Easter without Hindsight, Part 10

Easter without Hindsight: The Scribes; Pharisees strike back?

The Temple, like many large religious institutions was both a huge series of buildings (the Temple Mount complex was one of the largest buildings in the world at the time) and also home to a large and busy organisation. It was a hierarchy with various functionaries at the bottom, including the guards and the traders of sacrifices and sacred currency, up through various groups of elders, priests and lawyers, including the scribes. The chief priests, led by the High Priest, Caiaphas, were at the top.

So who did Jeshua, in their view an uneducated rabble-rouser of questionable lifestyle, think he was? More precisely, by whose authority did he come into an august and hallowed institution like the Temple, disrupt the solemnity of religious worship and then accuse the religious authorities of being as much a problem to God as the pagan Romans?

To understand how the Temple authorities felt, just remember the outrage that Pussy Riot caused in Moscow when they disrupted cathedral life and implied that the Russian Orthodox Church was complicit in what they saw as the tyranny of the government of Vladimir Putin.

The scribes and the chief priests demanded to know Jeshua’s authority for his outburst. At first sight he avoids the question with another question. Understand the man he asks about though and his reasoning becomes clear.

Jeshua asks them about the authority of John the Baptist, who baptised Jeshua the start of his ministry. If the chief priests confirm that John had God’s authority then they confirm that God’s authority had indeed passed to Jeshua. Of course that’s the last thing the authorities believe. They do not, however, want to say publicly that John, who was a well-respected, revered and widely followed prophet in his own right, led the Hebrew people astray.

Having disarmed his questioners Jeshua now counters with a question of his own. He tells the story (Luke 20:9-19) now known as the Parable of the Two Sons. A father asks his first son to work in the family vineyard. The son refused to do so at first but eventually turns up and works. His brother initially agreed to work but simply failed to do so. “Which son did what his father wanted?” Jeshua asked the crowd.

“The first,” they replied. In the sight and hearing of the crowds in the Temple Jeshua now publicly turns to the religious authorities. “John came to show you the way of righteousness and you didn’t believe him – but the prostitutes and the tax collectors did.” John had indeed changed the lives of many ‘sinners’ in his time.

Jesus suggestion that the prostitutes and the tax collectors would get into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the priests probably helped the priests decide that maybe Caiaphas was onto something: it’s certainly better that this man dies.

Easter without Hindsight. Part 9

 Easter without Hindsight: The High Priest Caiaphas’ worst fears….?

Caiaphas’ probably felt his worst fears were confirmed when Jeshua arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday, the first working day of the week that Passover started. Hebrew tradition said that messiah would arrive in Jerusalem through the Golden Gate riding on a donkey. As Jeshua did precisely that, thousands of Passover pilgrims, camped on hillsides around the city, flocked around him. Cheering him on they covered the road to the gate with cloaks and palm branches. Jeshua knew exactly how the Hebrews would interpret his arrival.

His first real action in the Jerusalem though, wasn’t to attack the Romans. He spent Sunday night in Bethany, a village where he usually stayed when he visited Jerusalem.  When he returned to the city he made straight for the Temple Mount. There, in one of the most enduring (and now misunderstood) stories about him, he attacked some of the Temple traders. They were the people who sold the birds and animals for sacrifice. They also traded normal currency for the ‘sacred’ currency that the Temple insisted was used to purchase the sacrifices. He turned over traders’ tables and scattered their animals. Jeshua’s words have become famous:

‘It is written “my house will be a house of prayer” but you have made it a “den of brigands”. Caiaphas would have been incensed. Jesus was deliberately disrupting the smooth flow of the Temple’s religious operations at the busiest time. Even worse, he was attacking the centre of the Jewish faith itself.

Jeshua was not particularly attacking the traders. The modern church often interpret these verses as an attack on commerce but that isn’t Jeshua’s point. Monopoly suppliers protected by an institution often line their pockets unfairly but that was a minor issue. Jeshua’s real target was the institution itself.

Jeshua starts by citing Isaiah (Isa 56:7) that Israel’s calling as God’s people was to be God’s light to the rest of the world, reaching out to foreigners. In effect the Temple was to be a house of prayer so that God’s will was done on earth as it is in heaven.

Instead Caiaphas and the authorities had allowed the Temple to become “a den of brigands”. Jeshua adds a quote from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 7:11). In Jeshua’s days brigands meant rebels and insurrectionists as well as robbers, today we might also say terrorists.

Instead of being the dwelling place of God for the sake of the whole world, the Temple had become a base for those plotting ‘holy’ violence against Rome. They wanted to exclude all foreigners from ‘their’ land.  The Temple was no longer part of God’s solution to a broken creation. Jeshua was saying, loudly and clearly, that Caiaphas and company were part of God’s problem every bit as much as the pagan Romans.



Easter Without Hindsight, Part 8

Easter Without Hindsight: Jesus through the Eyes of the Religious: The High Priests

One problem with religion is that it sucks you into its busy-ness. Doing religion is a bit like tying knots in a handkerchief to remind you of important things. Imagine being so focussed on the shape and style of the knots that you forget why you tied them in the first place.

Jeshua was heading to Jerusalem to attend the Passover Festival, perhaps (then and now) the most important Hebrew festival of the year. It celebrates the release of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt many centuries earlier. The High Priest in Jerusalem at the time was a man called Caiaphas. We know from contemporary historians that he had been in post for a number of years and was an effective politician. Passover was only weeks away. Jeshua arriving for the festival could generate a number of problems for Caiaphas.

Firstly there was the impact on the Passover festival itself. In the first century it added, to Jerusalem’s thirty-odd thousand existing inhabitants, tens of thousands of pilgrims, many from Jewish communities across the Roman Empire and often on the trip of a lifetime to the centre of their faith.  The logistics of organising the proper sacrifice of about a hundred thousand Passover lambs in a few days were immense on their own: just getting them into the Temple and out to tens of thousands of pilgrims in good sacramental order was a huge challenge. Any civil unrest incited by Jeshua would be disruptive.

Secondly, there had just been a violent insurrection against the Romans. The Romans crucified rebels, so there were probably dozens of corpses hanging by the roadsides across Judea at that moment. Grief and anger would have pushed the political temperature even higher than normal. The Romans were tensed for more action. If Jeshua started a rebellion, as many wanted him to, then the consequences, from Caiaphas’ perspective, were incalculable. Jewish blood would inevitably be spilled and that might not be the worst of it.

The High Priests at the time came from the Judean Sadducee aristocracy. They were the families that had the wealth to buy all the trappings of priesthood. They self-selected each other too, a bit like our own elite in Britain (of all parties) which tends to be public-school and Oxbridge educated. Perhaps they believed that it’s the only way to keep the right people (people like them?) in power? Caiaphas was the son-in-law of a previous High Priest, Annas.

A serious revolt so soon after the last one might threaten the Temple itself. What if the Romans decided to close the Temple and suppress the Jewish faith and religion? Whatever Jeshua had in mind could interfere with religious life and upset the balance of power with the Roman occupiers. The interests of keeping peace in the city coincided with maintaining good order of sacramental worship. Jeshua was only a tradesman. He lacked formal education and priestly qualification. Why would the elite view him as messiah? Given the potential catastrophe if things got out of hand it was better that, in Caiaphas’ view (John 11:47-50), that one man should die rather than the whole nation.

Caiaphas, like many in Jeshua’s time, thought the rabbi was planning to take on the Romans. That, after all, was what many Judeans hoped and expected messiah to do. But what if Jeshua had other targets in mind?

Easter Without Hindsight, Part 7

Easter Without Hindsight: Jesus through the Eyes of his Religious Contemporaries

Last week we saw how many of the ordinary Hebrew people, under Roman military occupation, were desperate to see another messiah who, like the Maccabees a century earlier, would successfully drive the Romans from the Holy Land. The ancient kingdom of Israel would be restored to the land the Hebrews believed God had given them. There is good reason why that sounds like the story of the Middle East today. The conflict his also about who owns the land between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan?

There was however, another strand of thought about messiah that picks up the spiritual side of restoration. Back in the ancient scriptures there is prophecy about God, the creator of the universe, giving his creatures the freedom to go their own way. Love, someone said, is like a butterfly. If you grip it, it dies. Unless it is free to leave it cannot live. So how does God restore the relationship with God’s own creatures without coercion?

Jeshua’s parents were Jewish and, like good practising Jews, followed the observances in Temple in Jerusalem as the rules said they should. On duty that day (Luke 2:25-40) was an elderly priest called Simeon. In those days many of the working priests in the Temple normally lived and worked throughout the countryside and came to work in Jerusalem on a rota.

Simeon had probably thought deeply about the broken nature of the world he saw around him: the ugliness, the evil, the pain, the injustice, and the sorrow. If a good God made a beautiful world, surely that God would do something to fix it now its broken.  Near Simeon, as Mary and Joseph brought Jeshua to the old priest, was a prophet called Anna. A widow, she had spent her widowhood in the Temple in prayer and fasting. Was she also struggling with the same conundrum that Simeon had identified?

Luke says Simeon felt an assurance from God that he would live to see God’s answer to what CS Lewis once called: ‘The Problem of Pain’. As he takes the baby in his arms something tells him this child will be the answer:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (as translated in New Revised Standard Version)

Anna joins him and starts speaking about this child to many who were waiting for the restoration of Israel.

Here we see that from the start of his life there were those around Jeshua who grasped there was more to God’s restoration than resolving the ownership of a small patch of land. God’s agenda, Simon and Anna believed, was about restoring the creation to the good order God had made it in the first place. However this child would achieve God’s purpose, both probably knew they wouldn’t see much more of the process. Luke says Anna was already 84. They had both probably worked out that God seemed to be playing a long game.

Easter without Hindsight, Part 6

Easter without Hindsight: The People’s View: Jairus and the Bleeding Woman 

We’ve seen this week how the crowds flocked around Jeshua hoping he would offer healing and restoration. Some of them were after physical and spiritual healing; others were after the political restoration of Israel as a nation state. We’ll look in weeks to come at how the political story developed. Today we’ll look at two individual restorations worked and see how Jeshua was able to engage with people from opposite ends of the social scale.

While Jeshau had been in Galilee (Mark 5:21-43) a community leader called Jairus had visited him because his daughter was dying. Jairus’ leadership suggests he was seen as conforming to the rules of torah. He, like many, may have grown up seeing the sick and disabled as cursed. His lifestyle was probably healthy, wealthy and blameless, in local eyes at least.

Jeshua, though, was a contrast. Hebrew culture viewed a good wife and children as the ultimate in blessings from God, Jeshua was over thirty and single. His closest companions were men: some were still teenagers; others had left family and businesses to follow him. When Jeshua’s own father died, instead of taking over the family building business, Jeshua had abandoned his family. Early on (Mark 3: 30-21) when they heard about his public life, even his own family thought he was mad.

Despite Jeshua’s reputation something tells Jairus that this strange rabbi can help.  It doesn’t say how many miles he had to travel to see Jeshua but, culturally, he had to travel a huge distance to beg him to heal his little girl. He seems to have judged right, though, Jeshua agrees to go home with him. The girl is dead when they arrive but Jeshua raises her anyway. Think how his reputation would spread after that. More crowds….

On the way home they (and the crowds) pass a woman. While Jairus is named by the gospel writers she has remained nameless, which says much for her status, not least probably because she is a woman. She had bled for twelve years despite spending all her money on medics. In a world where women were literally owned by their fathers or their husbands (just like his cattle and his furniture) where did she get her own money? Having bled for years she was ritually unclean. Who would have married her anyway? Did she get thrown out by her father to avoid shaming the family? If she was now in the underclass she probably had only one way to earn money.

In the story she reaches out to touch Jeshua. Being permanently ‘unclean’ all her memory would have been of being ignored, avoided, or abused by the men she met. Her self-esteem maybe is so low she doesn’t dare even to talk to Jeshua. “Even if I just touch his hem I will be healed,” she tells herself hopefully. What if she touched him and her hopes were dashed yet again? How much courage did she need to risk yet more years of rejection by reaching out now to another man? Despite the crush of crowds around them she touches him.

We don’t really do ‘ritual purity’ as literally as they did then. In healing the bleeding woman and raising Jairus’ little girl Jeshua became ritually ‘unclean’ himself. Jeshua clearly doesn’t see himself defiled by blood or body. Jeshua, instead, heals and restores broken things, making the ‘unclean’ pure and whole again.

Easter Without Hindsight, Part 5

Easter Without Hindsight: The crowds’ view of Jesus           

We’ve mentioned already that crowds of people followed Jeshua. It had been happening from very early on in his public life. We know the impact his healings were having. Medicine was primitive in the first century so, once the word got around that Jeshua seemed to be healing people, crowds flocked to him. Some were coming a hundred miles or more (Mark 3:7-9).

Of course, unless they were rich they travelled on foot. If you live in London, for example, who would make you drive to Oxford or Birmingham in the hope of talking to them personally? Remember that you don’t have an appointment, you’ve never met them and you don’t know what they look like. Would you still go if you had to take unpaid leave? Would you still go if you had to walk three days each way to Birmingham and back, especially if you knew you might be robbed on the way? Lots of people thought Jeshua was worth the hassle and the risk.

The most obvious reason to us was because he was healing people. It’s an interesting word ‘healing’. It doesn’t necessarily mean ‘cure’. It’s possible the witnesses saw Jeshua actually ‘curing’ people’s illnesses. How else would they interpret a man they knew was blind suddenly seeing again? Look behind some of the stories and one also sees the healing of mental wounds associated with poverty, illness and disability. That’s healing too.

For us healing is the easy part to understand but there was another side to Jeshua too: the political angle. Living under foreign military occupation the people yearned for their land to be free. Democracy might have been even scarcer then than now but they’d prefer their own monarch to a foreigner. A century or so earlier the Maccabees had successfully led Judean rebels against Syrian overlords. Judea was full of boys called ‘Judas’ in honour of Judas Maccabeus, one of the revolutionary leaders. Herod Antipas in Galilee was the latest of the dynasty they founded. Most people locally knew he was only in power now because he was a thug the Romans could trust to do their bidding. His claim to be messiah was (probably in secret) laughed at. The people wanted a messiah to banish the Romans as the Maccabees’ had the Syrians.

Had Jeshua done anything to make people think he was messiah? Every Jew knew that there were twelve tribes in ancient Israel. They roughly corresponded to the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob in the founding history of the Israelites. Ten tribes were lost when Assyrian invaders had carried them off several hundred years earlier. But the ancient prophets promised a restoration. The Jews hoped God would make Israel a great nation once again. So when Jesus called twelve of his disciples as ‘ apostles’ (Mark 2: 7-19, from the Greek for ‘to be sent out) the Jews heard that this wasn’t just about healing, or even spiritual restoration.

Jeshua was saying that this was the time to restore the nation at every level: physically, spiritually, and politically. Jesus had then spent years in the Galilean hills, shaping his followers into a revolutionary group. The people wondered and maybe hoped that now he was going to Jerusalem to join battle with the enemy.

Easter without Hindsight, Part 4

Easter without Hindsight, Ordinary People, No 3, Levi 

            When Jeshua (today called Jesus) decided to stay with Zaccheus, the tax collector, he shocked the respectable and religious people around him. Jeshua of course, had form here. Very early in his public life in Galilee (now in northern Israel) Jeshua had met another tax collector, Levi, in Caperneum, by the Sea of Galilee, a large freshwater lake in the north of valley of the River Jordan and attracted similar criticism.

Levi collected tolls for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. When Herod’s father (the King Herod who massacred the innocents in the Christmas story) died just after Jeshua’s birth, Galilee was inherited by Antipas. His brother Philip got the Golan Heights running into Syria. A third brother called Archelaus inherited the southern lands of Samaria, Judea and Idumea. Archelaus’ rule was so bad that Jeshua’s parents, on the run from King Herod’s massacre, were too scared to go back to Joseph’s (Jeshua’s father) home town of Bethlehem, and moved up north to Galilee instead. That’s why Jeshua, a Judean, grew up in Galilee. Meanwhile the Roman Emperor Tiberius sent Archelaus into exile and Judea became a Roman province. Jeshua will meet Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea on Good Friday.

Early in his public life Jeshua lived in Capernaum, a town beside the lake.  It was the crossing point between Philip’s and Herod’s land and there were now tolls to be paid at the border. Plenty of people could remember (under old King Herod) when there were no tolls. Imagine being employed to suddenly charge people to park where they used to park for free.  Levi and his kind were unpopular and that was probably compounded by systematic over-charging.

Jeshua decided he wanted Levi as a disciple, according to Mark’s gospel (Mark 2:13-17). Look at the calling from Levi’s point of view. Not many others would collect taxes for Herod as he was the Romans’ puppet ruler. Levi was seen to be working for the hated foreigners. Most people probably grumbled and abused him. This increasingly famous rabbi, however, had called him as a disciple. Levi would have recalled that Herod Antipas, his employer, believed himself to be king of the Jews and (like old King Herod before him) marketed himself as messiah. It won’t be long, in Mark’s gospel account, before another disciple, Peter, will declare that Jeshua is messiah, God’s chosen king of the Jews.

Jeshua dines with tax-collectors and other sinners. The local religious worthies couldn’t believe that a rabbi would consort with people who didn’t conform strictly to the requirements of religious law or the strict political requirements of opposition to Rome. Many have speculated that there were prostitutes present and some have also asked what drew Jeshua to spend time with prostitutes. Perhaps a better question is this: What it was about Jesus and his message that made tax collectors, sinners and (possibly) prostitutes comfortable in his presence?