Jesus: Conservative or Liberal? An Analysis

But what does Jesus have to do with modern political categories? Whether one leans left or right? In a sense, these are fair questions and they illustrate the somewhat anachronistic nature of our query.

Yet it should not surprise us that people want to know where Jesus could or would be placed (or place himself) in the social and political questions of our times. It is, in a sense, only natural to wonder how a man such as he, who was widely loved and respected by people in his time as well as ours, would view such things.

In order to answer this question fairly or accurately as possible, some assumptions must be made. Despite the widespread claim[1] that Jesus was not a historical figure, we assume that he was for the sake of discussion. The gospels themselves give us a detailed and, we believe, an accurate account of his genealogy, family life, events and teachings. Indeed, so much so that to dismiss them out of hand or to ignore them as evidence jeopardizes the study of history and the accuracy of historical record itself.

The second assumption is that the gospels record the life and witness of the man Jesus without second guessing what he did or did not actually say.[2] The reason being is that the whole of the Christian church, in all its branches and expressions, agrees that the 29 books of the New Testament are a faithful presentation of Jesus life and teaching as handed down to us from the earliest days of his followers.

Moreover, to contest the accuracy of large portions of the gospels renders the question of Jesus’ political leanings largely meaningless for, if this was true, one could simply choose to ignore anything that prejudices one in the opposite direction. The gospel record (canon) would then simply become moving goalposts that could be situated wherever or in whatever one way wants the conclusion to be reached.

The third assumption or “control” is that we will restrict ourselves to the gospel record of his teaching and ministry, resisting an urge to delve into others interpretations of that teaching and ministry found elsewhere in scripture. This is not to undermine the biblical canon[3] as a unified whole but only to help along the one who will not be persuaded by other arguments from scripture but may or indeed will listen more openly to that which pertains directly to or from Jesus himself.

The fourth “control” is that we will avoid discussing about exclusively contemporary issues which Jesus’ teaching has little or no bearing on. Whether or not scripture at large, for example, addresses the matter of climate change is one thing, but even by a cursory reading of the gospels it is difficult to see how one can come to the conclusion that Jesus addresses that matter. This will not, however, preclude an examination of those issues that pertain to the time in which we live if we can find some parallel in Jesus teaching or an obvious assumption he held that would be the lens through which Jesus would interpret or respond to such an issue if it were to be presented in his time.

We must first begin by defining our terms. I am going to speak of conversativism and liberalism in terms of philosophical viewpoints or worldviews more so than relating them to any political party. In this way, conservatism is related to the idea of stability and maintenance of older or least current practice and ideals. In general, a conservative would be in favour of the status quo or even a return to the status quo. They would see value in continuing in the ways of previous generations and have a positive view towards the history of their nation, people etc. and thus a respect and even reverence towards authority structures and figures as well tradition itself. In this way, it would typically value the whole or community over the individual.

Liberalism, on the other hand, wants to challenge the status quo and is not content with simply receiving the wisdom from the past. In some forms, it might be seen as the overthrow of past institutions and, what are perceived to be, oppressive relationships with the purpose of liberating the individual. Liberalism would look more skeptically at the value of history determining truth for today and strive to limit the power of group think/action for the benefit of all.

With these definitions in mind, let us explore something of the life of Jesus to see whether one is justified by putting him in one category one another.

It is customary in today’s liberal worldview to view Jesus as the champion of the oppressed and socially stigmatized. This is often presented in terms of immigrant rights, social security and healthcare. Since, according to this idea, Jesus is concerned about and relates mostly to the poor, we ought to think and work politically and socially in these terms as well.

Notwithstanding the understanding of “poor” as a more of a heart condition than a socio-economic one,[4] Jesus’ ministry was quite prominent amongst the poor and it encouraged more than a few of them to follow him. Some of the most destitute of his time were those whom Jesus loved to call out and favour over and above the richest of all. Consider how Jesus defines his ministry to John the Baptist in Matthew 11:5: “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” The poor here most likely refer to those in a particular physical or economic condition since the previous categories are physical as well.

There can be no doubt that Jesus condemned the rich, at least insofar as they refused to show compassion to the poor among them.[5] Being rich puts stumbling blocks in the way to salvation (Mark 10:23-34) and thus unfettered accumulation of wealth is no definite sign of divine favour.

However, we must contend with other data as well. Though the command is often presented in a universal fashion, Jesus never requires every rich person to sell all that they possess and give to the poor. This is illustrated in the example of Zacchaeus who voluntarily sold of his possessions to repay those whom he had stolen from.[6]

Jesus allowed himself to be lavished upon, even to the extent that the poor might, conceivably, be neglected in that act itself (Matthew 26:8-13). More to the point, Jesus even went so far as to imply that he was and is more important than the poor for the latter would always be among them but “me ye have not always.”[7]

Furthermore, Jesus is not above what some might call thinly or not so thinly veiled prejudice when he says to the Gentile woman that food for the children ought not to be given to the dogs (Matthew 15:26). He clearly held to a Jewish priority, not only in his ministry in general (Matthew 10:5,6 & 15:24), but even in what he perceived to be the superiority of one religious (and arguably ethnic) culture over another (John 4:22).

Pursuant to the last text, the Samaritans, presumably an ethnic and religious minority and though hypothetically esteemed in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, are plainly told that their religious tradition is misguided. Only in the Jews can salvation be found, for they know what they worship.

In short, Jesus’ approach to certain disenfranchised groups cannot really be squared with either political or social perspective. Jesus defies such categorisation.

But what, some say, of Jesus perspective on love? Liberals or liberalism trumpet this as essential to, if not the essential message and practice of Jesus’ ministry and life. It certainly is true that Jesus challenged his conservative opponents about their duty to love their neighbour. Matthew 5:43-44: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”

Clearly the statement “ye have heard” (emphasis mine) that is repeated in this section of the sermon refers to the oral tradition of the Pharisees (which in many ways they viewed as equal to or at least a faithful explanation of the canon of scripture). Yet for Jesus this oral tradition was not sufficient for his disciples: they must go beyond what they have been taught but love others in deeper and more fundamental way. They must not just love those who agree with them (friends such as those committed to a common way of life, nation or religious perspective) but even those who oppose their way of life.

To return to an economical perspective, Jesus even taught that money itself was loved far too much by the people of his day and that they would have to choose between “God and Mammon” (Luke 16:13). Verse 14 is especially revealing insofar as we see his intended audience was the conservative Pharisees “who were covetous.”

However, as we saw in the previous subject, this presentation of Jesus teaching on love is
too narrow. Consider even the most basic command to love, which is presented in this way: to love our enemies. To speak someone as an enemy is, in the jargon of today’s social justice warrior, “othering.” This, by definition is controlling and manipulative because they are being defined by you (as opposed to being able to assign their own identity). Jesus approach, however, did not necessarily effect reconciliation or peace[8] between warring parties but to effect a change in the heart of Christ followers towards those who treat them terribly.

And we see that, in many ways worldly people and those in those churches that embrace progressive ways of thinking, challenge the conservative voices of our time to not only think more like Jesus but act more like Jesus. They will say: Jesus loved everyone and treated everyone with respect. Yet not only does he chastise the conservative Pharisees, but also the more liberal minded[9] Sadducees. Jesus even consigns whole cities to the pit of hell (Matthew 11:20ff.). He also speaks approvingly of the judgment of the great flood and the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah (Luke 17:26ff). Perhaps then, if we are objective at all, we see that Jesus tells all, even those whom he loved the most, hurtful and painful truths that were terribly difficult to hear.

Furthermore, Jesus does not think of the command to love as call to arms against tradition or teachings that are rooted in the law of God. In Luke 11:42 Jesus warns his opponents: “But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” Technically the tithe of herbs was not commanded by God, but Jesus only condemns this exact obedience when it undermines the more fundamental duty to love God.

Perhaps Matthew 23:23 is even clearer in its implications: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Though justice is claimed by both sides in today’s debates ranging from issues of human rights, war, and the distribution of social coffers, there can be no doubt that justice and mercy hold equal favour in Jesus’ view of love and obedience.

Perhaps most shocking aspect of Jesus’ teaching about love all is his understanding of its highest form, which is clearly that given to God (Matthew 22:37-38 the first and greatest commandment). Though clearly one does not obey God by withholding love from one’s neighbour, Jesus’ view of love was not primarily man-centred. This figures prominently in the way that he ended his life on earth (by a terrible form of execution) and how he was abandoned by his closest disciples. Jesus sacrifice is given out of love but always first and foremost as an act of obedience directed towards his heavenly father (John 10:17-18).[10]

Of course, we cannot then pass by Jesus’ statement in Matthew 10:37 where he claims that his disciples must choose between their love for family and himself. In an interesting “twist” this verse can really be used against both conservativism and liberalism. As we already noted, the former would emphasise loyalty, honour as well as “family values” whereas the latter would emphasise individualism and freedom from human institutions and structures. In one sense, Jesus is speaking against the conservative viewpoint since loyalty to family is subordinate to something greater and yet he is also challenging the liberal viewpoint that the alternative to family is the individual. Rather, it is Jesus himself, not one’s own flesh and blood, that must be exalted in the end. For neither country, family, neighbour, or any fellow man of any category comes before Christ.

To move on, what of the current discussions about marriage and family? Does Jesus hold to any particular perspective? Perhaps the best way to consider this is in contrast to the prevailing view(s) of his time. Bearing in mind that the Pharisees were likely only bested in their conservatism by the stringent Essenes, it is striking to see that they simultaneously held a fairly liberal view of divorce (Matthew 5:31). Yet Jesus as Rabbi[11] made it clear that he did not hold to such a conviction.[12] Clearly then, for Jesus, marriage vows are binding on all parties and never to be treated so lightly and flippantly as they are by many today.

Whereas today, in fact, both conservatives and liberals (in and outside the church) are guilty of flaunting this teaching, Jesus condemns such an attitude as unworthy of those who claim to be his disciples.

Furthermore, Jesus promoted the Genesis account as normative where “in the beginning it was not so” (vs. 8). This same account tells us that God made them “male and female.” Though not saying anything objectionable to his original audience,[13] Jesus is defying today’s gender neutral beliefs, even if not categorically addressing those who advocate for such a position.

At the same time, Jesus does not view the marriage relationship as ultimately definitive of a normal or healthy state of being, since he speaks “liberally” towards those who would not given to marriage (Matthew 19:12) which presumably would speak against the almost exclusively family oriented views of the Jewish people of the time. In short, for Jesus neither marriage nor sexuality truly define what we are in God’s eyes and a failure to see this as central to the debates about what marriage, sexuality and gender are and have been blinders on the eyes of both conservatives and liberals in our generation.

Keep in mind too that Jesus condemns lust as a perversion of the heart (Matthew 5:28). This problem is found within us, not merely in societal or political structures, as evidenced by the fact that plenty of the men who are being accused on either side of the political and social spectrum.

But who is the problem? Is the problem men? Jesus is not definitively limiting it to men (as in this is only for men) but it is instructive that it is primarily addressed to men. For he addresses men in particular in the words “whosoever looketh on a woman.”[14] Yet Jesus’ solution is not merely to legislate how men conduct themselves around women[15] but rather for men to consider what they are doing is damaging even to self as his following words make clear (vss. 29-30), particularly as one understands God’s just and eternal judgment against those who sin in this way with impunity. In particular, lust itself is evil because it causes us to desire to control others for our own benefit, which is against the law of love.[16]

I want to conclude this piece by examining one more matter that typically divides conservatism and liberalism: authority. In many ways, Jesus has a very conservative view of authority. He speaks of the authoritative judgment of the church (Matthew 18:17) which almost certainly applied directly to the Sanhedrin. Indeed, he even tells his disciples to listen and obey the scribes and Pharisees because they sit in Moses’ seat (Matthew 23:3).

Jesus also speaks highly of parental authority against the views so-called conservatives of his day who would transgress the fifth commandment by adhering to their tradition (Matthew 15:3ff.).[17] Jesus teaches his disciples to respect their wider family circles by healing Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38ff.), having compassion and healing a widow’s only child (Luke 7:11), and even providing and caring for his own mother while he was suffering on the cross. (John 19:25-26)

Jesus taught his disciples to respect the civil authorities as well. Caesar’s right to tax was upheld (Mark 12:17) as well as those of the temple authorities (Matthew 17:24-27) even though they were free from the latter, being sons of their heavenly Father.

However, we should not be surprised that Jesus said many things that could be construed in the other direction. We have already considered what he said about loyalty to family and how it (potentially) conflicts with loyalty to him. Indeed, by way of personal example, when his earthly parents wanted to know why he hung back at the temple he said: “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49) He also seemingly dismissed his own mother’s demands at one time by saying: “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come” (John 2:4).

Jesus also undermined the Pharisees, Sadducees and other church leaders root and branch, not only in terms of their teaching and defying their demands (Luke 20:8) but their very persons, calling them sons of the devil (John 8:44). Jesus also witnessed truth to Pilate (John 18:37), even challenging his ultimate power over Jesus (which was limited by Jesus’ heavenly appointment – John 19:11).

In short, Jesus defies all expectations and not only cannot be forced into any preconceived mold he will not be. For the very idea is contrary to one of, if not the, central message of Jesus concerning the kingdom of God which is, by its very origin and nature, a rejection of the kingdom of man. The reality is that Jesus came not to establish or baptize any political or social movement or program but only that of the heavenly. This would be neither conservative or liberal.[18] Some aspects of its program may share something in common with either perspective but neither captures the essence of what Jesus taught and lived out: “Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee” (John 17:1).

We must reject (directly or indirectly) the idea that Jesus can be used in such a way and refuse to be manipulated by those[19] who would deceive his followers for personal gain. From the beginning men have tried to use his name or influence as some kind of pawn in their games of power and control,[20] but it ought not to be this way.

For truthfully and unabashedly, Jesus is Lord. Treat him that way.

“But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.” Matthew 11:16-19

1. Though not necessarily a widely held belief.
2. Such as taught by the so-called Jesus seminar.
3. See Westminster Confession of Faith 1.2.
4. At least in some contexts (see Matthew 5:5). Presumably Jesus was influenced by such passages as Psalm 86:1 where the context speaks to destitution of spirit, that is terms of a need of God’s mercy in forgiveness, not a plea for basic, human needs or rights.
5. Such as the rich man in the Lazarus story (Luke 16:19ff.) and the Pharisees who “devours widows’ houses” (Matthew 23:14).
6. With little or no prompting from Jesus.
7. This story is recounted in three of the four gospels which also illustrates its importance in what it holds out to us.
8. Which by definition is impossible –at least in the universal sense. See Matthew 5:11-12 & John 15:17-20.
9. Or at least liberal minded for the day in which they lived.
10. Which demonstrates that questions about our treatment of our fellow man are ultimately questions about divinity since the existence of a real city of man (with a unified political vision) presupposes the city of God (see Hebrews 11:15-16).
11. “I say unto you” which, note, is an imposition of authority.
12. In the exceptional case of adultery (vs. 32).
13. It is difficult, if not impossible, to receive, with a straight face, the claim that a first century, Jewish man would have any sympathy for homosexual and transgendered concerns. 
14. Consistent with his teaching on divorce as we have considered: “whosoever shall put away his wife.”
15. Though in my opinion this would not violate anything Jesus taught.
16. Clearly unfettered sexuality, in terms of readily accessible pornography and the like, should not be viewed as a good fruit or expression of sexual desire. We have been told that those who repress themselves, we were told, only do damage to themselves and their self image or worth but one hopes that we now see that this unbridled enthusiasm for every break with a sexualized norm is harmful to everyone.
17. Which, instructively, demonstrates that even values within a political and/or social perspective (in this case conservatism) can betray one another.
18. Or, for that matter, neutral: Matthew 12:30 “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.”
19. Right or left, conservative or liberal.
20. See Mark 10:35ff., Luke 12:13 & Acts 19:13-17. 

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