Prophet, But Not Priest or King: Another Flawed Political Reading of Jesus’ Teachings

In his article, “What the Beatitudes Teach”—published in the neoconservative/libertarian journal, Policy Review—Tod Lindberg discusses the social and political implications of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3-12). The thesis is both simple and revealing:
The Beatitudes provide a dizzying commentary designed to turn upside down the political and social world of the Roman Empire of Caesar Augustus and of the Jewish religious elite of Judea and Jerusalem. This is the opening move of a more drastic and fundamental reassessment of political and social affairs, applying not only to its own time but to all future times, down to our day. More still: It points to the increasing fulfillment in this world of the promise of the human condition as such — and of the struggle against vast and daunting but not insurmountable obstacles that such fulfillment will require.
A couple things to notice: first, like many contemporary readers of Scripture, Lindberg interprets the Gospel accounts through a sociopolitical lens, in which Jesus is more of a revolutionary than a redeemer; second, the emphasis is on the fulfillment of Christ’s kingdom promises here and now (“in this world”). Neither of these are problematic on their own, but they can lead to a rather myopic interpretation of the Gospels if they are not placed in the broader context of Jesus’ own mission of reconciliation. In other words, talking about the political implications of the kingdom ends up being merely anthropology without talking about the one who actualized the kingdom in his life, death, and resurrection—i.e., without a robust christology underpinning it.

The rest of Lindberg’s (very long) essay contains some interesting and even profound statements, but the theological hole (christology) remains apparent throughout. He captures the communal, social nature of the Beatitudes very well. He recognizes that the Beatitudes always speak in terms of “groups of people,” not individuals. He also recognizes that Jesus’ sayings focus on common desires, and thus argues that “Jesus holds out the prospect of reconciliation of each individual’s desire for righteousness and universal fulfillment.” In other words, Jesus rejects the common impulse in modernity to see each individual’s desires as in direct conflict with the desires of others. Instead, Jesus seeks to bring people together for the sake of creating a new and different world ordered according to Jesusian principles.

The basic thrust of his thesis, therefore, is that Jesus gives these teachings in order to bring about a social revolution: “His ambitious political agenda is to rid the world of both persecuted and persecutors — opposite sides of the coin of persecution.” While this is certainly true, Lindberg seems to think that this Jesusian social movement is possible through strenuous moral effort—i.e., by striving to live in accordance with the Beatitudes. The following is an extended selection from the end of the article which exposes Lindberg’s theological mistake (italics added for emphasis):
At first glance, the main purpose of the Beatitudes seems to be to offer various consolations to the downtrodden. But while Jesus does this, he also propounds a stern standard of judgment and offers strict guidance for good behavior for those who find themselves in a position of privilege. This injunction takes the form of a warning: The days of abusive privilege are numbered. Jesus’ is not merely an ethereal threat, bound up in the afterlife and a world to come, which the nonbeliever can spurn with contempt in favor of worldly enjoyment. It is a threat based on changes coming to this world. It is a threat dangerous to ignore in the here-and-now. . . .

Jesus says that what is right, according to the Beatitudes, “shall” come to pass; he does not say when. However, the cumulative effect of the positive, stated promises of the Beatitudes and the negative, unstated repercussions for those who oppose righteousness point to a question that will be asked in this world about those who have come before: What side were you on? Did you defend your privileges at the expense of others or work to uplift those who found themselves downtrodden? Did you act only for yourself, or did you think of others as best you could, whenever you could? Did you run risks for what’s right, or was the risk you ran that the righteous would prevail? The merciless, the persecutors, the purveyors of conflict, the defenders of privilege — Jesus’s point is that they live in a world governed by fear, and he invites them to reflect on what might happen if the world turned on them and they suddenly became the ones with cause to fear.

But that world is not the world Jesus is promoting. In a world ordered according to Jesusian principles, there will be no persecution, even for those who have made a transition from a world in which they were persecutors. Even those who have been unmerciful will be shown mercy. Their fear of a world in which the tables are turned on them is in fact displaced fear of a more primordial — one might say existential — kind: a world that has no place for them. A world in which the attributes of privilege that they believe are essential to their being have been obliterated. A world in which they, in their conception of themselves, cannot continue to be. A world in which they must change if they are to remain. Jesus confronts the “bad person” not with something so simple — and easy to reject — as a competing model of how to live a better life. Rather, he forces a radical confrontation within the “bad person” over the very possibility of his or her continued existence.

. . . The Jesusian political agenda is thus organized around the pursuit of righteousness by those who are able — at potential risk to their own lives — for the sake of a world in which the unvalued (including they themselves when they are persecuted) are at last fully valued as human beings.

How, then, does Jesus envision that the gentle will come to inherit the earth? Because the once-mighty, under pressure of precisely this kind, will die out as a type. They will change their minds about defending their privileges at the expense of others. And the world will be their dying bequest to the gentle.
Lindberg gets some things right, but other things very wrong. He is quite right that Jesus confronts a person not with a “competing model of how to live a better life,” but rather with an existential crisis. He confronts a person with “the very possibility of his or her continued existence.” But Lindberg is stuck in a moralistic framework which divides people into two groups: “good people” and “bad people.” The scare-quotes only qualify this distinction so much. Lindberg still thinks Jesus divides people into two moral categories: those who abide by his teachings and those who do not. The former constitute the kingdom, the new sociopolitical world which “his teaching will build in this world.” (As Lindberg states, very tellingly, “It’s their kingdom.”) The latter, on the other hand, will (in time) simply “die out as a type.” Jesus only confronts the “bad people.” The existential crisis only concerns those people who are not already in line with his social revolution. The crisis is thus a moral one, not a truly ontological crisis.

This leads me to my final and main criticism. The Jesus presented here by Lindberg is a prophet who proclaims a radically new kingdom—“a kingdom organized not from the top down, but from the bottom up”—but he is not a priest who reconciles the world to God, nor is a king who rules the world with peace and justice. Jesus is simply the prophet whose words alone are the basis for the kingdom. His life, death, and resurrection are marginal to the picture Lindberg paints. Jesus does not establish the kingdom through a mission of redemption, but rather he teaches others how to bring about the kingdom for themselves. Jesus does not rule the kingdom as the risen and ascended king, but leaves the world to the meek and poor to bring about through their own moral effort. Righteousness, according to Lindberg, is something realized “by those who are able”—i.e., the “good people.” It is not realized by the Righteous One, the Messiah. The mighty and privileged do not “die out” because of the cross which crucifies the sin of humanity, but because “they will change their minds.”

In the end, Lindberg offers an anthropocentric, rather than christocentric, political reading of the Beatitudes. His interpretation results in an impotent Jesus incapable of accomplishing the New Jerusalem promised by the covenant between God and God’s people. Jesus proclaims a political agenda—which is (correctly) immanent but (incorrectly) not eschatological—but he is incapable of accomplishing this agenda. Jesus is prophet, but not priest or king. Lindberg portrays Jesus as a wise revolutionary worthy of our attention, but not the Son of God worthy of our worship.