Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Politics of Jesus Chapter 2: The Kingdom Coming (Part 1)

In his book The Politics of Jesus, Yoder argues that John the Baptist was wrong about the nature of the fulfillment that Jesus brought, because John the Baptist expected Jesus to be a figure who would break the bondage of his people in some sort of literal or political sense. Yoder cautions, however, that he was not completely wrong to assume that Jesus brought a socio-political change. “If the difference had been of that character, Luke would have had to begin his story differently. There would have been some hint in these first three chapters to warn us of the impropriety of the hopes of Mary and Zechariah as well as John.”

Evidence that Jesus’ relation to John the Baptist was of political import:
-“John’s ministry had a pronounced political character, and to some extent, Jesus took up his succession” (29). He appeals to “the time linkage in Matt. 3:12.
-John’s instruction to his hearers for “an immediate community of consumption (Luke 3:11)” (29).
-The only “categories of listeners indicated by Luke in addition to the ‘multitudes’ (Matthew names Pharisees and Sadducees) are the socio-politically slanted publicans (3:12) and soldiers (3:14)” (29).
-According to Josephus (Antiquities xviii.5.2), “John’s imprisonment was connected with Herod Antipas’ fear that he might foment an insurrection” (29).
-The report of Jesus’ ministry “leads Herod to see him as a possible successor to John (9:7ff). He sets in juxtaposition his fate and that of John (16:16 and par)” (29).

The Temptations of Jesus: Luke 3:21-4:14
1. Yoder sees Jesus’ first temptation to turn the stones into bread as a temptation to become king by feeding his many followers and thus establish himself as their earthly leader. Jesus would not have been satisfied by crusty bread, Yoder argues, but by establishing an earthly kingdom (which was a temptation throughout his ministry). “That this is no idle imagination, the later story was to demonstrate. Feed the crowds and you shall be king” (31).

Yoder's interpretation of the first temptation differs quite dramatically from that of many traditional commentators. One example of this is Calvin, who argued that this was not a temptation to physical food - for himself or for others - but rather a temptation to disbelieve the Scriptures. Calvin concludes this from the verse which Jesus quotes to defeat the Tempter: "Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God." I can't help but feel that Yoder's interpretation of the first temptation attempts to place political temptation where the text makes no such indication.

2. The next temptation is possibly the most socio-politically obvious of all the temptations. The promised reward: “All the kingdoms of the world;…all this authority and their glory.” For Yoder, the question is, what would “bow the knee to me” have meant? “Are we to imagine some sort of satanic cult? Or does it not yield a much more concrete meaning if we conceive of Jesus as discerning in such terms the idolatrous character of political power hunger and nationalism?” (32).

Once again, we see the contrast between Yoder's reading of this temptation and a more traditional interpretation. Where Yoder sees temptation to political ambition, Calvin sees a temptation that "Christ should seek, in another manner than from God, the inheritance which he has promised to his children." To rob God "of the government of the world," and claim it for himself. It is up to the reader to discern which interpretation (amongst the many other possible interpretations) is warranted by the text itself.

3. The third temptation of Christ is equally socio-political for Yoder, and he appeals to Niels Hyldahl for his answer to this third temptation. “Being thrown down from the tower in the temple wall…into the Kidron valley, followed by stoning, if necessary, to bring death, was the prescribed penalty for blasphemy. The testing would then mean that Jesus was tempted to see himself as taking on himself the penalty for his claims to divine authority, yet being miraculously saved from the consequences.” Hyldahl sees this as part of a recurring temptation for Jesus, to escape from the consequences of his claims.
For example:
a. Peter’s plea is directly attributed to Satan (Mark 8;31ff)
b. The temptation for a possible angelic deliverance in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:53)
c. The mocking call to come down from the cross (Luke 23:35 and par.).

Yoder also thinks that this interpretation of the third temptation makes the most sense, since – if Jesus’ temptation was to receive marvel and accreditation as a miracle worker – “would not an unexpected apparition from above have been the most self-evident way for the messenger of the covenant, in the words of Malachi (3:14), to come ‘suddenly to his temple to purify the sons of Levi’?”

Once again, as a form of contrast, we see that in Calvin's view, this temptation was a temptation for Christ
"to exalt himself unduly, and to rise, in a daring manner, against God...Now [the tempter] exorts him to indulge a foolish and vain confidence, - to neglect the means which are in his power, - to throw himself, without necessity, into manifest danger, - and, as we might say, to overleap all bounds...The design of Satan...was to induce Christ to make trial of his divinity and to rise up, in foolish and wicked rashness, against God."

To Yoder's credit in his understanding of this temptation, he seems to take into account the significance of the location where the temptation is taking place. Of all Yoder's interpretations of the temptations of Christ, I certainly find this to be the most plausible and least forced. I do, however, have trouble seeing his understanding of this temptation as being so overtly political.

One thing to keep in mind is that Yoder is attempting to draw an overall picture of Christ as a political figure; to be sure, Christ did many things of political import, and it would be a mistake to discard all of them; to disagree with Yoder's conclusions does not force one to contend with each and every assertion. The mistake which I find in Yoder is when he seems to dig for political meaning when the natural reading of the text does not permit such interpretation; but I digress.


  1. You are certainly right to maintain that Yoder stretches his argument. I remember thinking some of the same things that you have mentioned when I was reading him. However, I myself do think that there is a more political undertone to the whole scene than is conventionally seen. I would also caution against viewing Calvin as the representative for the "Tradition," though undoubtedly he is representative of your tradition.

    And whether or not you agree with Yoder's interpretation of these parables (in terms of their specific political import) at the end of the day they are entirely political in my estimation. And this is seen by looking at Yoder's definition of Politics.

    I remember reading the whole book through and not finding an adequate definition of the word, until I was writing a response paper and went through the footnotes. In my version (the purple and grey cover) it is on p42/43, I am not sure which because i am quoting from memory.

    Politics is "the structuring of relations between individuals in groups."

    He is responding to another person's definition if i remember the context correctly. Nevertheless, this definition for me clarified the entirety of his argument. The problem with modern man thinking in terms germane to the text of scripture is that we view "politics" as a separate sphere of reality from "religion" as a result of the enlightenment bifurcation of reality (in keeping with gnostic dualism, subversively). Yet, if we take Yoder's definition as coherent, then everything Jesus did was political because he was supremely concerned with how individuals relate to each other (i.e. that they love each other). Furthermore, one could argue that the gospel affirmation "Jesus is Lord" was the first Christian political slogan! Kavin Rowe's recent work on narrative christology and the exact content of Luke's kurios helps to prove Yoder's point here. For both, Kurios holds a political signification because our corporate proclamation of the gospel is our way of constituting ourselves as the body of Christ (a body-politic, as it were). We are the people who proclaim the Word, yes, but as importantly, we are the people CONSTITUTED by the Word as well. This structuring is politics.

    As I see it, the entirety of Yoder's argument hinges on this definition. If you grant him that politics loosely defined is "structuring relationships," then You have to concede that Jesus is all the way through political. Obviously this is not modernity's definition of politics, because modernity presupposes the split between the public and private sphere's of reality (as if the public wasn't composed of many privates!). I view Yoder's definition as necessary to see Jesus as "Messiah" in any sense of the term that Israel would have recognized (and thus in an way for him to have been the fulfillment of the promises of Israel).

    I realize this is a little disjointed, but i am not trying to prove much with my arguments. I am really just trying to encourage thinking outside the box here, as I believe Yoder to be inaugurating a paradigm shift for those of us captured in modernity's stranglehold. And the only way to do that is to try and draw as many lines of connection as possible.

    But once you grant Yoder the defintion, he still must prove the content of that politics, or in what way Jesus structured relationships. And this is where pacifism comes into play.

  2. First of all, Jared, I really appreciate all of your input and comments. One thought which occurred to me referred to Yoder's definition of politics. If Yoder's definition of politics is really that broad, I would go ahead and his case over to him and declare it airtight. As I have read the book I have been expecting a bit tighter and more traditional definition of politics, so now I am asking myself the question how this definitional change would really affect my evaluation of Yoder.

  3. Yeah, you are right. When you aim that broadly it almost seems anticlimactic. But in context, I do think he is quite revolutionary, because he is really asking us to reject definitions we have received from modernity. Why does the government born out of modernity (which is, historically speaking, a rather novel invention) get to decide what is and isn't "tradition" with respect to politics? Furthermore, why is it seen as within their exclusive purview to determine how people interrelate? Yoder is reminding Christians that the Spirit has overcome the law, and Christ is God's definitive revelation for how we are to interrelate.

    What I suspect you are most interested in, if you are granting Yoder his definition and its logic, is the relationship between Church and State/Christ and Culture, etc. As you undoubtedly see what your tradition (and to some extent my own) calls the institutions of "government" and the "church." This will for you be the primary issue I believe. I am not sure how well TPOJ answers it, as this is the part that for me I received from Hauerwas. I rather like his answer, but we will see how Yoder handles it on his own here.

  4. Great comments in here. I just wanted to add that, having already drunk the Kool-aid so that I now cannot conceive of the concept of messiah apart from the political (keeping in mind that no political/religious dichotomy existed back then), that Yoder's intrepretations of the Temptation narrative seem natural and obvious to me.

    Not sure if there are any precedents upon which Yoder is leaning here…

  5. Hey, Chris. I was wondering if you have any brief (crossing my fingers) thoughts about the relationship of a political Jesus and the two kingdoms model?

  6. Ah, brevity, wrote Shakespeare, is it not the soul of wit?

    I fear I lack in that regard. But here goes: It is true that the 2K model, counterintuitively, is for the church, so that it not suffer under the delusion that it can usher in a golden age through transformationist efforts. In the modern sense of "politics," then, the church is apolitical. But if we keep this current conversation in mind (i.e., the sense in which Jesus the Messiah was "political"), then no doubt the church is as much a political entity as her head.

    What this means (as simply and as succintly as I can state it) is that the church, which occupies a distinct, sacred sphere, never adopts the machinations of the secular sphere to promote its agenda. For in so doing, the church would become merely one secular institution among many. No, rather, the church always must maintain its distinction from the culture by simply being what it has been called to be: the ekklesia which practices regularly Word and sacrament. Under this rubric falls all sorts of actions in the world that the church may perform (not least, mercy). But foremost, its duty (agenda) is the evangel, the calling of people out of darkness into light. This is as much a "political" act in this world as a "spiritual" one; but it's Christ's politics, not those of the left or right, that must inform the church's agenda (and therein often lies the rub).

    Of course I could ramble one. So much for brevity.

  7. Thanks, Chris. I appreciate the answer. And I think it was pretty brief; I mean, I could see the whole answer on one screen, so that's short by my estimation.


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