Advent: Politics, Religion, Prophecy, and Christmas


Those who say that politics should have nothing to do with religion should think about the ancient Hebrew prophets. Consider the case of the prophet Isaiah. He wasn't just a prophet; he was an important figure in Judah's politics, consulted as an adviser by the kings of Judah. And the kings of Judah needed all the advice they could get, because they were facing Empires more powerful than their tiny country, and the very survival of their nation-state was often at stake.

One of the kings who consulted Isaiah for advice was the young King Ahaz, who was caught between a rock and a hard place when he assumed the throne during a major political crisis. On the one hand, his neighboring states Israel and Syria, vassals of the Assyrian Empire, were in open rebellion against the Assyrians, and they were demanding that Ahaz's kingdom of Judah join their little coalition of the willing because those two countries alone couldn't defeat the local superpower. Israel and Syria thus besieged Jerusalem in order to force Judah to join the alliance; if Jerusalem fell, not only would the consequences not be pleasant for Ahaz's personal well being, but the fact was that being dragged into a war against a powerful empire could result in doom for Judah, should they be defeated. Ahaz needed to know--should he wait out the siege, or should he appeal to Assyria for help? Yet appealing to Assyria also could reduce Judah to essentially a vassal state of Assyria, and that didn't seem very pleasant either.

Isaiah, being an ethical prophet of his time, tied Judah's fortunes in the geopolitics of his day to such things as how Judah treated the poor and the orphaned and the widow. Prophets could be such cranks some times. This is not the sort of thing that Ahaz wanted to hear. He was a practical man, and wanted practical solutions, and didn't want to hear about social justice, nor did he believe in his heart that if he just trusted Yahweh, as Isaiah urged, everything would turn out okay. If Ahaz's sense of social justice was inferior to Isaiah's, his theodicy was apparently more advanced. So Ahaz did what seemed to be the practical thing and he wanted simply to appeal for help from Assyria so he could throw off the invaders, believing that he probably could not successfully wait out the siege of Jerusalem.

This pissed off Isaiah, who then offered a sign to prove to Ahaz that he should just wait out the siege and trust God to help him. A child would be born to a young woman, and the child would be named Immanuel ("God is with us"). Who this young woman was is unknown to us today--was it Isaiah's wife, or was it one of Ahaz's, perhaps? In any case, this sign was offered as a way of convincing Ahaz to wait out the siege.

So what does this have to do with the birth of Jesus? Well, nothing, actually. Except--except that the Gospel writer Matthew took a mistranslated Greek version of the passage in Isaiah that refers to a young woman giving birth; the Greek version referred to her as a virgin, rather than simply a young woman. And Matthew then tied that passage to the supposed virgin birth of Jesus. Jesus was thus said to have fulfilled the scriptures, even though his name was Jesus and not Immanuel.

There are several ways of looking at this. One way is to imagine that Hebrew prophecy in the Old Testament frequently consisted of predictions of future events that had nothing to do with the immediate geopolitical events that they were ostensibly addressing. According to this view, Matthew, despite the mistranslation of "young woman", realized that this ancient passage in Isaiah was a prediction of a future event, namely the virgin birth of Jesus.

The problem with that is that Isaiah was clearly addressing King Ahaz, not future generations, and the birth of a child to a young woman was taken to be a sign specifically for King Ahaz to follow a particular course of action. So, taken in a literal sense, Matthew just plain got it wrong, and was using a Biblical passage out of context in order to serve as a proof text to stretch a point. Matthew was hung up on the idea that Jesus fulfilled Hebrew scriptures, and in his zeal he got a little carried away.

There is another way to look at this, though. While it is true in a literal way that it makes no sense to take the passage in Isaiah as a prediction of Jesus's birth, there is a broader sense that we can consider matters. Isaiah was trying to tell Ahaz that "God is with us". Isaiah may have had the mistaken notion that if the poor and the widow and the orphans are treated well, nothing bad could happen to his people. His theodicy was not as well developed on this score as, say, the authors of Ecclesiastes or Job, who realized that just because you live a life pleasing to God, that doesn't mean that bad things don't happen to you. But his heart, as a prophet, was in the right place. As a prophet, it wasn't his job to predict events taking place 700 or 800 years later. Among other things, it was his job to address the social injustice that he saw in his own time. Provisional predictions of divine intervention were the best way he knew how of conveying this point. Isaiah was right about one thing--his nation needed to treat the down and out better than they did.

When Matthew, 800 years later, wrote his Gospel, he was trying to convey in his own way the same basic point that "God is with us". Just as Isaiah interpreted an event in his time as a sign for King Ahaz, Matthew believed that God's presence was made known to us via a new sign, namely the events surrounding the life of a man who was born some 80 years or so before Matthew wrote his Gospel.

When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, he was telling us that God is with us. According to Luke 17:21, Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you." Similarly, in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as having said, "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside you."

If God's kingdom if here within us, as Jesus is thought to have asserted, then indeed, Jesus is saying what Isaiah also said. Rather than focusing on Matthew's overzealous need to interpret Jesus's life in terms of an ancient prophecy that had nothing to do with Jesus per se, perhaps it would be more useful to remind ourselves of the more important point, the point that both Isaiah and Matthew--and Jesus--were trying to convey. What modern Christians can celebrate is this notion that God is with us.

What this means is that God was with us long before Isaiah spoke to Ahaz, God was with us long before Jesus was born, and God is still with us today. The value of Jesus's life is that he believed fully that God was with us and he lived his life according to that belief. His faithfulness in God was absolute. He demonstrated his belief in God's immanence in often radical ways. Perhaps the world is full of signs for people of faith that God is with us. For Isaiah, it was the birth of a young woman in Ahaz's time. For Matthew, it was the birth of Jesus. For all of us living today, can we think about what the signs that God is with us? Is it possible that they are everywhere, if we will only look?


Matthew said...

Perhaps the world is full of signs for people of faith that God is with us. ....Is it possible that they are everywhere, if we will only look?

YES! Reality is all around us (and inside us). People miss it because they are too involved it trying to get what they want (they don't trust God).

In Buddhism 'desire' is recognized as one of those key things that keep people from 'waking up'. Why don't Christians recognize it as well?


OneSmallStep said...

**When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, he was telling us that God is with us. **

When the kingdom of God is viewed in this way, it can really call into question the whole notion of heaven being a "place." If the kingdom is all-present, like God is, can there be a place where the kingdom is not? And thus if the kingdom fills all space, then is it even a place? Usually, place is contrasted against "not place." Like, "Place A is a field. Place B is a not-field." Places generally have beginnings and endings.

Mystical Seeker said...

I agree with you , Matthew. I think that God is constantly speaking to us. But I also think that it is easy for us to miss the signs precisely because God is so intimately involved in the world. We can't stand back and look objectively at God, because God involved with being itself.

I also agree that Christianity could learn some things from Buddhism.

One Small Step, I think that some people misconstrue the Kingdom of God as referring to salvation in an afterlife. I agree with you that the Kingdom of God is not a place. I think that was also how Jesus understood it.

Michael said...

If the Kingdom of God is not a place, how do you reconcile John 14:1-4? Jesus tells His disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them. Just a little something interesting I wanted to add to the mix.

Mystical Seeker said...

I find it pretty hard to take literally anything attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Putting aside for a moment the question of how likely it is that the words attributed to Jesus in that Gospel are authentic (I would say not very), we also have to note that the Jesus of John's Gospel tends to speak so ethereally and parabolically that that you have to interpret what pretty much everything he says in that light. So I think it is about as likely that he was saying that heaven was a literal place in that passage as it was that he was saying that he was literally living bread or that he was literally the light of the world as John had him saying in other passages.