Jesus and the Political Options of His Day

When Jesus walked upon this earth, Jerusalem and Palestine were under the control of the Roman Empire. In exchange for the payment of heavy tributes, the Jews had a small amount of religious freedom to practice their faith. There were four main political options for Palestinian Jews in the time of Jesus: the Zealots, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes.

The Zealots were a first century political movement that sought to overthrow Roman rule. They led a rebellion in 66 A.D. when Rome introduced imperial cult worship. Although initially successful, Rome sent in the troops and smashed the resistance in 70 A.D. and destroyed the temple. Although Jesus had a zealot among his disciples (Simon) and though he sympathized with the plight of the downtrodden Judeans, Jesus did not choose the Zealot path of violence.

On the other extreme were the Essenes. They originated about 100 B.C. and emphasized ritual purity. They also separated themselves from the rest of society and tended to form communities in the desert. The Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament although some scholars suggest that John the Baptist was an Essene. Others try to connect this group with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although he had some characteristics that were similar to the Essenes, Jesus definitely did not try to escape from society’s problems.

The two main religious/political groups that appear in Scripture were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Both groups had members in the Sanhedrin, but the Sadducees held the majority. The high priest was a Sadducee as were the chief priests. The Sadducees were generally wealthier and politically more powerful. They were doctrinally more conservative and applied a more literal interpretation of the Old Testament and gave preference to the Law of Moses. They did not believe in an afterlife. On the other hand, the Pharisees were more liberal in their interpretation of the Bible and gave importance to oral tradition. They were not as rich and therefore had more favor with the poorer people. The Apostle Paul had been a Pharisee before his encounter with the risen Christ. Jesus agreed with the Pharisees on the doctrine of the resurrection, but he criticized both the Pharisees and Sadducees for their hypocrisy and legalism. Jesus refused to align his teaching and his messianic cause totally with either the Sadducees or the Pharisees.

Jesus provides some helpful insights in how to navigate today’s complex and divisive politics.

  • Jesus was a realist and knew that humans tended to abuse their authority. He said, “The rulers of this world lord it over their subjects” (Luke 22:25a) and told us not to follow their example. Power whether wielded by Republicans or Democrats frequently leads to corruption. Power given to the ruling authorities should be used to serve humanity, especially the most vulnerable among us.
  • Jesus cut through the hypocrisy of his day.  He warned his followers to not believe candidates who exaggerate their own goodness and greatness: “they like to call themselves big Benefactors, those who do good” (Luke 22:25b). He told his disciples not to believe them. Today he would urge us to demand honesty in political advertising and to denounce lies wherever we find them. What is urgently needed in our country are citizens who demand honesty of the leaders of their own political party.
  • Although Jesus rejected the hypocrisy of the political groups in his culture, he welcomed those who were humble enough to seek the truth. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, but he came to Jesus seeking life. Jesus saw his humility and rewarded it and let him into greater truth.
  • The Bible teaches that God is the defender of the “the orphan, the widow, and the stranger” because they are more vulnerable to the injustices imposed by the powerful. Jesus demonstrated in word and deed that these “despised by the world” were his brothers and sisters and bore with them the image of God (Matthew 25:31-46).

During this election season, Jesus urges us to consider both policies and personal character. We need to favor those policies that serve the neediest among us. We also need to evaluate a candidate’s character (honesty, humility, integrity) as we make our election decisions. Choose well.