Jesus lived in an unjust society and throughout his life witnessed the constant abuse of his people by the Roman Empire. Not only this, but his religious tradition consistently reminded him of how often the Jewish people had been enslaved by cruel empires such as Babyon and Egypt. This bleak reality is what fueled the messianic hope within the Jewish religion – an oppressed people longed for someone to liberate them for the hellish reality they often experienced and allow them to live in peace. So Jesus, like many other young religious Jews of his day, was inspired to seek to bring about liberation for his people. Many other would-be messiahs sought to liberate the Jewish people by force, organizing mass rebellion. Time and time again, these efforts failed – it was nearly impossible to fight against the most powerful empire the world had ever seen.
Jesus, on the other hand, sought a different kind of revolution. His was a social revolution, one that usurped the power of the oppressor through choosing to live in an alternative social order right under their noses. If Jesus could win over the masses to living in his new reality, called the kingdom of God, whereby they cared for and provided for one another, trusting in the provision and protection of God, Rome’s power would be rendered moot. Jesus’ vision of subversion was subtle; he called his people to continue to participate in the requirements of the empire – “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17 KJV) – while simultaneously living within the economy of God. Eventually, as more people began to live according to this way, Rome would find itself with little means of control over the Jewish people. The empire would literally be defeated through the power of love, compassion, and faith.
But as idyllic as this sounds, Jesus knew full well that inspiring any revolutionary effort would likely get him killed. At the heart of the matter was a question of worship. The Roman Empire was so effective in part because of its psychological and spiritual demands on the peoples it colonized. Every subject of the empire was required to worship the emperor as a god. Across every Roman colony one would see buildings and coins declaring “Caesar is Lord.” Roman officials would hail Caesar as the “son of god” and declare him the “savior of the world.” The Jewish tradition had long stood opposed to any such demands by any colonizing empire – the Hebrew Bible recounts numerous stories of faithful heroes who refused to bow to narcissistic kings, reserving their reverence for God alone. Jesus followed in this tradition – worship was due to God alone, and a crucial part of the new kingdom he sought to inaugurate was honoring the true Lord and God of all creation.
From “Filled to Be Emptied: The Path to Liberation for Privileged People” by Brandan Robertson – Westminster John Knox Press