Monday, January 17, 2011

Christ in the Robber's den: Jesus and Jerusalem

So in studying Jesus' relationship with the Jewish leaders of the day, I have the problem of too many things to talk about.  Much of what Jesus says and does in the synoptics is in opposition to the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law.  That being said, I want to focus on a few passages in Mark that I feel illustrate my point pretty clearly while maybe looking at things a little different than usual.

First, as before, some background.  Around the time of Jesus, Judaism wasn't one monolithic religion like we may think of it.  In the Bible we can see there are quite a few groups (Pharisees, Saducees, Zealots, etc.) and from other sources we learn of such groups as the Essenes, who had a community at Qum'ran where we got the Dead Sea Scrolls from, and of many popular movements under the leadership of particular individuals (Acts 5:34-40).  The "official" Jewish religion was given some standing within Rome.  They had a court system with the jurisdiction to enforce Jewish laws, they had hearings with the Roman leaders, civil authority, etc.  This group consisted mainly of Pharisees and Saducees.  We see their courts (the Sanhedrin) commanding people to be flogged, but they did not have the ability to give the death penalty.

This authority must have come from Rome, as Israel had not been a free state for hundreds of years, excepting the Maccabean revolt (160-63 CE).  This meant that the Jewish Ruling class had to cooperate with Rome and accept their rule in order to maintain what control they had over the people.  Though this could be considered a religious authority similar to the Catholic Church, it had strong political implications as well, and one of those implications was the ability to collect the tithe (temple tax) a portion of which went to the Romans in addition to the imperial tax we discussed last time.

In the golden years of the nation of Israel, many of the people were farmers and shepherds.  During this time, the tithe and first-fruit offerings made a lot of sense.  Between that time and the time of Jesus, the demographics of the Jewish people changed significantly.  They lost sovereignty of their land, and while many still farmed, there was emerging a larger merchant class as well.  On top of this, many people were displaced in the Roman occupation.  This is the context for the money changers in the temple.  Many people didn't have first fruits or animals to sacrifice, so they had to buy those things in order to fulfill the law.

When Jesus clears the Temple (Mark 11:15-19) he is pronouncing judgement against the system that is in place.  Note the words he uses.  "Is it not written 'My house will be a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"  Similar to his words regarding man's relationship to the sabbath (Mark 2:27) Jesus is proclaiming the proper place of the temple for the worship of God.  In essence, he is saying, "No longer are the priests serving the interests of the people, now the people are serving the interests of the priests."  Things are backwards from the way they are supposed to be, and the cure is a radical reorganization of the priesthood, symbolized by a miniature destruction of the temple.

After that, in Mark 12, this point is driven home in a much more personal way.  The entire chapter is driving towards the same point.  The parable of the tenants is a blatant condemnation of the system.  The leaders know it, and want to kill him for it.  In the confrontation about the imperial tax, which we have already looked at, Jesus is condemning the relationship the Jewish leaders have with the Roman leaders.  Toward the end of the chapter, he focuses it down to a pin-point.

As they are watching all the people putting in their contribution to the temple, a widow comes and throws in a few pennies.  Jesus addresses his disciples.

"Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more in the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on."

The image there is almost too hard to think about.  In the name of the God of Love, the priests are taking the last two cents of a woman who they should be using their resources to support.  There is no social justice, no help for a victim of the hard times in which they live.  The following of the laws and traditions has completely swept aside any sense of social responsibility for the priests.

There are many more verses that I could use to bring the point I am making home (Mark 7:9-13).  Jesus was not just against the hypocrites, he was against the entire system that encouraged hypocrisy.  The real purpose of God's law had been overshadowed by the greed of the religious leaders for power, a power which was made possible by a collusion with the people who were usurping God's throne.

After exploring Jesus' relationship with the powers of the time, I want to shift gears next.  Jesus did set out for us an ideal.  A way of living apart from having rulers.  A direct kingdom of God which we will get into next time.

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