The Danger of Religiosity, Political Expediency and the Weight of the Cultural Moment

We can be so caught up in our own lives and the world around us that we fail to recognize the God who gave us life and created the world.

I have been reading through the Gospel narratives leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus during Lent. My reading included the following passage that jumped out at me:

“Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” 

John 18:28 ESV

I will get the point, but first we need to build in a little context. This passage describes a passing moment leading up to the crucifixion after Judas betrayed Jesus in the garden. Jesus was taken, first, to the palace of Annas (John 18:13) and then to Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest. (John 18:14)

After Caiaphas questioned Jesus, Jesus was taken to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The High Priest wanted Jesus put to death for blasphemy, but only the Roman state had authority to impose capital punishment.

Caiaphas was the High Priest who presided over the Sanhedrin, the official religious body recognized by the Romans. Caiaphas was made the High Priest by the Roman procurator Valerius Gratus. Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, had presided over the Sanhedrin before Caiaphas.

They were the official heads of the ruling group of religious leaders in First Century Judea in the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin. They stood between the Romans, who conquered and controlled the region, and the Jewish people on matters of the Jewish religion.

During this tumultuous time, a group of violent men, the Zealots, who were opposed to Roman rule threatened to upset the political balance and peace. Similarly, the growing, unpredictable following of Jesus posed a threat to the Sanhedrin’s position as trusted middlemen trying to preserve peace and the status quo.

Potential disruption threatened the delicate balance. The Sanhedrin tried to walk the line between the threat of the Roman Empire on the one side and the Zealots and others who might provoke the Romans to tighten their grip on Judea, dismiss the Sanhedrin from their power position, and clamp down on the freedoms of the Jewish people they ruled.

Tensions were not just a threat to the Sanhedrin, who were officially given some overlapping authority the Romans; they were legitimately a threat to the well-being of all the Jews in Judea. Thus, we read in John that Caiaphas advised “advised the Jewish leaders that it would be good if one man died for the people”. (John 18:14)

The suggestion was based on practical expediency. Though Jesus wasn’t a Zealot, he was very popular among the people, likely including the Zealots who hoped Jesus would spell the end of the Roman occupation.

The concerns of the religious leaders were no doubt heightened to a critical level when Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in triumphant celebration greeted by a “great crowd” that lined the streets, waiving palm branches and shouting,

“Hosanna!…. Blessed is the king of Israel!”

John 12:12

I am going to get to the danger of religiosity, political expediency and the weight of the cultural moment as the title to this article promises. First, however, I want to develop the backstory a bit further. To do this, we need to jump forward several months in time.

When Peter and John were preaching in the streets after the death and resurrection of Jesus. They gathered quite a large following of converts, which troubled the Sanhedrin. Thus, they were hauled before Annas, Caiaphas, and the same group who incited Pilate to have Jesus crucified. (Acts 4:1-7) The interaction provides some insight.

Peter and John had been courageously proclaiming that “salvation is found in no one” other than Jesus. (Acts 4:8-12) The Sanhedrin was perplexed about the situation because of a very public healing and the enthusiasm of the crowd that was listening to Peter. (Acts 4:12-21)

“They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened.”

Acts 4:21 NIV

The Sanhedrin ended up sending Peter and John on their way with just a warning, but they continued what they were doing, publicly performing signs and wonders, preaching and attracting crowds. (Acts 5:12-16) This time the Sadducees had them arrested, but Peter and John escaped.

The next morning Peter & John entered the temple courts controlled by the Sadducees and began teaching the people there. (Acts 5:17-21) When Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin again, the religious leaders were furious and wanted to put them to death.

The disruption was getting worse, not better, after the death of Jesus! They turned Jesus into a martyr, and that seemed to spur on his following.

Gamaliel, a Pharisee, stepped forward and spoke wisdom to the council. He pointed out that other zealous leaders came and stirred up trouble, but when they were killed, their followers scattered and the disruption died out. (Acts 5:35-39) He concluded:

“Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Acts 5: 38-39

Practical expediency won out again. This time, the Pharisees, who were not as aligned with Roman rulers, prevailed with more spiritual, rather than political, reasoning.

This was the religious, political and cultural environment in Judea at the time. The political and religious leaders of the Jews brokered the tensions between the Roman rulers and the unrest of their own people, the Jews.

The Sadducees were politically aligned with Rome and were given authority by Roman leaders over the religious life of the people. The Pharisees were more “spiritual” but just as cognizant of the practical political concerns wrapped up in the threat of triggering a Roman clampdown on their freedom.

Both schools of religious leaders were swayed by the existential threat to their own positions, but we shouldn’t assume they were just concerned for themselves. They were also concerned for the welfare of all Jews in Judea. For this reason, we are told, they agreed to have one man (Jesus) killed for the people.

It may seem that I have gotten far afield, but I am just getting to the point. I begin with an obscure verse describing how the religious leaders lead Jesus to the Roman governor to be condemned to death, but they would not enter the governor’s headquarters so they would not be defiled and would be able to eat at the upcoming Passover.

These were religious men who took their faith seriously. These were men who practiced political expediency to protect not only their own positions of authority, but to protect the welfare of the people in their community. These were men who astutely aware of the delicate balance of the cultural moment.

These men were a lot like us. Their lives were complicated. Their decisions were weighty. They felt constrained to make their allegiances. They were religiously devote and faithful. They navigated political turmoil, and they struggled under the weight of the cultural moment.

The danger of religiosity, political expediency and the weight of the cultural moment is that we might fail to see past our own selves, our own political and cultural places in the world, to see the God who made the universe. We can be so caught up in our own lives and the world around us that we fail to recognize the God who gave us life and created the world.

We can be so caught up in our own lives and the world around us that we fail to recognize the God who gave us life and created the world.

In the midst of this complex political, social and cultural time, as they tried to juggle their own aspirations, the welfare of the people, and competing threats from various angles, they didn’t recognize who walked among them. The Word that existed before time, the Word through whom all things were created, that very Word had become flesh and appeared before them, but they didn’t realize it! (John 1:9-14)

They were fixated on their own circumstances, intent on protecting their own positions and absorbed with the burden of preserving the comfort, safety and welfare of their people. They were devoted in their religiosity, so much that they were sensitive not to cross the line and enter the Governor’s headquarters to preserve their ritual cleanliness, while leading Jesus – the Son God, the Messiah, God who became human in whom the fullness of God’s deity dwelt in human form – to his death.

We are quick to condemn them in hindsight, but we walk a dangerous path to think we are any better than they. How caught up are we in our devotion to a form of Christianity that is so familiar to us that we might fail to recognize God breaking into our daily lives?

How focused on the political expediencies of our times are we that we might not realize when we are working at cross purposes to Jesus who warned us that the goats will be separated from the sheep based on our recognition of Jesus in the least among us?

How absorbed are we in the weight of the cultural moment that we fail to see the weight of glory that CS Lewis eloquently described – the momentous, everlasting importance of the individuals we encounter who will outlive governments, and nations, and civilizations in eternity?

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