Most people would agree that we live in extraordinary times. It’s not very often in history that we are all so aware of the world as a global village facing a common enemy, scrambling for solutions on multiple levels.
During the past few years, we have often heard the accusations of unscientific thinking and the adulation of science as the “god” of our time. I am, of course, in awe of what science accomplishes and the progress it enables, but in the angry debate on our planet and the problems it is facing, nature and wildlife are elevated above humans. Activists will shout about alternative energy and pollution (which I support of course without the street noise around it), all the while murdering the ultimate symbol of life and hope, a new baby, by the millions. It could be that amongst those babies, the scientist, engineer, genius entrepreneur and other professionals would have grown up to be God’s gift to help solve all our woes.
Abortion, gender identity, race and inequality, to name a few, are sizzling and searing on the fire of partisan politics over the big microphones of the media as well as in our homes and classrooms. Since all of these are real issues and need to be addressed, all of us feel pressurized to form an opinion and grab hold of some wisdom of persons, articles, and even the Bible to justify what we might think is more or less the truth, or the way out of our mess.
Unfortunately, the world is full of idiotic people who do not think like me. Of course, I am justified to point the finger and criticize!
Hear the words of Isaiah:
Indeed, you fast for strife and debate,
And to strike with the fist of wickedness.
You will not fast as you do this day,
To make your voice heard on high. (58:4)
“If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, (58:9b)
For your hands are defiled with blood,
And your fingers with iniquity;
Your lips have spoken lies,
Your tongue has muttered perversity. (59:3)
How should a Christian navigate our public debate today?
Do you remember the little bracelets so popular not too long ago? WWJD – what would Jesus do. In the midst of the popularity of the acronym, I feared that the full impact of the principle would be entirely lost, as so often happens in the contempt of familiarity.
However, it is glaringly relevant to our public debate today.
Let us consider just a little bit of what Jesus did in the public debate of his day, that was not in any way less significant to everyday life than what we are experiencing in our time.
We often find him in public spaces, talking to the sick and hurting but also to the learned and noble, multitudes and individuals. He adjusted his message to the people he addressed. He sat in the night debating the highest Jewish theology with one man, Nicodemus and walked eleven miles to Emmaus with two men discussing his own life and death. In all his conversations it is all about his Father’s business. On the occasion of his angry outburst of violence in the courtyard of the Temple, He clearly stated his goal – to restore his Father’s house as a house of prayer.
In all his years on earth He does not even once mention the Emperor of the mightiest Empire on the face of the earth in all of history. In the midst of cruel discrimination, humiliation, inequality and widespread slavery, his Words are purposefully aimed at Kingdom business. He knows his time is limited. He does not waste a moment. His singular determination to fulfill his destiny impacts mankind in its entirety. Of him the prophet said:
He will not cry out, nor raise His voice,
Nor cause His voice to be heard in the street. (Isaiah 42:2)
The Roman Empire of the first century ruled with a violent presence in spite of a sophisticated legal system and remarkable government administration. They made provision for extensive privileges and even a “better” type of execution for a Roman citizen as opposed to the unspeakable cruelty of other executional methods. You will remember that Paul was beheaded as a Roman Citizen and Peter was crucified upside down. (The upside-down crucifixion was Peter’s own choice as he did not want to die the same way his beloved Jesus did). Crucifixion was considered the worst kind of execution and was cursed in the eyes of the people – Roman as well as other nations. (Galatians 3:13)
The tax system in Judea was crippling and corrupt. It was common for a division of Roman soldiers on horseback to storm a village and collect the outstanding taxes which was not collected by the local appointees of the administrative authorities. The Roman local government administration was impressive for the time. Their record-keeping and census-taking enabled them to keep tabs on everybody. They could easily determine who was paying and who was falling behind. Any person who could not pay, had himself and his children sold in slavery – a harsh sentence for failure to comply.
In Rome, in the four centuries between 200 BC and 200 AD, perhaps a quarter or even a third of the population was made up of slaves. Over time millions of men, women, and children lived their lives in a state of legal and social non-existence with no rights of any kind. They were ‘non-persons” — many did not even have names — they couldn’t own anything, marry, or have legitimate families. In most cases, a Roman slaved lived in hell, having no free time or private life whatsoever. Many wealthy and upper-class Romans used slaves as an extension of their limbs. By any definition slavery was a brutal, violent and dehumanising institution, where slaves were seen as akin to animals.
The most despised members of Jewish society were the Jews, signed up by the Romans for tax collecting amongst their own people. Many were willing, since the corruption lined their own pockets, for which the Romans, with no moral guideline, turned a blind eye, as long as the taxes to the Emperor were duly paid over.
Such a “traitor to his people” was Matthew – yes, the Gospel writer. (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27) He was called by Jesus and was free to follow him. That indicates that his position was voluntary and could be resigned. I am sure, however, that he faced some scrutiny from the local Roman administration. It might have been that Jesus miraculously paved the way for Matthew to become his follower – it is only logical to believe that Jesus set him free of this despised position and maybe sensing in him a deep desire to get out of it. (This is my own deduction of the facts. Maybe it is researched somewhere.)
Judas was a zealot, defined as a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of religious, political, or other ideals. (Does it sound familiar in our day and age?) He was a member of an ancient Jewish sect that aimed at a world Jewish theocracy and actively, and often violently resisted the Romans. The sect was secret and could not protest openly. Their existence was well-known to the Roman authorities. They were aggressively and vigorously persecuted and cruelly punished if caught to serve as an example to others who might consider taking up the cause. The cause was, of course, very justified, as the Romans were cruel colonialists, ruling very oppressively over the land and people they conquered in war.
Matthew and Judas served the same Jesus. They were followers of this man who talked love and mercy, forgiveness and humility, grace and peace. In all of Jesus’ ministry He did not confront the Roman Empire about discrimination, slavery or any of the other injustices and inequality that the content of his own message denounced. He never even mentioned the Roman rulers. He spoke harshly about Herod, a fellow Jew, playing the political game with all the deceit and corruption it demanded. When the leaders targeted taxes in the public debate with Jesus, and his followers asked about the Temple tax, He had easy answers. (Matthew 17:24-27; 22:15-22). The basic principle is that God will provide while ruthless politicians do their nastiest.
Judas felt he should speak out against the oppression of the Romans. He was used to miracles. He had often seen Jesus leave an angry crowd quietly and peacefully, when they had already picked up the stones to kill him. (John 8:59; 10:31). He had seen many healings, deliverance from evil spirits and the fierce confrontations with the Pharisees and Scribes who became so livid that they were almost driven to break the law, by stoning Jesus, there and then in the streets where He taught. The Jewish leadership had no authority from the Romans to execute a person.
Judas was a witness to all the mighty deeds of this Man with whom he walked for three years. No wonder he thought it was time to force his hand. If he could arrange an arrest, just like he knew the leadership would want, he could force Jesus in a situation where He would be confronted by the Romans. Jesus was then in a position to miraculously defeat the Romans and restore Jewish political rule that everybody wanted with what then would be the perfect revenge for years of oppression. The great Law of Moses would be restored as the law of the land and every Jew would be justified by their Jewishness – altogether a good and fair solution to all, except to the Romans – but who cared about them anyway.
The evil plan of Judas took shape. Consumed by his scheming, he missed the big picture. He did not absorb the revelation of the Christ when Peter blurted out: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, and the super-important words of Jesus to Peter confirming that He is the Messiah. (Matthew 16:16) He did not listen when Jesus predicted his own death in an effort to prepare his dear friends of what lay ahead (Matthew 16:21). He had to act on his own. It seems clear that he did not share his plan with the other disciples. Maybe they would have tried to stop him. He probably sensed their true love for Jesus and the Holy Spirit insight that He was the One they have been waiting for. Judas did not realize that Jesus is the One he also had been waiting for, but that his methods screamed against the prejudices and short-sighted vision of how a messiah should act.
Judas did not discern the times. He had to speak out against injustice. In himself his justification was derived from the injustice around him. He looked at life, politics and circumstances without realizing that there was something much bigger happening – something that would impact all of history forever. He gave himself over to his own opinion and played his role in the events in which he would forever be remembered as the traitor
He lived to regret it. When he grasped the impact of his actions and witnessed that very extraordinary arrest when a small army came to take Jesus captive, he sensed something he did not want to see. Jesus did not resist the arrest. He willingly went with the soldiers to set in motion a chain of events that will lead to the Cross.
We do not know how far Judas followed the events of that night. We meet him again, when he runs back to the Temple in an attempt to reverse his actions. He proclaimed to the priests: I have betrayed innocent blood and threw down the money. His death that same night is a tragedy. (Matthew. 27:3-5)
Peter also followed Jesus and denied him three times. He was close enough to his Friend to look him in the eye and see the perfect love flowing out from God himself. In his brokenness and regret, he found his brothers and was there when Jesus met him again after the Resurrection and restored him. I have no doubt that there was restoration for Judas as well, had he had the courage to face his Friend again. In the darkness of his betrayal, he still did not realize with whom he had to do and therefore, could not recognize the larger place in history of this man with whom he walked the earth.
May God grant us grace to walk wisely, to see deeper and to discern the times in which we live. It is just too easy to get tangled in the issues of the day and miss the purpose of God.
Again, we hear the cry of Habakkuk: The just shall live by faith. We are not called to fix the world. We are called to live faithfully in our world. We are not called to voice opinion, except if you are in a position where your input is demanded and it is your job in which you fully rely on God to make you wise and work the gift of discernment in you.
“This is what the Lord says—
the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker:
Concerning things to come,
do you question me about my children,
or give me orders about the work of my hands? (Isaiah 45:11, NIV)