Render Unto Caesar by Peter Paul Rubens
Epiphany Sunday is a Christian holiday primarily commemorating the Magi’s visit to the Baby Jesus. As I sat in worship service listening to my pastor deliver a message from Matthew 2: 1-12, I did not realize these Scriptures would feed into my post this morning. Herod played a large role in the early life of Baby Jesus. He was envious of all the attention afforded to this Baby “King of the Jews” and His star. He plotted to kill Jesus, trying to trick those around him into revealing the whereabouts of the Baby. Eventually he resorted to killing all the male children of Bethlehem and that territory in order to eradicate Jesus.
John Stott writes that envy reared its ugly head again at the end of Jesus’ life, for the Jewish leaders were envious of Him and that led to His death on the cross. Whereas “dark passions” led to Pilate’s decision to turn Jesus over for crucifixion [see Dec. 29 “The Loud Voices of Rationalization” St. John Studies], the Jewish leaders and the Jewish crowd had their own set of “dark passions” that led them to act as they did.
As I discussed on December 29, Pilate certainly bears some guilt in the death of Jesus, but the Jewish leaders of the day put Pilate in the “no win” situation. The Jewish leaders committed Jesus for trial, they accused Him of subversion and they stirred up the crowd to call for His death. Jesus acknowledges Pilate’s role but says in John 19: 11 “the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” In Acts 3: 13-15 Peter makes the bold statement to the Jews “You handed Him over to be killed, and you disowned Him before Pilate, though he had decided to let Him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life.”
The short answer is envy.
But why would powerful Jewish priests who touted their nation’s special relationship with God, people who enjoyed their leadership role in governing their nation be envious of an “irregular” rabbi. Stott says that Jesus “posed” as a rabbi, not entering by the “correct door” and not climbing up by the “right ladder. He had no credentials, no proper authorization.” To make matters worse, Jesus fraternized with the wrong people (e.g. prostitutes, tax collectors, the disease ridden). When He was supposed to fast, He feasted; when He was supposed to celebrate the Sabbath, He healed people. He cared more for people’s needs than the rules and regulation. He made Himself available to those who needed Him for He knew “Healthy people don’t need a doctor — sick people do” [Matthew 9].
Again why would they be envious?
Jesus showed them the error of their ways. His actions were a contrast to their behavior. When people of this time saw a Pharisee exclaim his righteousness in Luke 18 [“God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get”] they also saw Jesus doing the work of a real Messiah, teaching in a humble manner and healing the afflicted as the need arose.
Pilate saw what was going on. He knew that an innocent Man was sent to him. Did the Jewish leadership send Pilate Jesus because “they were concerned for political stability, doctrinal truth and moral purity? Pilate did not think so” [Stott, 57]. Quoting H.B. Swete, Stott writes “He detected under their disguise the vulgar vice of envy.” Matthew 27: 18 states “he [Pilate] knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.”
As Jesus continued throughout His ministry, He became more condemning in His comments about Jewish leadership saying they cared more about their regulations than people in need. He denounced them as “hypocrites” and called them “blind leaders of the blind.” He likened them to “whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” [Matthew 23: 27]. These accusations did not foster good relations with the Jewish priests.
Added to this are the “outrageous” claims that Jesus made for Himself. He claimed to be “Lord of the Sabbath.” He claimed to know God as His Father. He claimed to be equal with God.
Were there good reasons for their hatred of Jesus? The priests thought so. In fact Stott writes they thought like Pilate “Their hands were clean” because it was clear that He was guilty. They heard Him utter these blasphemous claims with their own ears. “He was a self-confessed blasphemer.” It was good for their political power, it was good for their theological standing in the community and it just made good ethical sense. Jesus had to go.
Let’s turn to the Book of Mark to get to the basis of the dilemma the Pharisees found themselves in. They wanted to kill a man who did little except to question their authority and in their minds they knew Jesus was speaking the truth. Their authority should be questioned. The Jewish leaders were also astute politicians and Jesus revealed their dark calculating nature when they questioned His authority in the Temple. “They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to Him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you authority to do this?’ Jesus replied, ‘I will ask you one question. Answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!’ They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, From heaven, He will ask, Then why didn’t you believe him? But if we say, Of human origin…’ (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.) So they answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’ Jesus said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’”
Stott comments “If they could not face the challenge of John’s authority, they certainly could not face the challenge of Christ’s. He claimed authority to teach about God, to drive out demons, to forgive sins, to judge the world. In all this, He was utterly unlike them…there was a self-evident genuineness about His authority. It was real, effortless, transparent, from God” [Stott, 58].
The priests had their outward reasons to destroy Jesus, but their real reasons were inward. Jesus did flaunt His disregard for their rigid rules from time to time. He did not have the proper “credentials” to be a rabbi. He even criticized their extremely “righteous” public behaviors, but underneath it all, He made them look bad. His behavior was a contrast to theirs and the priests knew that the people preferred a man who was genuine to leaders who were fake.
Stott ends his discussion of the envious priests with words that can make us all uncomfortable. It is so easy to stand in judgement of the Pharisees, saying look at how those self-righteous leaders behaved…shameful! But are we sometimes not far from their attitude in how we live our lives? Maybe we should feel like those who were ready to stone the woman caught in adultery. Maybe we should admit that we cannot be that harsh with the Jewish priest and the Jewish crowd. Jesus interferes with us when we would rather have our privacy. He demands homage when we really don’t want to be obedient. Maybe we want to be left alone when Jesus says, no, I will never leave you alone. Maybe we too “perceive Him as a threatening rival who disturbs our peace, upsets our status quo, undermines our authority and diminishes our self-respect” .
We too want to get rid of Him.
“let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone…”