Jesus' Left and Right Wing Disciples

Scott Sauls' Blog

Sometimes a sermon can be a polarizing thing. Once I was preaching to a crowd of New Yorkers about how Christians should respond to the problem of poverty. I will never forget two congregant e-mails I received the following week. Both were irked by the same sermon but for opposite reasons.

The writer of the first e-mail accused me of being a right-wing extremist.

And? The writer of the second e-mail called me a left-wing Marxist.


Few subjects cause people to become more prickly than partisan politics. Yet prickly partisans aren’t known for their skills at winning friends and influencing people. During one election cycle, I noticed the following note posted on Facebook:

Dear person passionately pushing your political agenda on Facebook,

Congratulations! You have convinced me to change my vote. Thank you for helping me see the light.

Affectionately yours,

No one.

When I received the two prickly e-mails in response to my sermon about poverty, I showed them to Tim Keller, who at the time was my boss and mentor. Tim recommended that I learn what I could from the experience, but not fret about the negative feedback, because it actually could be a good sign.

For us preachers, Tim said, the longer it takes people to figure out our party affiliations and voting records, the more likely it is that we are preaching Jesus.

There is a both/and as well as a neither/nor element to partisan loyalties. Unless a human system is fully centered on God—and we know that no human system is—Jesus will have things to affirm and things to critique about it. The partisan left and partisan right are no exception.

That helps me. I hope it will help all of us who are tired of the rancor and caricature that so often accompany political discussions.

It is important to remind ourselves that God favors government. Government was his idea, after all. This should encourage anyone with a career in public service.

Presidents, congresswomen and men, senators, governors, mayors, alderwomen and men, as well as police officers, military personnel, park and school district employees, and other public servants play an important role in God’s plan to protect and renew the world.

We know Jesus paid taxes and urged his disciples to do the same. To those living in secular Rome, the apostle Paul urges submission to the governing authorities who are to be esteemed as “ministers of God” to whom taxes, respect, and honor are owed. Peter tells believers that part of their service to the common good is to fear God and honor the Roman emperor (Mt 17:24-27, Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:17).

Scripture also highlights God-fearing public servants. Debra served as judge over Israel, Joseph as prime minister for the Egyptian Pharaoh, and Daniel in the court of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. Nehemiah was a trusted official for the Persian king, Artaxerxes.

In the New Testament, Jesus gave high praise to a Roman soldier for his exemplary faith (Mt 8:5-13). These and other examples confirm that government, whether in theocratic ancient Israel or secular Egypt, Babylon, Persia and, or Rome, has always been part of God’s plan.

But when it comes to partisan politics, the Bible gives us no reason to believe Jesus would side squarely with one political tribe. Rather, when it comes to kings and kingdoms, Jesus sides with himself.

The following encounter between Joshua, an Israelite military commander headed into battle, and the angel of the Lord, is instructive:

When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so (Joshua 5:13-15).

Lord, are you for us, or are you, for our adversaries?

“No, I’m not,” he replies.

The key question is not whether Jesus is on our side, but whether we are on his. This is the appropriate question not only for politics and government, but also every other concern.

It may surprise us to know that there was political diversity among Jesus’ disciples. Included in the twelve are Simon, a Zealot, and Matthew, a tax collector. Interestingly, Matthew the tax collector emphasizes this difference more than any of the other Gospel writers (Mt 10:3-4).

This is significant because Zealots worked against the government and tax collectors worked for the government. You might say that Simon was a right-wing “small government” proponent who thought the State should keep out of people’s business, whereas Matthew was a left-wing “big government” proponent who made a career out of collecting taxes for the Roman State.

As far as we can tell, Simon remained a Zealot and Matthew remained a tax collector, even after they started following Jesus. Despite opposing political viewpoints, Matthew and Simon became friends and brothers in Christ, and Matthew especially wanted us to know this.

Matthew’s emphasis on a tax collector and a Zealot living harmoniously together in Christ speaks to a hierarchy of loyalties, especially for Christians. Our loyalty to Jesus and his Kingdom must exceed our loyalty to earthly agendas, political and otherwise.

When Christ is our functional King, we will feel “at home” with people who share our faith but not our politics *more* than we feel at home with people who share our politics but not our faith. If this is not true of us, we may be rendering to Caesar what belongs to God.

People from varying political persuasions can experience unity under a shared, first allegiance to Jesus the King, who on the cross removed and even “killed” the dividing wall of hostility between people on the far left, people on the far right, and people in between.

Wherever the reign of Jesus is felt, differences are embraced and even celebrated as believers move toward one another in unity and peace.