April 08, 2019

The Chief Priests

Devotion for the Week...

Last week I wrote about Pilate's role in the story of Jesus' crucifixion. Ever since, I've been thinking about the chief priests and the leaders of religious law and the role they played. They didn't like Jesus because they saw Him as a threat to their position and privilege in society. Though they said they arrested Him because of blasphemy, really it was because they believed they'd lose their status if they didn't remove Him from the picture. Without a doubt, they are the bad guys of the story.

Just look at Matthew's account of their actions shortly after Jesus was arrested: "the leading priests and the entire high council were trying to find witnesses who would lie about Jesus, so they could put him to death" (Matthew 26:59). Isn't that shocking? They were knowingly searching for people who were willing to tell lies, specifically so they could kill a man they knew was innocent!

Then, when Jesus was before Pilate, "the leading priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be put to death." (Matthew 27:20). Now, this one has never made any sense to me. The custom at the time was for the governor to release a prisoner each year, anyone the people wanted, and the priests were able to convince the crowd to demand the release of "Barabbas, a revolutionary who had committed murder in an uprising" (Mark, 15:6). Why would they ask for him? I mean, I get that they didn't want Jesus released, but why would they choose a murderer? Surely there was some other prisoner they could have asked to have released. Or maybe it was a statement about Jesus and how much they didn't want to see Him go free. They would rather see a known murderer released than this man who threatened them.

Whatever their reasoning, the priests convinced the crowd to demand Barabbas be set free and Jesus be crucified and they got what they wanted. Pilate gave in to the demands of the crowd stirred up by the priests.

Here's what has been going over in my mind this past week. It's so easy to sit in judgement of the priests, to vilify them and to sit on our high horses, certain that we would never act the way they did. On a certain level, we wouldn't, of course. I hope we would never purposely set out to have someone put to death because they could affect our comfortable lives. I hope we would never incite other people to lie to protect our way of life. And I hope we would never be so selfish that we would consider our comfort more important than another person's life.

But, here's the thing, any animal, when threatened, will lash out and attack and that is exactly what the priests did. Their way of life was threatened by this man and so they lashed out to protect themselves against Him. Their methods were reprehensible and extreme, but at the very core of it, they were reacting to what they perceived as a threat. How would we have reacted if we were in their place?
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How would we react if our jobs were threatened? If our way of life was threatened? If our beliefs were threatened? Our reactions might not be as extreme as theirs were, but I can see us reacting with anger. There would be plenty of verbal attacks, both in person and online, against whoever was causing the threat. Church history, in fact, is full of awful stories of how religious people reacted to those who threatened them, whether the threat came from Christians who believed a little bit differently, from another religion altogether or from a secular source like scientific discoveries.

The chief priests are the bad guys of the Easter story, no doubt, but they are also an extreme example of what we could all be if threatened.

1 comment:

  1. We recently looked at the episode of John Baptist's death and thought about the character of Herod. He knew John was right, didn't want to kill him for fear of provoking the crowd but then couldn't lose face with his guests so had John beheaded. Herod was so wrapped up in people pleasing - first the crowd, then his guests and wife - that he made a decision against his own conscience. We wondered how often we are inclined to people please rather than uphold the truth...

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