What Jesus Really Taught Us About Politics
For years, I read Jesus’s longest sermon — the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 — as a challenging call to personal holiness:
Trust God. Love enemies. Flee anxiety. Honor parents. Resist lust. Give generously. Battle self-righteousness. Speak no lies. Pray regularly. Produce good deeds.
On one level, there’s nothing wrong with this. The world would be a better place if more individuals abided by Jesus’s words.
But several years ago, I came to the realization that Jesus (or Matthew) didn’t intend for us to read his sermon through such a self-focused lens. It first dawned on me when I learned of the tradition of Christian communities memorizing the sermon — from the early church to the Puritans on the Mayflower. The latter saw the sermon as the informal constitution of their community.
In other words, it wasn’t a sermon for me, telling me how I should live. It was a sermon for us, telling us how our communities should be organized.
What the Old and New Testaments Reveal About Jesus’s Politics
The real breakthrough came when I read scholars who noted the comparisons between the Sermon on the Mount and the events that took place at Mount Sinai after the Exodus (Exodus 19-23):
- Both take place at a mountain with God (or Jesus) at the top and the people at the bottom. This is notable because, normally, a speaker would speak from the foot of a mountain up to a crowd (the acoustics work better that way).
- Both address honoring parents.
- Both address violence and murder.
- Both address sexuality.
- Both address worship.
- Both address human speech.
- Both address human courts.
- Both address divorce and marriage.
- Both address the blessings that come with obedience.
- Both address the curses that come with disobedience.
- Both address money.
- Both address the people as a “kingdom.”
- Both call the people to resist corruption from surrounding cultures.
- Both warn against corruption from within.
- Both produce a personal and collective response from listeners.
Jesus wasn’t teaching private morality (as good as that may be). He was expounding a new constitution for the people of God.
Covenants and Constitutions
Today, governments write constitutions. A constitution is a written charter or contract that provides laws and principles to govern a nation.
The ancient world used covenants in a similar way. However, these covenants were not between the government and the governed; they were most frequently between greater kings (called Suzerains) and lesser kings (called Vassals).
In these “Suzerain–Vassal” covenants, the greater king would promise the lesser king security and protection in exchange for love, obedience, and financial tribute. In the covenant, the Suzerain swore allegiance before the gods and listed out the blessings that came with keeping the covenant, as well as the curses that came with breaking it. A copy of the document was then stored in a special place as a memorial (and form of accountability) of the covenant.
Following the Exodus, God models his relationship with Israel on the Suzerain–Vassal treaty. However, there are important differences, which have come to have massive implications for human history.
- God, not a human king, is established as the arbiter of right and wrong. This means that there are always moral limits to power.
- God’s covenant is not between himself and one other king (as was normally the case). His covenant was with the entire people of Israel. This is the first time in history that a people are all treated as individual kings and queens with individual rights. It is also the first time in history that a king asks for the consent of the governed to be governed (Exodus 19, 24).
- God separated powers in the new nation. Though he continued to hold supreme authority, responsibility and power were distributed across local tribal leaders (later judges and kings), covenant attorneys (prophets and prophetesses), and religious teachers (priests).
- God offers a moral vision of the universe. He is not concerned with tribute (as most Suzerains were). Instead, he cared about Israel’s love and obedience, expressed in a thoroughly just, moral, neighborly, generous, honorable, worshipful, honest, caring, self-sacrificial, and fair society.
When constitution-writing became cool in post-Enlightenment Europe and North America, constitution writers relied heavily on the principles established in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
But those weren’t the only sources these writers used. They also drew from the constitution of the New Testament: the Sermon on the Mount.
Reading the Sermon on the Mount as the Constitution of Christianity
Jesus’s sermon lacks some key aspects one would expect to see in a constitution: namely, laws and principles of governance.
Why didn’t he include these pieces?
- Jesus’s plan was to reach people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, not to establish a nation.
- The gospel, at its core, is that Jesus is king and that Caesar (along with every other worldly power) is not. He gives no human principles of governance because he expects his human followers to follow the principle of divine governance.
- Jesus is ambivalent about state power. Though he sometimes critiques leaders, his main teaching on the state was “pay your taxes and move on.” During his trial, he shows no deference to the Jewish authority of the Sanhedrin or to the Roman authority of Pilate. He refuses to answer their questions. And, when he does speak, it's mostly in riddles. He is not interested in the kind of power they hold because he holds true power.
- In the upside-down economy of Jesus, power is expressed through self-sacrifice. Though powerful people came to follow Jesus, the challenge was always to set aside their personal interests for the sake of others (Philippians 2:5-11). Because of this, the top-down authority structures of human states can never fit comfortably into this paradigm.
Yet, the Sermon on the Mount does include aspects of the covenant established at Sinai. As in Exodus, Jesus’s words are a communal call for God’s people to form a just, moral, neighborly, generous, honorable, worshipful, honest, caring, self-sacrificial, and fair society within the societies of the world.
His constitution is less about setting up a new state and more about setting up a counterculture of love and self-sacrifice.
All of this reveals that Jesus is remarkably political, though not in the way most people understand the term. He is not partisan. He is not power hungry. He is not authoritarian.
Instead, he honors the individual rights of people. He calls his followers to persuade others. And, if they consent to be governed by Jesus, to form communities where they are.
This is how Christians change the world. We speak out with the prophet’s voice against injustice.
We teach with the priest's voice of kindness and persuasion. We obey our king, Jesus, when we live winsome lives of love together. We don’t look to FOX or CNN or whoever to guide our views on current events and ethics. Instead, we submit to Jesus, look at the patterns of communal life he set out, and walk in accordance with him.
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Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.Twitter