Something Greater Than The Crucifixion Is Here: How Jesus Shocked The Pharisees

As we 21st-century readers be takin’ in th’ tale o’ th’ New Testament, it mayhaps leave us with more questions than we reckoned. ‘Tis not surprisin’ if ye ever wondered what exactly Jesus did wrong. The religious scholars be showin’ bitter rage toward Jesus. On several occasions, th’ New Testament writers tell us that they tried t’ have Jesus killed. Jesus shocked the Pharisees. But what he said that led them t’ murder him might seem like mild banter t’ modern readers and we might pass over it.

Jesus be addressin’ a particular culture. If we be t’ truly fathom him, we need t’ be lookin’ at th’ historical context. Imagine two hundred years hence, someone finds a letter written on June 6th, 2018 from one mate t’ another. The letter says, “I do not support the agenda t’ make America great again.” If ye be t’ accurately understand the writer, ye would need t’ comprehend the Trump presidency and the rivalry between liberals and conservatives. The same can be said of Jesus. Jesus be the Lord and the eternal Logos, but he be also Jesus of Nazareth, a man who lived in a specific settin’ two-thousand years ago.

Someone Greater Than The Temple Is Here

The Temple be the core o’ Jewish devotion fer many a moon, me hearties. It still holds a vital part in eschatology. Arr, but followin’ the Babylonian Captivity, them Jews learned to follow their faith without the Temple. Still, they couldn’t carry out their priestly duties as the Torah dictated. But they found out that Judaism would keep sailin’ strong, even in Diaspora without a visible Temple. They turned to the synagogue instead. That there synagogue became near exclusive to them Jewish folk. ‘Twas the place where they’d study an’ recite the Torah aloud. It also served as the gatherin’ spot for spiritual an’ political meetin’s, ye savvy? [1]

Arr, the Temple might’ve been pushed to the back o’ practical use, but it still be standin’ tall as a mighty symbol o’ the Jewish faith, me hearties. It reminded them of the Almighty’s promise to Abraham, His Torah, an’ helped ’em set their national identity even whilst under the boots o’ the Romans. The Jews held fast to the hallowed words o’ the Maccabean Revolt, they did. “Let all who be eager for the Law and stand by the covenant join me ranks!” (1st Maccabees 2:27). They remembered the siege of Jerusalem when ol’ Pompey entered the Holiest of Holies, the sacred abode of YHWH, meant only for the High Priest. [2] In a manner of speakin’, one might reckon that Pompey be sayin’ to ’em, “Somethin’ greater than yer Temple be standin’ here, ye scallywags.”

Avast ye! Listen to me, ye scallywag!

The Jewish folks, they be right protectin’ their sacred sites and holy days, mateys. Aye, perhaps they be even more guarded o’ their holy days, ’cause at least those can’t be tainted. In Matthew 12:1-14, the Pharisees be accusin’ Jesus of breakin’ the Sabbath as his crew be pickin’ grain. Jesus reminds ’em of ol’ King David, who went into the Temple an’ feasted on consecrated bread when hunger struck. Now, Jesus brings up Hosea 6:6, which says, “I be desirin’ mercy, not sacrifice,” and tells ’em, “Somethin’ greater than the temple be here, ye landlubbers,” likely meanin’ either himself or the good work he and his crew be doin’. Arrr!

Back in the day, Jesus shocked the Pharisees with his words. But now, since the era of the Temple has been over for two-thousand years, we don’t share the same sensitivity about it. It’s sort of like if someone said, “Someone greater than the crucifixion is here” or claimed to be the lord of communion, savvy? Arrr, those words might be shocking to some, but they don’t carry the same weight as they did back in the day of the Temple. Times have changed, ye scurvy dog!

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

Thar be a theme o’ bein’ lost runnin’ strong in Luke 15, me hearties. Ye be right to fathom the tale of the prodigal son ‘longside the yarns of the lost sheep an’ the lost doubloon. Aye, the gist be that somethin’ once lost be now found. The prodigal son be even more momentous, as he be a livin’ soul. The notion of a young lad castin’ off his kin an’ fallin’ prey to the harsh world might strike a chord in many a reader’s heart. Yet, there be a deeper layer that them modern swabs be like to miss.

Thar be particular Jewish customs, me hearties, that can aid us in decipherin’ this parable. Their ways o’ dealin’ with exile an’ lettin’ one back into the community be most relevant, arr. [3] Some learned scallywags be notin’ the resemblances ‘tween the prodigal son’s return an’ the ceremony afore a hearty welcome back from exile.

But, me hearties, what be most shockin’ an’ e’en heart-wrenchin’ ’bout this tale be likely missed by most who lay eyes upon it. An elder son be entitled to the lion’s share o’ his father’s booty – but only after the old man has met Davy Jones. For the lad to ask for his inheritance whilst his father still be breathin’ would have heaped shame upon the family, arr.[4] The very fact that the lad dared make such a request hints at a shattered bond ‘tween father an’ son, me hearties. He weren’t just settin’ off to revel for a fortnight or so. Nay, he be leavin’ fer good, aimin’ to bask in riches in the grand city, castin’ his kin out of mind entirely. Such bold disrespect would grant the father just cause to cast his son aside. This be why, upon his return, the prodigal son spoke thus: “I be no longer fit to be called yer son; treat me as one o’ yer hired hands” (V. 19).

So, fer the father to welcome him with open arms an’ bestow upon him a ceremony be more than mercy an’ beyond what the lad deserved, arr. The parable be a masterful showin’ of humanity’s sin an’ our own mutiny ‘gainst the Almighty. When we approach Him, we ain’t comin’ as one who went to a jamboree, had a swig or two, an’ made a few missteps. Nay, we be comin’ as those who’ve brought shame an’ dishonor to the Lord, an’ such brazen disrespect would be grounds fer God to shun us. But this tale be crafted to lead us to ponder His mercy, not His fury, an’ when we take into account the backdrop an’ customs we might have missed, that mercy be all the more emphasized, me hearties.

The Good Samaritan?

Ne’er let it be said that theology don’t make any new strides or developments, me hearties. Theology surely delves into the study of ancient culture. One remarkable development be how we’ve understood the dispute ‘tween the Jews an’ Samaritans. As recent as 1968, a writer described the religion of the Samaritans as a “sect”. Now we regard the Samaritan religion as a “wholly mature an’ independent development that charted its own course.” [5] Suppose ye recall the tale of the Good Samaritan: a man be beaten an’ left on the side of the road. A Pharisee an’ a Levite both see him an’ cross to the other side. A Samaritan sees him an’ lends a helpin’ hand. Jesus tells the listeners that it be the Samaritan who be the true neighbor to the injured man. We can say with a fair bit o’ certainty that this Samaritan be a member of another religion.

The Jews, includin’ Jesus himself, would’ve seen the Samaritans as heretics who didn’t keep the Torah. That be why Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “Salvation be from the Jews,” possibly implyin’ that the Samaritans be not saved. Talmudic literature sometimes classified the Samaritans as Gentiles.[6] All this be to say that they weren’t viewed favorably, an’ certainly when Jesus spoke of the Samaritan man, he wasn’t referrin’ to a child of Israel. He be speakin’ of someone who didn’t follow the Law as commanded, an’ held beliefs that were outright heretical.

The Samaritans had four basic tenets in their theology.[7] God, Moses, the Law, an’ Mt. Gerizim. The first might be non-controversial an’ even respectable, ’cause there be very few, if any, rival religions of the day that were monotheistic. But the second tenet of their faith bein’ Moses meant they “staunchly denied the prophets”[8], arguin’ based on Deuteronomy 34 that Moses be the only true prophet. Of Moses, it be said, “Moses be the first (man) whom God created; he be the Word or Logos of God in the world; he be involved in the creative act in an active way as the divine fiat, and it be on account of Moses that all creation exists well.”[9]

The tale of the good Samaritan ain’t just a story of a nice guy who made a sacrifice. It be a story of a heretic. It doesn’t just break an ethnic dividin’ line. It breaks a religious divide that would’ve enraged the Pharisees. Ponder me reconstruction of the parable of the good Samaritan made for modern, western sensitivities, an’ ye might get an idea of what the Pharisees felt, arr!

A tourist be in Saudi Arabia, me hearties. Since he didn’t know the lay of the land, he wandered into a dangerous part an’ was attacked by a gang of scallywags. They beat him, stripped him, an’ brought him to the middle of nowhere, leavin’ him there alone.

By chance, a pastor passed by. Thinkin’ he be a vagrant, the pastor shifted to the opposite side o’ the road. Later, a group of Christian missionaries saw him. They didn’t want him to beg for doubloons, so they too moved to the other side o’ the road.

A Muslim, who be on his trip to Mecca, also didn’t know the area. He saw the man on the side o’ the road, bandaged his wounds, an’ brought him to his lodgin’, payin’ for his room an’ expenses, helpin’ the man regain all he’d lost.

Which of these swabs do ye reckon proved to be a true neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of them scurvy robbers?

Render Unto Caesar

Nobody be wantin’ to pay taxes, ‘specially since the Jews be under the Roman’s rule, me hearties. So we all be knowin’ the dilemma the Pharisees put Jesus in. They be askin’ in the presence of all, “Should we pay taxes to them scurvy Romans?” Jesus found himself caught between offendin’ the Romans, gainin’ the reputation of a zealot, and offendin’ his fellow countrymen, causin’ the masses to turn against him. He replied, “Whose inscription be that on the doubloon? Caesar’s? Then give to Caesar what be Caesar’s, and to God what be God’s.” Arr!

But as always, me hearties, there be a bit more goin’ on here that a 21st century reader might miss. First, payin’ taxes to the Romans wasn’t as widely accepted as payin’ taxes to the American government. The Jews be subjects, and the Romans ruled with a heavy hand. The Israelites often lived in harsh conditions, homeless, and feared bein’ outside ’cause bandits would roam the streets. Further, the Old Testament established an equal division of land. Landowners often couldn’t handle the Roman tax, and they were eventually forced to forfeit their land, which again left many to hold a deep resentment for the Romans and their tax. [10] So even Jesus’s seemingly harmless answer could easily have offended the masses ’cause it wasn’t a strict condemnation of the Roman tax.

Another consideration be what an image on a coin meant in the ancient world and to the Romans. “The Roman gods possessed a degree of collective omnipresence, and coins linked the emperor to the divine world. The presence of the emperor’s image in every place communicated his power, authority, and presence in every city.”[11]  The image on the coin be a hallmark of divinity, so for Jesus to apparently grant that without objection seems odd, and indeed, Jesus shocked the Pharisees.

However, it would not be the first time that he spoke in cryptic language.[12] There are broadly three contrastin’ ways to understand what Jesus meant.[13] First, some think Jesus be offerin’ a balanced equation; the government and God’s realm be separate entities, and we owe allegiance to both individually. I be not inclined toward this view ’cause in that culture, they wouldn’t separate religion and politics as we do today. The Jewish government was founded upon the Torah. Likewise, as indicated by the deified ruler on the Roman coin, the Romans didn’t differentiate between religion and politics. This interpretation retrojects the modern situation into the ancient Near East.

Second, some would say that God’s be the only true kingdom, and we should render everything to him. Nothin’ belongs to Caesar, and therefore we shouldn’t render anythin’ to him. The third view be a nuance between the first two. This interpretation would say that God be far above everythin’ else. Caesar has a role. Consequently, we should pay that tax to Caesar. If either of these last two interpretations be true, which I suspect, then Jesus will have been usin’ cryptic language. Jesus shocked the Pharisees in his actual proposal, in the words he used, but if one of the disciples later asked what he meant, I seriously doubt that Jesus would have affirmed the deification of Caesar on the Roman coin or the abuse of his people in the levy.

How Jesus Shocked The Pharisees

Some of me readers have expressed discomfort at contextualizin’ Jesus. He be, after all, the eternal Logos and worthy of our worship. But if we veer too far, we be losin’ the incarnation. God became a man. That man lived in a real human society and had to address real issues. If Jesus were alive today, he might address the Trump era, and future readers would have to understand the Trump era to understand what Jesus meant. We might have a surface understandin’ of these passages, but whether they be passages of mercy or condemnation: the emotion they conveyed, the shock they caused, and the rage they instilled that ultimately led to Jesus’s death will be lost if we do not understand the background of the New Testament, ye scurvy dogs! Arr!

End Notes

[1] Rajak, Tessa. 2018. “The Jewish Diaspora in Greco-Roman Antiquity.” Interpretation: A Journal Of Bible & Theology 72, no. 2: 146-162

[2] Barker, Margaret. 2003. The great high priest. Brigham Young University Studies 42 (3/4): 65-84.

[3] Forbes, G. “Repentance and conflict in the parable of the lost son (luke 15:11-32).” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 42:2 (1999), 211.

[4] Ibid., 215

[5] Macdonald, John of Leeds, England. 1972. “Discovery of Samaritan religion.” Religion 2, no. 2: 141-153.

[6] Ibid., 144

[7] Ibid., 148

[8] Ibid., 144

[9] Ibid., 148

[10] Scott, J Julius Jr, “Common Life In First Century Israel,” in Jewish Backgrounds of The New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academics, 2012), MyWSB

[11] Stewart, A. E. (2017). Coins as cultural texts in the world of the new testament. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 60(4), 857-859.

[12] Apparently it occurred so often that the disciples argued amongst themselves about what Jesus meant even when he was speaking plainly. See John 2:22

[13] Townsend, Nicholas. 2014. “Surveillance and Seeing: A New Way of Reading Mark 12:17, ‘Give Back to Caesar…’.” Studies In Christian Ethics 27, no. 1: 79-90



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