We love to have Jesus on our side when it comes to our political agendas, whether it’s for a cause or a candidate–it gives us the feeling of validation and superiority. The conservative right convince themselves that Jesus is a Republican who supports their push to protect freedom of the individual and marketplace and protect the lives of the unborn. Meanwhile the liberal left convince themselves that Jesus is on their side as they lobby for environmental causes and governmental health care for the poor. I think we put Jesus on our side because it’s much easier to rally people when God is on your side. But I wonder where Jesus is in all of this. Who would Jesus vote for? Is He political at all?
Throughout the gospels we find Jesus going out of His way to communicate that He is decidedly not political. He usually avoided titles such as “Messiah” or “Son of God” that were loaded with political imagery. Instead He favored the title “Son of Man.” The first century Jews believed the Messiah (the Son of God) would come to conquer Rome, free Israel and set up an earthly kingdom, a political power for their benefit. Jesus avoided the political realm when He referred to Himself as the Son of Man, avoiding the false expectations, “Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’” (Matthew 8:20). Over and over again Jesus chose the title Son of Man attempting to avoid any possible political baggage (Matthew 12:7-8; 16:13, 27-28, and many more).
In John 6 there’s a situation where political pressure bore down on Jesus. Because Jesus performed miracle after miracle, the people concluded that He was the prophet who had come to set them free. Freedom and rescue to the Jews was not just about everlasting freedom from sin, it was also about worldly freedom from Rome. The people wanted to crown Him as King, by force, if necessary. These people wanted Jesus to be political and to fight for their cause, “After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:14-15).
In Mark 11, Jesus enters Jerusalem, allowing the political figures to make their rulings. He didn’t enter the city riding high upon a regal horse or luxuriously reclining in a comfortable carriage. Jesus entered the city on a donkey. Not the way political powers of the day usually traveled. In biblical times the donkey was a symbol of peace. No one fought wars on a donkey, and pity the political figure who mounted one. A donkey was too small for war and too humble to garner prestige. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, people gathered along the road waving palm branches and exclaiming, Hosanna, or “save us.” Many of the people waved and yelled out of misaligned political interest. They wanted Jesus to take power. And He did. Just not in the way they expected. He was on a death march, not a political parade.
I don’t think Jesus not being political means we can’t be, but I do think we should be compassionate whether we choose to be political or not. While Jesus’ heart wasn’t much moved by people who politicized issues, Jesus always cared about the issues themselves, because He cared about the people the issues effected. Jesus was clear during His compassionate life that His allegiance was to one kingdom. He was loyal to only one party. His allegiance was to the Kingdom of God that swallows up the earthly kingdoms we too often give our attention and affections to. At times politics and compassion overlap, providing opportunities for Christians to fight for people within the framework of politics, serving the kingdom amidst a kingdom.
Despite who the Jews wanted the Messiah to be, Jesus from Nazareth was the one who came. Despite misaligned expectations for Him to reign politically and become an earthly king, Jesus did what He came to do. He rode a donkey into a surprising but providential fate. Jesus demanded expectations to be laid aside. He rode a donkey. He traveled the death march. He died on the cross. He who knew nothing of our compassionless consumption absorbed the wrath of God rightly due our sin, that we might become righteous to God. That’s why His death march through the streets of Jerusalem, lined with palms, is called the Triumphal Entry. His sacrifice is our triumph. So wave your palm branch high in praise. For He refused politics … yet reigns forever.
Russ Masterson is a husband, father, child, friend, and pastor in Atlanta. He also teaches, through microphones and keyboards.