“Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They did not enter the headquarters themselves; otherwise they would be defiled and unable to eat the Passover.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Everybody knows the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the Jews were the bad guys in the Gospels. They were the bad guys because of their hatred for Jesus. Beyond His constantly presenting the Law in ways they didn’t understand and wouldn’t accept, though, the thing that most enraged them about Him was His constantly pointing out their hypocrisy. They hated that. A lot. And yet, we have scenes like this one in which their hypocrisy in displayed in technicolor, yet their own screens seemed to be set only for black and white because they can’t see it. Let’s talk about the glaring hypocrisy of the Jewish religious elite and what it might mean for us.
Jesus really wasn’t shy about pointing out when the religious leaders of the Jews’ practices didn’t match their confessions. There are whole chapters full of examples in the Gospels. Consider Matthew 23 where Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” seven times and concludes His whole diatribe by calling them snakes and a brood of vipers. Over and over He would highlight to the people they were seeking to lead the places where they demanded a certain level of devotion to the minutiae of the Law while creating loopholes for themselves. Perhaps these were all things that were open secrets, but by giving word to them in public, Jesus was making it so they could not be ignored any longer. And they hated Him for it.
As a general rule, the whole religious system of the Jews in the first century was marked by corruption and decadence. Just consider the organization of the sacrificial system. Over time the religious elite had put in place rules governing exactly which kinds of animals could be used as sacrifices and in what shape they had to be. Eventually this coalesced into a system in which only temple-approved animals could be used. And how could people get their hands on temple-approved sacrifices? Well, the temple started providing them. You could bring your own animal and trade for one of those, or you could simply purchase one when you arrived. Of course, the temple had to pay its bills, so there was an upcharge for the convenience of not having to use one of your own animals to get right with God.
The kick with this kind of a system is that it wasn’t constructed to be a racket like this in the beginning. There wasn’t some secretive cabal who conspired together for how to make the religious practices of the people a money-making operation for a select handful of elitists. The whole thing happened over time and by accident. It was brought into existence by motivations that were noble and good. A group of men who sincerely loved God and were devoted to keeping the Law so they could stay in a good relationship with Him worked together to find ways to keep the people they were tasked with leading on the straight and narrow path toward God’s righteousness.
They knew the Scriptures. They had studied the passages in the prophets where God called the people out for bringing unworthy sacrifices to Him. They remembered the stories passed down from their ancestors about how the people’s inattention to the Law is what led to their being conquered and sent off into captivity in Babylon. Their entirely reasonable conclusion living as they were under the iron fist of yet another pagan nation was that God must be punishing them yet again for their unfaithfulness. The duty of leading the people back to genuine devotion to the Law and righteousness rested on their shoulders. They needed to create tighter guardrails and clearer guidelines for the people to follow. They needed to actively insist on religious purity. This was all for the good of the nation.
Of course, keeping all those rules was indeed complicated. But the failure of a leader could have devastating consequences for their efforts to lead. So, they occasionally needed to explain why their doing something a little different from what they demanded wasn’t really as bad as it looked on the surface. In fact, it was really a reflection of their devotion to the Law, not their negligent attitude toward it.
Still, though, human nature is human nature. And when a system gets created that allows a small group of people who know how to work it well to become wealthy and powerful, they tend to find ways to protect and perpetuate that system for the sake of their own comfort and progeny. When someone comes along, then, who represents an existential threat to that system, the system goes into overdrive to guard against the threat. These self-defense mechanisms start out small, but gradually grow to be entirely more aggressive and ultimately unhinged. Finally, you wind up with a scene where a group of men won’t cross the threshold of a particular building because it might make them religiously unclean while actively engaging in the persecution of an innocent man. Of course, they didn’t think He was innocent. They simply couldn’t find any evidence to justify the charges they wanted to bring against Him.
That second-to-last sentence there is important in understanding what all was happening here. The Jewish religious leaders didn’t consider themselves in the wrong in any of this. They were firmly convinced they were in the right. Neither did they imagine themselves as merely protecting a system that was set up to their benefit. Perhaps there were a few cynical members, but they were largely convinced of their own righteousness. They were doing what they were doing for the good of the people. Jesus represented a unique threat to their entire way of life. He needed to be stopped. The people’s relationship with God was at stake here. If the ideas He was advancing and the understanding of the Law He was encouraging were to become widespread, everything they had worked toward for so long would be undone. This would make God angry with them, and they would never be free from Rome’s tyrannical rule. They had to stop Jesus! And if crucifixion was the only way, then so be it.
They didn’t want to go this route, but He had forced their hand by His refusal to get with the program and align Himself with the system that had been working since long before He entered the picture. He couldn’t see the big picture like they could. If He wasn’t willing to get on board, and if He was going to be so insistent on pushing the people away from what their leaders knew was the right and true path to God, then for the sake of those very people, they were going to have to shut Him up permanently.
I think this is where this whole story hits for us. No, I’m not saying that we are in danger of rejecting Jesus for the sake of the Christian faith, but I’m not not saying that either. Now, I don’t have any specific examples in mind, but I don’t need any. I know there are places in my life where my commitment to something I’ve grown used to doing a certain way – even if that happens to be a good thing I started doing in or because of the church – has prevented me from being able or willing to follow God’s lead into somewhere new. I can remember times when someone came along and challenged me in some ways I understand now were good and necessary, but which then I opposed rather viscerally because I was thoroughly convinced that what I was doing before was right and true. I suspect I’m not alone in that.
We fall into comfortable ruts with remarkable and sometimes even disturbing ease. And once we are in those ruts, our inertial pull is to remain in those ruts. And when someone comes along to challenge us on our ruts, we might listen politely for a few minutes, but then we’re going to ignore them and go back to our ruts. If they continue to press their case, we just might give them another hearing, but then we’ll consider the matter settled. If they come back yet again, our patience will be gone, and we’ll go into full protect-the-rut mode. That gets ugly. Quickly.
Yet how often is the person coming to challenge us on our rut personally or even as a group someone who is speaking with the voice of God to us in that moment. Yet we won’t hear it because it doesn’t fit with what we have already convinced ourselves is true about Him. Our systems rise up to purge the virus threatening their health and safety with prejudice if necessary. And sometimes we reject Jesus for the sake of pursuing Him in the process.
It may have been our sin that held Jesus to the cross as the great, modern hymn, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” puts it, but had we been there as that was all unfolding, there is a frighteningly good chance that we would have been on the side of the very religious authorities who engineered His death. As we reflect today on Jesus’ death to pay the price for our sins, let us remember just how ugly our sin really is. Let us pray for open eyes to see where sin lies in our hearts. Let us pray for the ability to see the places our blinders have previously blocked. Let us pray for humble hearts to receive with graciousness the conviction of the Spirit however that happens to come. And let us rejoice with gratitude that His love was greater than our sin so that we can have eternal life in Him.