Culture At Large

Jesus, Right or Wrong?

Paul Vander Klay

The phrase "a government of laws, not of men" is attributed to John Adams in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. These words identify a core value of our political system and our culture. It is joined with the aphorism "no one is above the law" meaning that the most powerful person in the land is accountable. The president himself swears to defend the constitution that he himself is subject to. These are good things and I would assert are values consistent with Christianity yet are we right to apply them to Jesus?

In the parable of the pounds in Luke 19:11-27 ten servants are given one pound each to engage in trade in a situation in which the master is returning. This parable is similar to Matthew 25:14-30 except that it includes political enemies that actively seek to stop the investment of royal power upon the nobleman. Kenneth Bailey in his book "Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes" challenges the Horatio Alger interpretation we usually apply to this parable. If this were just a story about sorting underlings based on their capacity to make shrewd financial investments the political intrigue of the enemies would be superfluous. Bailey asserts that the challenge given to the nobleman's slaves requires loyalty, not financial acumen. The sin of the money-keeping slave is not sloth or lack of ambition, it is a lack of courageous, radical, costly allegiance to his master. The slave was a fence sitter, a man who wanted to wait and see what the far-off negotiations would result in before making a public commitment to a political party. He wasn't ultimately loyal to his master, he was most loyal to his own interests.

What makes this interpretation of this parable interesting is that it is told by Jesus as Zacchaeus' feast. By snubbing the crowd of religious loyalists anticipating Jesus' Passover action against Israel's contemporary enslaving Egypt-Rome, the crowd decided that by publicly aligning himself with such a notorious abuser of the people Zacchaeus, Jesus disqualifies himself as a candidate for Messiah. The money-keeping servant, Like the crowd, weighed the master's character and found him wanting. This master demands allegiance above the slave's own moral code. Jesus is above the law.

In the legal, stable environment of America's realpolitik most citizens are sheltered from the naked exercise of abject power. Afghans, Iraqis and many others in more chaotic corners of the world understand this kind of political environment all too well. Siding with American occupational forces or Taliban will determine your future, no two ways about it.

American spiritual consumers evaluate the "lights" available to them from the religious marketplace with a casual nonchalance. They chose the object of their spiritual devotion based upon how well that guide matches their own moral proclivities. The governing ethos insists that the universe is governed by "nice" against most general revelation and that a reasonable commitment to common abstract goodness is sufficient to  qualify one for cosmic benevolence. Surely all exclusivistic claims requiring personal allegiance to any religious figure are overblown and ought to be considered  narrow and outdated.

How do our political values impact our abstract imagination? Has the blessing of a stable, lawful, just political system blunted our ability to hear Jesus' ruthless call for absolute allegiance sometimes in conflict with our judgments of his behavior? We're much more accustomed to hearing this kind of talk from Islamic terrorists justifying "death to America."

ABC News did an hour on "Should America Fear Islam" where one of the lines of demarcation was whether all religions should be held to a universal moral standard commonly accepted by our culture or is it acceptable to assert that the founding religious figure defines morality. Does our experience in the political arena bias us towards one side or the other? Does this text ask us to declare "Jesus, right or wrong"?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, North America