explicitly approving the behavior of Gentiles, and judging the behavior of Jews, he caused a riot and was almost killed! It is unlike other kingdoms in that it is transnational.
Lastly, I mentioned how Jesus’ statement “My kingdom is not of this world” can be stretched to imply that his kingdom is not relevant for politics, for how human societies organize themselves. Another mistake is to forget about the second-half of that statement
If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is,my kingdom is not from here.
So, it seems to me that Jesus’ kingdom is deeply political, but not of this world. It’s political in the sense that it is the formation of a new community of people, a new “nation”, unrestricted by national borders and operating together in every sense that all other “nations” operate. The kingdom of God is in the world, but, it is not of the world, because the way it operates does not look anything like how “normal” governments operate, specifically by the fact that we do not use violence. The Kingdom of God should be a catalyst for forming peaceful, alternative, transnational political systems. It involves land, justice, forgiveness, peace, and good news for the poor.