Faces Around the Cross – #4 – The Jewish Clergy

MATTHEW 27:32-44

 

          Part of Jewish culture is telling stories about their rabbis, their teachers.  These stories can either be funny, or demonstrate profound wisdom.  Let’s begin this morning with an example of each.

          First, a wise rabbi story:

          A poor Jew finds a wallet with $700 in it. At his synagogue, he reads a notice stating that a wealthy Jew has lost his wallet and is offering a $50 reward to anyone who returns it. Quickly he locates the owner and gives him the wallet.          The rich man counts the money and says, “I see you have already taken your reward.”          The poor man responds, “What are you talking about?”          “This wallet had $750 in it when I lost it.”          The two men begin arguing, and eventually they come before the Rabbi.Both men present their case. The poor man first, then the wealthy man who concludes by saying, “Rabbi, I trust you believe me.”          The Rabbi says, “Of course.” The rich man smiles, and the poor man is devastated. Then the Rabbi takes the wallet out of the wealthy man’s hands and gives it to the poor man who found it.          “What are you doing?” the rich man yells angrily.          The Rabbi responds, “You are, of course, an honest man, and if you say that your missing wallet had $750 in it, I’m sure it did. But if the man who found this wallet is a liar and a thief, he wouldn’t have returned it at all. Which means that this wallet must belong to somebody else. If that man steps forward, he’ll get the money. Otherwise, it stays with the man who found it.”          “What about my money?” the rich man asks.          “Well, we’ll just have to wait until somebody finds a wallet with $750 in it!”

          Second, a funny rabbi story:

          A Priest and a Rabbi were eating together when the priest started to tease the Rabbi. “Wow, this ham is really good,” he said, licking his lips. “I know it’s against your religion, but when are you going to break down and finally have some.”

          After a moment’s thought the Rabbi responded with a smile “at your wedding!”

          In Jesus’ day the term “rabbi” meant teacher as it does today.  But today’s rabbis are also worship leaders and religious professionals.

          Today we’re going to look at the faces of the clergy, the religious professionals of Jesus’ day.  Their faces bear expressions of anger and hatred.  Some of them are sneering as they launch insults at Jesus.  These are not pious or friendly faces.  They have Jesus where they want Him and now they want to rub it in.

 

Who were these men?

          They belonged to one of the four main political parties of the day.

          The  Pharisees were more attentive to religion than politics; a curious mix of legalism but openness to new theologies and an expanded canon.  They disliked Roman rule, but only worked passively to overthrow it.

          The Sadducees were a wealthy minority, more attentive to politics and commerce than religion.  Ironically, they were more cooperative with Roman rule than with new theologies and refused to have any more Scripture than the Torah.  Mostly priests and rich businessmen, they had the most to gain by keeping things the same.

          The Essenes were a group that might be described as “Jewish monks.”  They practiced a strict lifestyle that emphasized prayer and hard, honest work.  Their beliefs are strikingly similar to those advanced in the New Testament.

          The Zealots were fanatic nationalists who favored a violent overthrow of Roman rule.  Their motto was; “The sword and not sparingly; no king but the Lord.”  The empire utterly defeated a Zealot-inspired uprising in AD 66.

          I mention these only because they were religious and political fixtures of Jesus’ day.  However, only 10% of the population really belonged to these parties.  Most people were indifferent to matters of politics and religion.  Religious Jews despised the common man as “accursed” (John 7:49).

          They worked in one of these five vocations.

          The Priests’ job was to care for the temple, lead in worship, and teach in the synagogues.

          The Old Testament T Law called for a single high priest, but the Romans disallowed that as they feared one man having too much influence on the people, so they imposed term limitations on this job.  That is why both Annas and Caiaphas were high priest at the same time.

          The Scribes were copyists of the Scriptures.  Their work was meticulously checked for mistakes.  Even if the page had been worked on for days, if it was found to have the slightest error, it was burned as unfit for God.  As you might expect, these people were fussy and detail-oriented.

          The Teachers of the Law were like lawyers that specialized in the Law of God.

          The Elders were heads of families and clans, men of influence who ran the local government.  In a city the size of Jerusalem, that was a lot of responsibility.

          Obviously, not all of these men had religious duties.  But, for convenience’s sake, I refer to them collectively as “the Jewish clergy.”

 

Where did they serve?

          These men served in some capacity in the temple in Jerusalem.  Of course, there was only one temple.  Religious Jews were expected to worship at the temple at least once a year, regardless of where they lived.  The Elders gave leadership at the city gates, where civil disputes were adjudicated.  The point is that the members of this group were all invested in the status quo.

 

Why were they so eager to have Jesus crucified?

          Their eagerness to crucify Jesus can be evaluated by the lengths to which they were willing to go to bring Jesus to trial and condemn Him.  Jesus’ arrest was conducted as secretly as possible.  They went to great lengths to hire a traitor who could deliver Jesus to them privately.  Nearly every known rule of Jewish judicial procedure was broken in Jesus’ overnight trial.

          Their eagerness can also be evaluated by the lengths to which they went to involve the Romans. In the course of Jesus’ civil trial, they went to the Roman governor, then to the Roman king, and back to the governor again.  Any contact with Gentiles was anathema, so all this running around and catering to Roman whims must’ve been doubly offensive.

          Though it was against their own rules and customs, they pushed to have Jesus tried and condemned in the same day, in order to get this done before the Passover.

          Their motive can be explained simply; they were taking steps to preserve their situation.  They had economic, religious, political, and cultural reasons to oppose Jesus.

 

When did they decide Jesus had to die?

          Matthew 21:23-44 records a confrontation where the Jewish clergy demand Jesus explain the authority by which He chased their religious commerce out of the temple. His response was to trap them in a clever twist of logic – answering their question with a question.  He followed this up with two parables that clearly exposed them as the bad guys.  At the end of this account we read; WHEN THE CHIEF PRIESTS AND THE PHARISEES HEARD JESUS’ PARABLES, THEY KNEW HE WAS TALKING ABOUT THEM. THEY LOOKED FOR A WAY TO ARREST HIM, BUT THEY WERE AFRAID OF THE CROWD BECAUSE THE PEOPLE HELD THAT HE WAS A PROPHET. (vs. 45-46)

          In John’s Gospel, the plot to kill Jesus is hatched after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and a lot of public attention is generated.  JHN 11:53 = SO FROM THAT DAY ON THEY PLOTTED TO TAKE HIS LIFE.  Hear their anger and desperation in reaction to Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem; “SEE, THIS IS GETTING US NOWHERE.  LOOK HOW THE WHOLE WORLD HAS GONE AFTER HIM” (John 12:19).

 

What was the nature of their insults?

          To answer this question, we rely on Matthew and Mark’s Gospels.  Luke only mentions their insults, but does not name them specifically and John does not mention their blasphemy at all.

          “HE SAVED OTHERS, BUT HE CAN’T SAVE HIMSELF!  HE’S THE KING OF ISRAEL!  LET HIM COME

DOWN NOW FROM THE CROSS, AND WE WILL BELIEVE IN HIM.”  They are demanding that Jesus prove His authority.  They’d confronted Jesus on this issue after He had chased the money changers and other approved crooks out of the temple.  (See Matthew 21:23-27.) Jesus had demonstrated His power in healing others of illness and demons, but they said the fact that he showed no power to save Himself denies that He has power.

          “HE TRUSTS IN GOD.  LET GOD RESCUE HIM NOW IF HE WANTS HIM, FOR HE SAID, ‘I AM THE SON OF GOD’.”  Now the Jewish clergy demands that Jesus prove His position.  Here they are mocking Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.  They are denying His identity, saying that He is not God and has no standing with God.

If freeing Himself from God would prove His authority, then being freed by God would prove his identity.

          The Greek word for INSULTS is the word from which we get “blasphemy.”  Ironically, though they condemned Jesus of blasphemy, it is these men who are guilty of it.

          What the Jewish clergy was trying to do was convince the crowd that Jesus was a fraud.  their reasoning was that if He really were the Messiah, God would crown all His efforts with success.  His being stuck on a cross instead showed God’s curse on Him.

 

How did their actions fulfill prophecy?

          Read Psalm 22:6-8 – what sounds familiar?

BUT I AM A WORM AND NOT A MAN, SCORNED BY MEN AND DESPISED BY THE PEOPLE.  ALL WHO SEE ME MOCK ME; THEY HURL INSULTS, SHAKING THEIR HEADS: “HE TRUSTS IN THE LORD; LET THE LORD RESCUE HIM.  LET HIM DELIVER HIM, SINCE HE DELIGHTS IN HIM.”   

          In the worst case ever of adding insult to injury, almost all of the faces around Jesus cross were used to mock and ridicule Him.  Those who did so were convinced that He was helpless on the cross.

          It is important for us to know that just the opposite was true.  Jesus was not helpless on the cross.  He could have acted powerfully and supernaturally to save Himself from that awful cross, but He chose not to do so.  He chose to lay His life down as a sacrifice for sin.

          We know this because Jesus said so, long before it happened.

          JHN 10:17-18 = [Jesus said] “THE REASON MY FATHER LOFES ME IS THAT I LAY DOWN MY LIFE – ONLY TO TAKE IT UP AGAIN.  NO ONE TAKES IT FROM ME, BUT I LAY IT DOWN OF MY OWN ACCORD.  I HAVE AUTHORITY TO LAY IT DOWN AND AUTHORITY TO TAKE IT UP AGAIN.  THIS COMMAND I RECEIVED FROM MY FATHER.”

          MTW 26:52-54 = “PUT YOUR SWORD BACK IN ITS PLACE,” JESUS SAID TO HIM, “FOR ALL WHO DRAW THE SWORD WILL DIE BY THE SWORD.  DO YOU THINK I CANNOT CALL ON MY FATHER, AND HE WILL AT ONCE PUT AT MY DISPOSAL MORE THAN TWELVE LEGIONS OF ANGELS?  BUT HOW THEN WOULD THE SCRIPTURES BE FULFILLED THAT SAY IT MUST HAPPEN THIS WAY?”

          It’s no surprise to learn that the people blaspheming against Jesus had completely missed the point.  Not only were they guilty of a gross cruelty, but they were also entirely wrong.

          I’m afraid the ridicule and wrongness have not ceased.  Even in our own day, our own city, the blasphemous cries of Jewish clergy, the thieves, and the crowd echo forth, denying and decrying Jesus.  Let me give you an example.  Have you seen the billboards advertising the self-proclaimed “Free Thinkers” and “Atheists” of Sioux Falls?  They are subtle, but the ridicule of our faith and the Church are nonetheless present.

          What should be our response to those kind of people?  How did Jesus respond?  He said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”  And then He let His actions speak for Him as He remained on that cross, sacrificing Himself for us.

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