Was Jesus an Activist?
The Gospels provide us with a number of the ways in which Jesus engaged in social activism. Jesus’ story is one of standing up to unjust structures and systems of dominance. He continually spoke out for the marginalized and abused. He took a stand for love, human rights, freedom and justice. While Jesus is often referred to as a gentle pacifist who advocated “turning the other cheek” he was certainly not reluctant to challenge the authority of the Pharisees and the Sadducees with whom he debated fiercely and frequently.
It is important to remember that Jesus was a Jewish prophet, in the tradition of the eighth century prophets such as Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. The primary role of the prophet was to make known the Word of God, and call the Jewish people back to the heart and soul of God’s laws. The prophets also denounced injustice, idolatry, and empty rituals. Because they were frequently at odds with the local authorities, the prophets often found themselves in trouble. This was certainly true for Jesus as well.
During Jesus’ time the Romans allowed the Jews to govern themselves. The governing body, the Sanhedrin, was comprised of two groups of wealthy, influential men called the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They were responsible for interpreting Jewish law and teaching it to the people. Jesus called them hypocrites and criticized them for overcharging the poor and misinterpreting Jewish law. Likewise, the Pharisees criticized Jesus and were constantly trying to catch him breaking one of the many Jewish laws.
When the Pharisees chastised Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, he replied, “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and he proceeded to perform a healing against the wishes of the Pharisees. Another time when Jesus was challenged for “working” on the Sabbath he said, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do harm, or to do good, to save life or destroy it?” And he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand,” and the man was healed.
Another time Jesus responded to the law of keeping kosher by stating “It is not what goes in to the mouths of man, but what comes out of the mouths of man which is of the greatest value.” With this statement, Jesus chose to reinterpret a minor law which often took advantage of poor people who could not afford the high prices of kosher food.
Jesus also spoke out against hypocrisy. When a woman was caught in adultery and about to be stoned. Jesus put a stop to it by saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” He wrote something in the sand and the people turned and walked away.
Jesus resisted other laws by sitting with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other so-called sinners. He spoke about the kingdom of heaven not as a physical location but as a state of mind available to everyone, regardless of wealth or social standing.
Render Unto Caesar
Many people believe that Jesus advised the Jewish people to pay taxes to Caesar, but other biblical scholars interpret his answer another way. One day the Pharisees wanted to test Jesus’ skills as a rabbi and they asked him sarcastically, “We know you’re such a wise rabbi, tell us, is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” Now Jesus knew he was being tested, so in rabbinical fashion he answered the question with another question. He said, “Why are you trying to trap me? Show me the face on the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s” they replied. On the other side of the coin the inscription read, “High priest, son of the God Caesar Augustus.
Now Jesus knew that the first and second commandments which say “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” and “Thou shalt not make any graven images” were the most important of all the Jewish laws. Jesus understood that if he told the Pharisees it was forbidden to pay taxes to Caesar because it would be the same as worshipping another God, he would be inciting people to rebel against the authority of the state, and would be arrested for sedition. He also knew that if he suggested they should pay taxes to Caesar, he would be violating the greatest and most sacred Jewish commandment. So he simply said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render unto God the things that are God’s.” Now this statement does not endorse paying taxes to the Roman government. It actually returns the question back to the questioner by posing a set of alternatives. In other words, if you believe Caesar is God, then the Jewish people would be required to pay taxes. However, if you believe Caesar is not God, then it would be a sin to pay taxes. Scripture then says the Pharisees walked away amazed. Jesus left it up to them to determine for themselves whether or not they were willing to break the holiest of Jewish laws by acknowledging that Caesar was God.
Overturning the Tables of the Moneychangers
The other important act of civil disobedience was when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers. Now, in front of the temple was a large enclosed courtyard where money changers exchanged Roman money into Jewish currency. This enabled the worshippers to buy animals approved by the temple officials for sacrifice. Everyone knew that the money changers charged an exorbitant rate of exchange and the temple officials who sold the animals for sacrifice made a huge profit as well. This was a terrible hardship for the poor who looked forward all week to going into the temple to worship. Jesus believed that the right to worship should be free to all. So, on the eve of Passover, which is the holiday celebrating freedom from slavery, Jesus walked into the courtyard and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, calling them a den of thieves and not worthy of representing a house of God.
Blessed are the Poor
Clearly Jesus was an advocate of the poor. He was very disapproving of wealthy opportunists and believed that the government was filled with hypocrites. It was not a government of the people, but a government of greed and violence. There are many examples in the teachings of Jesus that speak to his respect for the poor and disenfranchised, particularly in The Beatitudes. He demonstrated a clear understanding of a need for social change based on the commandment he believed to be most important, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” In my opinion, Jesus, as teacher and way shower, was an activist, who fully embodied the spiritual principles he came to teach.