As we 21st century readers digest the narrative of the New Testament, it might leave us with more questions than we anticipated. It would not be surprising if you have ever wondered what exactly Jesus did wrong. The religious scholars display a bitter rage toward Jesus. On several occasions, the New Testament writers tell us that they tried to have Jesus killed. Jesus shocked the Pharisees. But what he said that led them to murder him might come off as benign to modern readers and we might glance over it.
Jesus was addressing a particular culture. If we are to understand him fully, we need to look at the historical context. Suppose two-hundred years from now, somebody finds a letter written on June 6th, 2018 from one friend to another. The letter reads, “I do not support the agenda to make America great again.” If you were to construct an accurate portfolio of the writer, you would need to understand the Trump presidency and the rivalry between liberals and conservatives. The same can be said of Jesus. Jesus is the Lord and the eternal Logos, but he was also Jesus of Nazareth, a man who lived in a specific setting two-thousand years ago.
Someone Greater Than The Temple Is Here
The Temple was the center of Jewish piety for a long time. It remains an integral aspect of eschatology. But after the Babylonian Captivity, the Jews learned to practice their religion without the Temple. Still, they could not exercise their priestly duties as the Torah prescribed, but they learned that Judaism would prevail even in Diaspora without a visible Temple. Instead they made use of the synagogue. The synagogue became nearly exclusive to Judaism. It was where they studied and read aloud the Torah and it was also the setting for religious and political gatherings.
However, while the Temple might have faded into the background of practicality, it remained a powerful symbol of the Jewish religion. It reminded them of God’s promise to Abraham, his Torah, and helped them to establish their national identity even when they were the subjects of the Romans. The Jews remembered the sacred words of the Maccabean Revolt well. “Let all who are zealous for the Law and supports the covenant come out with me!” (1st Maccabees 2:27). They also remembered the siege of Jerusalem when Pompey entered the Holiest of Holies, the dwelling place of YHWH, reserved only for the High Priest. In a sense, one might speculate that Pompey was telling them, “Something greater than your Temple is here.”
They were understandably protective of their sacred site and holy days. Perhaps they were even more protective of their holy days because at least those could not be desecrated. In Matthew 12:1-14, the Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath because his disciples were picking grain. Jesus reminded them of how King David went into the Temple and ate consecrated bread because they were hungry. Now, Jesus reminds them of Hosea 6:6, which reads, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and tells them, “Something greater than the temple is here” likely referring either to himself or the work that he and his disciples were doing.
Jesus shocked the Pharisees, but since the era of the Temple has been over for two-thousand years, we do not share the same sensitivity about it. It is sort of like if someone said, “Someone greater than the crucifixion is here” or claimed to be the lord of communion.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
The theme of being lost is prevalent in Luke 15. Readers will be right to understand the parable of the prodigal son in light of the parable of the lost sheep or the parable of the lost coin. The general idea is that something was once lost and now it is found. The prodigal son is even more significant because it is an actual person. The concept of a son abandoning his family and falling into the clutches of a hard world might hit home for many readers. But there is a deeper element that modern readers will likely miss.
There are specific Jewish customs that can help us to understand this parable. Their customs surrounding exile and re-admittance into the community will be particularly relevant. Some scholars note the similarities between the return of the prodigal son and the ceremony preceding a return from exile.
But what is most shocking and even heart-breaking about this story was probably missed by most readers. An elder son will be entitled to the majority of his father’s estate – after the father has already died. For the son to request his inheritance while the father is still alive would have brought dishonor onto the family. The fact that he would even make that requests suggests that the father and son had a broken relationship. He was not just going out to party for a couple of weeks. He was leaving, forever, hoping to live in wealth in the big city, and forget his family entirely. That sort of disrespect would give the father warrant to turn his son away. This is why when he returned, he said, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants” (V. 19).
So for the father to embrace him and give him a ceremony was more than mercy and more than he deserved. The parable is likewise a brilliant display of humanity’s sin and our personal rebellion against God. When we come to him, we are not coming as one who went out to a party and had a few drinks and made a few mistakes. We are coming as one who brought shame and dishonor to God, and likewise that sort of disrespect would warrant God turning us away. But the parable is designed to lead us to contemplate God’s mercy, not his wrath, and when we consider the background and customs that we might have overlooked, that mercy is highlighted.
The Good Samaritan?
We should never let it be said that theology does not make any new strides or developments. Theology very much involves the study of ancient culture. One significant development is how we have understood the dispute between the Jews and Samaritans. As recently as 1968, one author described the religion of the Samaritans as a “sect”. We now regard the Samaritan religion as a “wholly mature and independent development which took its own course.”  Assuming you recall the parable of the Good Samaritan: a man is beaten and left on the side of the road. A Pharisees and a Levite both see him and cross to the other side. A Samaritan sees him and gives him aid. Jesus tells the hearers that it is the Samaritan who was a true neighbor to the injured man. We can say with a fair amount of confidence that this Samaritan was a member of another religion.
The Jews, including Jesus himself, would have seen the Samaritans as heretics who did not keep the Torah. That is why Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews,” a possible implication being that the Samaritans are not saved. Talmudic literature sometimes classified the Samaritans as Gentiles. All of this is to say that they were not viewed in a favorable light and certainly when Jesus spoke of the Samaritan man, he was not referring to a child of Israel. He was referring to somebody who did not observe the Law as commanded, and who held beliefs that were categorically heretical.
The Samaritans had four basic tenets in their theology. God, Moses, the Law, and Mt. Gerizim. The first might be non-controversial and even respectable, because there are very few, if any, rival religions of the day that were monotheistic. But the second tenet of their faith being Moses entailed that they “staunchly denied the prophets” arguing based on Deuteronomy 34 that Moses was the only true prophet. Of Moses, it was said, “Moses was the first (man) whom God created; he was the Word or Logos of God in the world; he was involved in the creative act in an active way as the divine fiat, and it is on account of Moses that all creation exists well.”
The parable of the good Samaritan is not just a story of a nice guy who made a sacrifice. It is a story of a heretic. It does not merely break an ethnic dividing line. It breaks a religious dividing that would have infuriated the Pharisees. Consider my reconstruction of the parable of the good Samaritan formulated for modern, western sensitivities, and you might get an idea of what the Pharisees felt.
Render Unto Caesar
Nobody wants to pay taxes, especially since the Jews were the Romans’ subjects. So we all know the dilemma that the Pharisees put Jesus in. They asked in the presence of all, “Should we pay taxes to the Romans?” Jesus was caught between offending the Romans, gaining the reputation of a zealot and offending his countrymen, causing the masses to turn against him. He replied, “Who’s inscription is that on the coin? Caesar’s? Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
But as always, there is a little more going on here that a 21st century reader might miss. First, paying taxes to the Romans was not as widely accepted as paying taxes to the American government. The Jews were subjects and the Romans ruled with a heavy hand. The Israelites often lived in hard conditions, homeless, and feared being outside because bandits would roam the streets. Further, the Old Testament established an equal division of land. Landowners often could not 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. So even Jesus’s seemingly benign answer could easily have offended the masses because it wasn’t a strict condemnation of the Roman tax.
Another consideration is 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.” The image on the coin was a hallmark of divinity, so for Jesus to apparently grant that without objection seems bizarre, and indeed, Jesus shocked the Pharisees.
However, it would not be the first time that he spoke in cryptic language. There are broadly three contrasting ways to understand what Jesus meant. First, some think Jesus offering a balanced equation; the government and God’s realm are separate entities, and we owe allegiance to both individually. I am not inclined toward this view because in that culture, they would not 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 did not differentiate between religion and politics. This interpretation retrojects the modern situation into the ancient Near East.
Second, some would say that God’s is the only true kingdom, and we should render everything to him. Nothing belongs to Caesar and therefore we should not render anything to him. The third view is a nuance between the first two. This interpretation would say that God is far above everything else. Caesar has a role. Consequently, we should pay that tax to Caesar. If either of these last two interpretations are true, which I suspect, then Jesus will have been using 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 my readers have expressed discomfort at contextualizing Jesus. He is, after all, the eternal Logos and worthy of our worship. But if we veer too far, we will lose 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 understanding of these passages, but whether they are passages of mercy or condemnation: the emotion they conveyed, they 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.
 Rajak, Tessa. 2018. “The Jewish Diaspora in Greco-Roman Antiquity.” Interpretation: A Journal Of Bible & Theology 72, no. 2: 146-162
 Barker, Margaret. 2003. The great high priest. Brigham Young University Studies 42 (3/4): 65-84.
 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.
 Ibid., 215
 Macdonald, John of Leeds, England. 1972. “Discovery of Samaritan religion.” Religion 2, no. 2: 141-153.
 Ibid., 144
 Ibid., 148
 Ibid., 144
 Ibid., 148
 Scott, J Julius Jr, “Common Life In First Century Israel,” in Jewish Backgrounds of The New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academics, 2012), MyWSB
 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.
 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
 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