“Immediately the Pharisees went out and started plotting with the Herodians against him, how they might kill him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
So, we’ve been talking for the last couple of days about Jesus and the Pharisees debating the rules that governed Jewish life in the first century. Specifically, they were at odds over the Sabbath command. The original command was simple: Don’t work on the Sabbath. In the centuries since, though, much had been added to make clear exactly what that meant. By Jesus’ day, that “much” had come to carry more weight than the original law itself. This new law and the Law in general had come for them to be more important than the people it governed. Well, what happens when the rules become more important than the people they govern? We get a glimpse of that here.
It’s hard to overemphasize just how dramatic and tension filled the moment would have been when Jesus healed this man’s withered hand. He had boldly called the bluff of the Pharisees and revealed to everyone within earshot how morally bankrupt their position was. He had spoken truth to power in a way that would have left political progressives and libertarians alike jumping to their feet in applause.
If something like this had happened today, Jesus would have become a media darling and gone on to lead a successful political movement overturning the previous order. But this didn’t happen today, it happened in the first century. Their cultural appreciation for what Jesus did was not the same as ours is. When you spit in the face of the prevailing political order in the context of a culture that doesn’t appreciate something like that, you don’t get celebrated, you get a sharp reminder of who has the power and who doesn’t. In this case, Mark tells us that the Pharisees teamed up with the Herodians to plot together how they could get Jesus killed.
Well, if the drama of the healing would have gotten people’s attention, this fact would have left their jaws sitting on the floor. We read this and think, “Oh, two different Jewish groups teamed up against Jesus.” That is not what’s going on here. To offer an illustration from an American political context, this would have been like Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Tom Cotton of Arkansas joining forces to put down some new political upstart.
The Pharisees and the Herodians were as far apart as they could be and on nearly every single societal measuring stick. They were not merely cultural, political, and religious rivals, they were bitter enemies who each thought that the other didn’t even deserve to exist. In Jesus, though, they found a common enemy.
If the Pharisees and Herodians could have been said to agree on anything (although they would not have thought in these terms), it was that the rules were more important than people. Jesus represented an existential threat to this system, so He had to go.
So, what are we seeing here? When the rules become more important than people, the value of any single human life becomes nothing before the weight of the rules. When the rules become more important than people, we lose a basic value for human life. And when that is lost, many things become reasonable which in a sane system would be seen as obviously morally reprehensible.
Think about some of the rules that are held as sacred by various groups in our own nation. Women should have no limits to their self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Pregnancy represents a threat to these. Therefore, it is right to end the pregnancy at any point, and the thing being terminated should be given no moral weight at all. A sane system would immediately recognize this as legally sanctioned murder of innocent human beings, but when the rules matter more than people, it is simply taken as a matter of course.
Illegal aliens are breaking the law to enter our country, they are not citizens, and therefore should not be afforded any amount of constitutional protection or care. If they are determined to commit this illegal act that is hurting our nation’s economy, how they are treated and detained should be of little consequence to the nation as a whole. In a morally sane system, however, it becomes possible to understand that if someone is willing to endure the hardships of entering a sovereign nation through illegal means, the odds are high that they are trying to escape impossibly difficult circumstances of their own, and although they should be held liable for laws they violate, they are still people who should be treated with the utmost of compassion and care.
These are just two examples, one from the left, and one from the right, but there are many others where these come from. Yes, the unfortunate truth is that in many places today, we follow faithfully in the Pharisees’ legacy of valuing rules more than people. Hear me well: as followers of Jesus we must neither participate in nor section this in any way, and should speak with the prophet’s voice against it anywhere we see it happening.
Allow me, if you will, to drill this point home once again: God‘s commands are always given for the good of God’s people. If their application is not good, the reason is not that the rules are bad, but that the people who are applying them are in error. We should absolutely revere the rules and follow them faithfully because there is life to be found on no other path, but rules were created for people not the other way around. Where we forget that the seeds we sow are never more than destruction, chaos, and eventually death. Let’s join Jesus in getting it right.