Playing politics. It’s an activity that many people really don’t like. They want those in positions of authority to be altruistic, to work for the common good. They don’t like seeing people using an issue for personal advantage or personal gain. We don’t like the feeling that the words or actions of another person are not entirely straightforward, that there is another agenda being pursued. We don’t like it when we see it in public life, or in the workplace, or in the church, or in family life. It undermines trust.
Yet, much as we don’t like people playing politics, it goes on all the time, in every sphere of life. In every situation, you will find people manipulating and manoeuvring to gain influence and power, or to preserve them if they have them.
There is a political game going on in our gospel reading, and a pretty serious one at that, a deadly one, potentially. It shouldn’t surprise us to find people playing politics in the gospels. The story of Jesus’ life is a story of real life, and this sort of thing goes on all the time. It is also particularly prevalent where genuine political issues are at stake. And they certainly are in the gospels.
The Gospels are intensely political. It simply defies common sense to see them in any other way. At all times and in all places, people have been vying for power and influence. That’s small-‘p’ politics. Palestine in Jesus’ time was seething with political manoeuvring. That’s clearly in the background to our reading this morning.
And not just in the background either. It is right there in the foreground too. And we should not make the mistake of thinking that Jesus was somehow above this. He was right in there among it. His life and his teaching are deeply political, which may be why he so divides opinion.
The action in today’s reading takes place near Jerusalem, the centre of political power. Jesus is on his way there, both to stir things up, and to suffer. Some Pharisees come to intercept him. More often than not, his encounters with Pharisees were confrontational. They were people of position, members of the establishment, and they didn’t like their position being challenged. They didn’t like what they said being contradicted. They may not have been at the top of the heap, but they liked the way the heap was arranged. They didn’t like people challenging their authority or upsetting the social or political order.
Nearer the top of the heap, but not right at the top, sat another figure. Herod was a kind of king, but pretty much a puppet of the Romans. He was a man of whom Jesus had every right to speak harshly. His father, also Herod, had tried to kill him as an infant, killing instead many innocent children. The current Herod had killed Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. These Pharisees came to warn Jesus that Herod wanted to kill Jesus too. But this was not news to Jesus. And it is unlikely that the Pharisees came motivated by genuine concern for Jesus. Note the first words they said – “Get away from here.” That was their real concern. The expected trouble for themselves if Jesus came to Jerusalem, and they didn’t want that.
They were right, of course. And Jesus could see the game they were playing, the scheme they were hatching, and he didn’t want to play along. He was pursuing an agenda more important than preserving his own life, an agenda which, in order to fulfil, would entail the loss of his life. Jesus knew that, hence the references to finishing his work on the third day, words which only make sense to those who can look back and understand that Jesus’ work of redeeming humanity was completed, not on the cross, but at his resurrection.
He knew the resistance which would face him in Jerusalem, the seat of power. All places of power are strongly resistant to change, even while they employ the language and rhetoric of change to justify their positions. But Jesus was resolute. He knew the political machinations that were going on but he plunged in anyway.
And he did so because that was what his life’s work was. To put it simply, Jesus’ life’s work was the overthrow of the old order, the order of the world dominated by sin and all the ways sin takes shape – by preserving privilege, by oppressing the weak, by hoarding wealth, by perpetuating suffering and hunger and warfare. When God sent his son, he sent a revolutionary. No wonder the establishment wanted him dead, or at least far, far away. They hated what he stood for.
His mission and his objectives were plain from the beginning. His birth was announced to shepherds, widely considered then to be generally dishonest and untrustworthy, and then to some mystic foreigners. His manifesto was about releasing captives, about lifting the poor out of poverty, about freeing the oppressed. He went around confronting evil wherever he found it, often personified in the form of demons possessing people. His mother, a peasant girl, had sung of the proud being scattered, the powerful being deposed, the lowly lifted up, the hungry fed, the rich being sent away empty. Her son told rich people to get rid of what they had; he provided food and wine in prodigious quantities; he demolished the arguments of the clever and the powerful. He told people to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, and he kept company with people polite society thought of as the dregs.
All this deeply unsettled the establishment which doubtless worked then as it works now, by concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a few, by dividing society, by looking after its own at the expense of everyone else. Jesus understood this, and challenged it, and refused to be co-opted into it. For his love was not limited. He did not just love his own, but longed to gather all, even those who hated him, under his protection. I imagine him standing on a hill, looking over at Jerusalem, knowing the people there and what they would do to him, yet still longing for their redemption.
The challenge for us is this. If we want to shelter under the arms of Jesus, we need to accept all the other people we will find there, all the people Jesus loves. His love is universal, including all the people we cannot love ourselves. And when we stand close to Jesus we cannot do so without accepting his agenda; an agenda of radical change, the pursuit of which requires the systems of the world, not only to be challenged, but to be overthrown. Like many good revolutionaries before and since, Jesus knew his cause mattered more than life itself. In fact, his cause is life itself – life in Christ rather than death in sin. His life, his death, his resurrection began the revolution to redeem all people, to rescue us from what oppresses and divides, to liberate us from the worst of ourselves. Do we dare to follow him, to join him?