People seem naturally to prefer life in high contrast: things must be black and white, goodies and baddies, easily categorised. Unfortunately, having a category for something usually ends any further thought on the subject. This happens all to often with goodies and baddies in scripture, especially the Pharisees. We know they’re the enemy, and so we usually avoid to identifying ourselves with them in any way.
Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, and our preacher helpfully sketched a clearer picture of what was actually going on when Jesus was being welcomed into Jerusalem with such optimism (the waving of palms thing). [I’m stealing all his best info, which he in turn wishes to credit to that excellent book on Jesus, The King of God’s Kingdom (which you should read/buy if you haven’t, and even if you’re one of those skeptical types).]
In the first instance, the waving of palms was a politically charged action: a few decades later, when Jerusalem minted its own currency in defiance of Rome (shortly before being utterly obliterated by them), they chose the palm leaf as the image on the coin.
Secondly, the pilgrims arriving for the festival knew about Jesus’ miracles, and were now making a bid for him to declare himself king. They began using the acclamation, ‘Hosanna’. This isn’t a word like ‘Yay!’ or even ‘Praise God’. It means ‘Save!’ (or ‘Save now!’), and it’s from Psalm 118, a song that has to do with God (and His king) cutting off the nations that threaten them, rescuing His people against impossible odds.
So the crowd had become convinced that Jesus was the king that God would use to throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. He was supposed to lead them into a golden age, even if the task seemed impossible. The festival crowd — perhaps as much as two million strong — was being stirred up with revolution songs, and was readying to enthrone the rebel leader in the city of the King. It’s safe to say that things were a little tenser than the Sunday School version allows.
There was good reason for tension. The last time someone had tried to mount a resistance to Rome, at around the time of Jesus’ birth, things had gone very, very badly. The Romans came to meet the uprising, by some accounts flattening the town from which it originated, and selling all its inhabitants into slavery. Except, that is, for the 2,000 rebels that the Roman governor crucified as a warning to others. The people who were meant to take warning were those people now in power: the Pharisees and the Chief Priests.
We’re accustomed to treating them like whatever Darth Vader’s team is called on Star Wars — and surely some of them must have been typical power-hungry politicians who deserve our scorn — but we recognise too infrequently how much of a point they had. How many of us reasonable folk, when in a position of responsibility, would have done differently?
- They knew that their scriptures promised a new king, but they also knew that Rome was deeply intolerant of pretenders to the throne and would not be as forgiving as the last time (marching to Palestine tended to leech all of the Pax out of the Romana). Lives depended on them backing the genuine article.
- They knew that the Messiah that was promised was supposed to come from David’s family and David’s town. Jesus was Galilean, as far as they knew. He couldn’t be the one.
- Jesus didn’t look like much of a king. He was an artisan, an itinerant teacher from the school of no one, hailing from the town of nowhere. He had no military credentials whatsoever. He did amazing things, but he was cavalier with some of the cherished Torah (breaking the Sabbath and so on), and he hung out with cheats and prostitutes and scum on the Roman payroll.
The people were all so impressed with his magic, but they didn’t know their theology. They didn’t know that he should be disqualified. He didn’t have the credentials, and his power might come from the Devil for all anyone knew. Supporting this guy against the Romans was too much of a risk.
This explains some of their behaviour earlier in the gospels. In John 11:47-50, the baddies say:
So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”
In other words, Jesus is making too many waves; the Romans are going to notice. The utilitarian equation therefore determines that it’s better to kill the one man, rather than starting a war on his account.
And then shortly after the optimistic welcome in the city, when in a game of brinkmanship, the rulers are able to prove that he’s not the Messiah (by having the Roman overlords kill him), they say:
“Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15)
It’s an ironic indictment upon them in the context of John’s Gospel, but they say such things in order to reassure the Roman governor that they are not attempting to throw off the rule of Rome. There is no need for any further Roman intervention: the revolution dies with one madman.
All of this has me thinking: what should the leaders have done? They behaved according to God’s plan, of course, in one sense, but surely the right thing to do would have been to take the risk and support Jesus. Who knows what the outcome would have been if they had?
I certainly would not want to have been in their position.
And yet in one sense, each of us does take a similar risk in believing in God and, specifically, following Jesus. There isn’t indisputable evidence in His favour; beliefs are passed on through the experience and example of flawed (sometimes idiotic) believers; following Jesus involves a degree of hardship and sacrifice (indeed it even costs many their lives each year). People today are fond of demanding proof that God exists or that Jesus is who he said he was, but not even the people who saw his miracles were satisfied that he was the one. Maybe there can simply never be enough proof for something like this. Either way, you’re required to take a risk, whether it be the ‘reasonable’ Pharisees’ move to stick with the Devil you know (in the hope that redemption of a safer type lies just over the horizon), or the more uncertain move to join ranks behind the One who says He’s your King.