Wednesday 4 April 2012

What a difference a day makes!

My heart sank when the minister of the church at which I was speaking last Sunday lamented in his prayers that the citizens of Jerusalem who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday, days later rejected him. No doubt in churches around the world the same sentiments were being expressed in sermons or prayers.

It’s an enduring and powerful myth that the people who welcomed the Messiah into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday were baying for his blood the following Friday. But it’s a myth nevertheless.

I believe in the total depravity of human nature but it stretches credibility to imagine that the masses who intently listened to Jesus teaching in the temple courts on Thursday afternoon would rise from their beds before dawn the next day and go to the Roman governor’s house to demand his crucifixion.

A cursory reading of Matthew 21, for example, should dispel any idea that the populace of Jerusalem was behind the plot to judicially murder Jesus.

Consider the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem:

… the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’ (Mt 21:8-11)

According to Matthew, it was the Galilean pilgrims who hailed Jesus as the Son of David. It was the Northerners who proclaimed Jesus as their prophet. It being Passover, the population of Jerusalem swelled to well over a million as pilgrims arrived from around the country and around the ancient world.

But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant, and they said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise”?’ (Mt 21:15,16)

The only ones who refuse to recognise Jesus as the Son of David are the chief priests and scribes.

And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus answered them, ‘I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?’

And they discussed it among themselves, saying, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’
(vv 23-26)

The next day the chief priests and the elders challenge Jesus about his authority. It’s a public challenge and his reply puts them on the spot because the crowds in the temple can hear the altercation. The response of Jesus could only enhance his reputation among the crowd because he brilliantly refutes and humiliates the elders of the people.

What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’

They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
(vv 28-32)

In the hearing of the people who believed John to be a prophet, Jesus presses home his point. The priests and elders are the second son; the crowds that responded to John were the first son. The first had become the last and the last had become first. The common people, on whom the leaders looked down from a great height, were pressing into the kingdom of heaven and leaving their resentful and unbelieving elders behind. The response of Jesus to the leaders must have caused his estimation among the people to skyrocket.

Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’

They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.’

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
(vv 33-46)

Remember, this disputation is taking place in the temple courts in front of thousands of people. The man who was hailed as a prophet and the Son of David the previous day is engaged in a heavyweight theological punch-up with the chief priests, the elders of Israel, the scribes and the Pharisees. The excitement among the crowds must have been electric, and you can almost hear the cheers as the Galilean prophet lands his knockout blow.

Israel (see Is. 5) and, in particular, Jerusalem (Is. 1:8) were God’s vineyard. In Matthew 21, the LORD is entering ‘into judgment with the elders and princes of his people’ who have ‘devoured the vineyard [and in whose houses is] the spoil of the poor] (see Is. 3:14).

When the Lord declares, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits’, he is addressing the leaders of the people, not the am ha'aretz, the common people. The people are pressing into the kingdom and the administration of that kingdom will be taken from those who spoiled the poor.

The chief priests and the Pharisees knew Jesus was talking about them. They had come to arrest him but they were afraid of the crowds who believed Jesus was a prophet. This incident would have been the topic of conversation well into the night. Is it plausible that overnight these people would change their loyalty from Jesus to the very people he had well and truly slapped down that afternoon?

The leaders had him arrested at night and tried at night in order to get him to confess to being the Son of God (Luke 22:69-71). When Jesus, being put on oath, claimed to be the Son of God, the high priest and his rent-a-mob had a case for handing him over to the Romans. Caesar was the ‘Son of God’ and the world wasn’t big enough for two divine beings(John 19:7-12).

That is how the corrupt Jewish leadership got Pilate on the ropes. He was damned whatever he did. If Pilate crucified Jesus, he risked an uprising from the Jewish common people who loved Jesus; and for that he might be summoned to Rome. If he released Jesus, he was releasing a rival to Caesar and that would be the end of his career; possibly his life.

In a feeble attempt to absolve himself of responsibility for the death of Jesus, the ruthless governor of Judea washed his hands as his Jewish subjects would do during their Passover seders, and handed the Lamb of God over for sacrifice.

The Jewish leaders could breathe a sigh of relief. No one could blame them for the death of Jesus. He had set himself up as a rival to Caesar, a Son of God; what could he expect? It was their double whammy: they rid themselves of a troublesome prophetic wannabe and at the same time extricated themselves from having any blame being attributed to them. Nice work if you can get it.

But despite the malice of evil men, this was all part of ‘the definite plan and foreknowledge of God’ (Act 2:23) and through those terrible events there is redemption for Israel through the blood of Messiah’s cross.

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