This passage cuts me to the quick (that soft underbelly of the fingernails that used to hurt so much when my Mom cut my fingernails too short.) It’s all very safe to keep the chief priests and Pharisees stored in my head where they can muck about and cause mischief without hurting me. I can even laugh at their shenanigans and show a safe contempt for them. How glad I am that I’m not like those hypocritical Pharisees!
And then I realize, once again, that this passage is also about me.
“Thou art the man.”
I’m the chief priests, I’m the Pharisees, and I’m Caiaphas.
But before you safely store this in your head, I ought to point out that you, too, are the chief priests, the Pharisees, and Caiaphas (misery loves company).
How? In 2 cutting verses. I should mention first that we are also often like the believing Jews who when they had seen the things Jesus did believed in Him. But I find that in small, private ways, we are too often like the chief priests and Pharisees.
When Jesus Christ manifests Himself to people, He is impossible to ignore. He forces you to make a choice: choose this day whom you will serve. When the Jews saw Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, some believed. But some snuck and slinked and slithered away to tell the Pharisees, who reasoned this way: “What shall we do? For this man works many signs. If we let him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.”
Now that doesn’t in the least sound like you or me does it? I don’t even have a place or nation to be taken away, I don’t think And yet this is sometimes like us, isn’t it? Haven’t you felt the cold pride of the Pharisees slither up your back and into your brain and heart and soul?
Haven’t there been times when Jesus Christ comes to you and makes Himself known, and you reject Him? Why? Because He makes demands on us and commands us to do His will.
And there’s the problem. We’re afraid that if we follow Jesus we’re going to lose our place in life. Remember what the Pharisees said was the reason they plotted to put Jesus to death? It was because if everyone believed in Him “the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.”
Never mind that Jesus is the Messiah and proved it over and over again. Never mind that He is Yahweh Himself, I AM. If everyone believes in Him, since He claims to be a king and since He might be seen to lead a revolution, we’ll lose our place in life.
Isn’t this the way we think sometimes? If I really follow Jesus, then I’ll lose my place in life. If all of my friends are going to that R-rated movie and I don’t go because I don’t want to see onscreen pornography, then I’ll lose my place if I stay home with Jesus. If I use my credit responsibly and don’t go into debt, or if I don’t mortgage my mortgage so I can get a bigger house, then I’ll lose my place in life because I won’t have as many things, nice, new, shiny things.
If I go and tell others about Jesus then people won’t like me, and I’ll lose my place in life. If I dare to think and speak as if I can make political decisions based on my faith in Christ, I’ll lose my place at the table. If I don’t take matters into my own hands, then people will stomp all over me and wrong me. If I don’t get even, there will be no justice, and I’ll lose my place in life. If I don’t get my way now and then, I’ll explode and definitely lose my place in life.
If I give up everything to follow Jesus and do what He wants, then I’ll lose myself and my place in life.
In other places, we’re told that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus out of envy. Envy is just a hop away (not even a skip and a jump) from pride, and pride kills the soul. Wanting to keep our place in life, we will lose it.
Why is it that the Pharisees and chief priests cling to their place and nation as if they’re God Himself? It might partially be motivated by a good goal. God had revealed Himself to Israel as a nation and promised them a special land. Even the temple was a special place to worship God, and so the Jews’ approach to God was tied up with their place.
Who is that the Jews truly feared? Whom do they consider to be the giver of every good gift? It’s not God they feared but the Romans. They feared that “the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.” Having heard about the Exodus, the many mini-captivities in Judges, and the carrying away of both Israel and Judah, the Pharisees placed their faith in the Romans and not in God. Knowing that the Romans were actually their oppressors and that they themselves, in fact, had no real nation of their own, they chose the Romans over Jesus.
They did this because they had exchanged the Creator for the creation, the Giver for His gifts. In this, they manifest a kind of pragmatism: “We’ll do whatever it takes to protect what we want. The ends justify the means.”
And so Caiaphas the high priest makes the pragmatic prophecy: “It is expedient for us that one man should die for the people and not that the whole nation should perish.” Pride leads to pragmatism. I want what I want, now how can I get it? I know that I must protect the nation, so one man’s life is a small thing to pay for it. It’s practical that Jesus die because we’ll save the nation by killing him. I know He isn’t guilty, but if things continue this way then maybe the Romans will take our toys away.
There’s only one problem with pragmatism: it doesn’t work. We always miscalculate. Over time, we are likely to confuse the means with the end. The nation and the land become the source of blessing, and not God Himself. The nation and the land are what must be protected at all costs, and not God and His righteousness.
It’s time to trot out the beige skirt incident again (I think I’ve used it before). One time when I was young we were in New York City walking together as a family. I followed my Mom so I wouldn’t get lost, and since she was wearing a beige skirt I kept my eyes focused on the beige skirt. When I finally looked up, my real family was 100 yards away, and I had been following the wrong beige skirt!
The Pharisees were following the beige skirt, and not the mother. They were following an external sign of God and not God Himself. And we do the same thing. We make little compromises in life, arguing to ourselves (which is usually a sign that you’re about to do the expedient thing and not the right thing) that by doing so we can serve God better later. If I keep my mouth quiet about Christ now, then I’ll buy an opportunity to speak later, when it really counts. Fool! What if this was the opportunity? I find that so often such thinking produces not a storehouse of later opportunities but a habit of cowardice and pragmatism.
Humanly speaking, the pragmatic thing is often the cowardly thing.
And so I see myself today in a mirror, and I look a little like the chief priests, the Pharisees, and Caiaphas. I don’t like what I see. I think I’ll go look at Jesus Christ instead for a change.
Prayer: Father, forgive me for my cowardice and pride. Help me to not be ashamed of Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord. Purge me from my pride, erase all traces of my envy, and cleanse me from my cowardice, that I may follow Jesus again. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
- In what ways have you been acting out of expediency and pragmatism, and not from faith?
- Are you afraid in any way that by fully following Jesus you will lose something you love? Explore what this might be and if it is worth giving up a closer relationship with Jesus for it.
I resolve to find one thing that I am clinging to instead of Christ and to practice giving it up today that I might better follow Jesus.
© 2016 Fr. Charles Erlandson