The Time Jesus Dodged the Culture Wars

In Matthew 22:23-33, the Sadducees tried to catch Jesus out over the subject of the resurrection, posing a tricky, ‘airtight’, hypothetical question. They did so to both silence Jesus and use the ‘victory’ to strengthen their place in the religious hierarchy of first century Judaism.

The Sadducees, you see, were a faction within Judaism that only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament as sacred. Therefore, they saw nothing within them to support the doctrine of the afterlife. They didn’t believe in the resurrection. They believed that you live, you die … full stop! What a tragic worldview!

By devising their straw-man argument, they intended to big dog their opposition and score political points in the ‘cultural wars’ of their day.

Jesus, true to form, simply bats their attempt away by quoting from Exodus, which they did consider sacred and authoritative, asking a rhetorical question that brilliantly undermined their theological standpoint and exposed their factional foolishness:

But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

(Matthew 22:31, 32)

It’s important to point out that Jesus was not teaching on the resurrection in this passage but fobbing off an attempt to embroil Him in the culture wars of His day. Of course, we can form personal opinions on what Jesus said in His reply, as I do in Wings, Clouds, Harps and Infinity?, but drawing dogmatic conclusions from Jesus’ rebuttal misses the point terribly. In fact, if we don’t understand the culture wars that He skillfully dodged, we may fail to understand much of the Message of Jesus.

Year Zero Reactions

The Jewish people were divided into at least four factions in their reaction to the Roman Empire’s domination and oppression.

  • The Essenes taught the confused Jew to escape the oppression in an ascetic desert life out of the Empire’s reach.
  • The Zealots advocated for violent revolution to confront the oppression.
  • The Pharisees preached the need for scrupulous religion to resist the oppression.
  • The Herodians and Sadducees chose compromise as the best reaction, snuggling up to the Empire.

Aside from the fourth corrupt reaction, the first three factions thought they were responding to revelation from God. They believed with all their hearts that their position was based on the Scriptures. However, despite their noble attempts to remain a people set apart, any revelation they received was refracted through the prism of the Empire. They were paying homage to God but living lives defined by Caesar.

Think about that for a moment.

All four systemic reactions only served to reinforce the centrality of Caesar. Escaping, confronting, resisting, compromising … they simply kept the Jewish people enslaved to Caesar—some profiting from the Empire, most exploited by it, all bound and dependent on it.

We can see similarities in Christendom today: factions—made up of largely sincere followers of Jesus—reacting to today’s Empire in similar ways: escape, confront, resist and compromise.

[For more on these Year Zero Reactions, see the notes below.]

The Gospel of the Kingdom

In contrast to these systemic reactions, Jesus entered this factional mess and ingeniously avoided becoming embroiled in it!

He didn’t start a rival faction. He didn’t start a more conservative or progressive alternative. He dodged the political games entirely by addressing the prevailing framework which gave the first century cultural wars their meaning.

Jesus’ choice of phrase to define His message, the Gospel of Kingdom (Mark 1:14,15), was not a religious phase, but an imperial one. Used of Caesar, specifically Caesar Augustus, the phrase spoke of Caesar’s dream of a utopian society. Of course, all the Empires citizens knew it simply hailed another bout of tyranny.

Choosing this phrase to recast the vision of the Genesis-mandate, Jesus addressed the prevailing framing narrative from which God’s people derived their factions, trumping both the Empire and making their culture wars mute.

This is such an important thought.

By side-stepping the culture wars of His day, Jesus served into the mess from a higher dimension: through the panoramic lens of the Gospel of the Kingdom. This enabled Him to advocate for the oppressed and marginalised in society without becoming co-opted by any one faction.

Is this not one of the most important lessons we need to emulate as twenty-first century followers of Jesus?

Repentance and Faith

Think about what our response to the Gospel, “repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15), means in this light.

Jesus was calling His first century audience to extricate themselves (repent) from the systemic reactions of their day and to align with His message (believe), a message that would deliver and transform society from both those factional errors and the Empire-defining framework that defined and distorted their very lives.

“Repent and believe” was not just about confessing one’s sins and saying the sinner’s prayer.

In the first message Jesus didn’t preach, Peter told a large Jewish audience to repent and then explained what the word involved:

Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”

(Acts 2:40)

He called them to extricate themselves (to take responsibility, to unplug, to defect, to renounce) from society’s prevailing systems of thought and the factional reactions that defined them.

[For more on the Biblical Response to the Gospel, see the notes below.]

Empire Today

Defining Empire today is a complex topic. While we tease out the subject in the notes below, one aspect of Empire today defines all relationships through the twisted framework of a power struggle.

  • Male, female. Power struggle.
  • Black, white. Power struggle
  • Rich, poor. Power struggle.
  • Young, old. Power struggle.
  • Employer, employee. Power struggle.
  • Political Left, Political Right. Power struggle.

And herein lies the current Culture War, which can be summed up in one question:

Who gets to frame the power struggle and define the oppressor and the oppressed?

Both sides attempt to portray themselves as the oppressed and caricature the opposition as the oppressor, lionising their tribe while demonising the opposition. Words are weaponised and no quarter is given. A fractured society becomes dangerously polarised.

Too often, well-meaning believers become entangled in today’s Culture War. We get sucked into picking sides and our message becomes co-opted by an ideological, political agenda.

Only the Message of Jesus helps us avoid becoming embroiled in this culture-war battleground in which everyone loses. Only the panoramic lens of the Gospel of the Kingdom allows us to serve into this mess with grace, gentleness, kindness, humility, patience and respect.

The ekklesia, God’s executive body, are those called out of societal and religious factions to serve as ambassadors on His behalf, demonstrating the self-giving love of God, from a heart free of pride and prejudice.

If we’re ever going to fulfil our destiny as custodians of all creation, we cannot become embroiled in culture wars or be co-opted by any political or ideological faction.

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