John Howard Yoder. 1994. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
The myth of an apolitical Jesus is alive and well for several reasons, starting with the observation that political candidates have traditionally chided at being labeled anti-Christian. Jesus’ own admonishments to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39) and to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”(Matt 22:21 ESV) also give credence to this view. In spite of the widespread acceptance of this apolitical interpretation of Jesus’ ministry, it is hard to point to anyone who has seriously studied first century politics in Israel. Consequently, when I ran across a reference to John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, I quickly ordered a copy.
Yoder starts with a provocative claim:
“that Jesus is, according to the biblical witness, a model of radical political action’ which is ‘now generally visible throughout the New Testament [NT] studies, even though he biblical scholars have not stated it in such a way that the ethicists have had to notice it. This ‘stating it’ is all the present study tried to do”(2).
Yoder goes about this task of “stating it”that proves difficult because as an academic writer he must chase down many misconceptions about Jesus’ ethics. Chief among these is the church’s traditional focus on the spiritual content of the NT and a de-emphasis on political elements. So Yoder asks whether NT authors, principally Luke, Paul, and the author of Revelation, understood and embraced the thrust of Jesus’ social ethic.
Yoder sees his own task having two distinct parts. He writes:
- “I will attempt to sketch an understanding of Jesus and his ministry of which it might be said that such as would be of direct significance for social ethics…
- I will secondly state the case for considering Jesus, when thus understood, to be not only relevant but also normative for a contemporary Christian social ethic.”(11)
In other words, Yoder sets out to understand what Jesus said and did focusing on his social ethic (author interpretation) in the context of scripture (canonical interpretation) and, then, to apply it in our postmodern environment (reader interpretation).
Background and Structure
John Yoder (1927-1997) was a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame (Catholic) who wrote from an anabaptist perspective and has written a number of other books. He writes in twelve chapters:
- “The Possibility of a Messianic Ethic
- The Kingdom Coming
- The Implications of the Jubilee
- God Will Fight for Us
- The Possibility of Nonviolent Resistance
- Trial Balance
- The Disciple of Christ and the Way of Jesus
- Christ and Power
- Revolutionary Subordination
- Let Every Soul Be Subject: Romans 13 and the Authority of the State
- Justification by Grace through Faith
- The War of the Lamb”(v-vi)
These chapters are preceded by prefaces to the first and second editions, and a list of abbreviations and followed by indices of the names and scriptural references.
“In 1992 media reports emerged that Yoder had sexually abused women in preceding decades, with as many as over 50 complainants. The Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary acknowledged in a statement from 2014 that sexual abuse had taken place.”
What Does Political Mean for Jesus?
In making the case that Jesus is a political animal, not just another rabbi, Yoder looks closely at Jesus’ introduction in the Gospel of Luke. Luke is an interesting choice here, because Luke is a gentile writer and presumably writes for a gentile audience. Yoder looks particularly at Mary’s Magnificat (1:51-53), Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (4:1-13), and Jesus’ call sermon in Nazareth (4:16-30). Yoder goes further, but I will limit myself to these three passages.
Magnificat or Call to Arms?
Yoder draws attention to these verses in Mary’s Magnificat:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53 ESV)
How would a Roman audience hear these words? Consider the words—strength, scattered, brought down, sent away—these words suggest power today, not in the by and by. Yoder observes that in citing these words Mary sounds like a Maccabean—a Jewish revolutionary movement active from 167-160 BC, not someone auditioning to front a praise band.
Satan’s Temptations of Jesus.
Satan tries Jesus with three temptations—turn stones into bread, worship me, throw yourself off the temple. The first temptation suggests economic power; the second would make Jesus a king, albeit a vassal king under Satan; and the third would make him an instant celebrity, a kind of first century Evel Knievel—a stunt artist. In his book on these temptations, Henri Nouwen (2002) describes them as challenges typically faced by Christian leaders. Leadership is, of course, inherently political.
.Jesus’ Call Sermon in Nazareth.
In his sermon, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-3, which is a messianic passage. Yoder highlights these verses:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Luke 4:18-19 ESV)
We normally focus on proclaiming the Good News and the recovery of sight of the blind, but setting captives free sounds like the storming of the Bastille, which set off the French Revolution. Yoder focuses on proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, which would remind a Jewish audience of:
“That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines.” (Lev. 25:11 ESV)
The Jubilee year is the occasion when all lands are returned to their original owners, irrespective of unpaid debts. Can you imagine that all the owners foreclosed on during the Great Recession suddenly being given their homes back? Or all unpaid student loans being forgiven?
Yoder makes the case that Jesus is reminding the Jews of their obligation to practice the Jubilee, which would immediately make him the target of every lender in Israel, but also account for his instant popularity among the people—a highly political act.
In part one of this review I have given an overview of Yoder’s arguments. In part two I will look at his core argument.
John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus is an intensely interesting read for an academic work. Social activists in the church will likely find this book required reading, but even evangelicals will want to be aware of the arguments being put forth.
Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.
Yoder: Apolitical Jesus Unbiblical, Part 1
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.
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