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.

Continue reading “The Danger of Religiosity, Political Expediency and the Weight of the Cultural Moment”

Why Did Jesus Pick on the Pharisees so Much?

Perhaps, we malign the Pharisees more than we should.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus engaged more with certain groups of people than with others? In the 1st century Judea, there were at least five distinct Jewish groups: the Herodians, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots, and the Essenes. The record we have in the Gospels shows that Jesus engaged one of these groups far more than the others.

My interest in this question goes back to the very first time I read the Gospels in a college world religion class. The way Jesus focused on the Pharisees virtually leapt off the pages at me! He was brutal to them! And, that is putting it politely.

Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites (Matt. 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29), blind guides (Matt. 23:16, 19, 24, 26), blind fools (Matt. 23:17), “white-washed tombs” that “appear outwardly righteous”, “but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:27), and snakes, a “brood of vipers”! (Matt. 23:33)

I am not saying that Jesus didn’t engage the other groups. It’s just that he engaged one group far more than the others. Perhaps it’s because that one group engaged him more than any other.

Unlike the other groups, the Pharisees engaged often with Jesus and Jesus with them. The Pharisees are mentioned ninety eight (98) times in the New Testament, mainly in the Gospels.

The Pharisees were not friendly with Rome. They held on to the hope of the restoration of the throne of David. Unlike the Zealots, who actively opposed Roman rule to the point of violence, the Pharisees more or less ignored Rome. They devoted themselves to God and following the Law.

Unlike the Essenes, who retreated to the desert and removed themselves completely from Judean communities and life, the Pharisees remained in the community. Like Jesus, they remained engaged.

The religious views of the Pharisees were in opposition to the Sadducees on resurrection, the reality of supernatural and demonic activity and the authority of the Prophets and other writings. The Pharisees were not just devoted to ritual observances in the Temple, but in every day life.

Though some Pharisees were wealthy, they were elite primarily in their religious study and devotion. The Pharisees were more of a populist movement. Though they were popularly influential, they wielded no political influence or position. They were the religious leaders of the common people.

Thus, the Pharisees were most like Jesus, and Jesus was most aligned with them in their social orientation and religious views. “They were the holy men who kept the law; they pursued purity with a passion and wanted nothing more than to live lives that pleased God. They were sincere, albeit sincerely misguided.”

So, that brings me to the question: Why did Jesus pick on the Pharisees so much? In the remainder of this article, I will give you my current answer.

Continue reading “Why Did Jesus Pick on the Pharisees so Much?”