April 22, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: Jews' leaders reject him

See Matthew 9:14-17 and 12:1-14, Mark 2:18-3:6, Luke 5:33-6-11

Why did the Jewish religious leaders—the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the scribes—reject Jesus? You would think that Jesus would have a natural affinity toward them.

Through the centuries, these leaders had developed detailed and precise rules around their religious rituals—what to eat and what not to eat, with whom to eat and with whom not to eat, ceremonial washings to cleanse ritual uncleanliness and, particularly, what could or could not be done on the Sabbath. For some, these rituals had become an end in themselves.

Now Jesus came along and ignored some of those rules. He made it clear that he considered attachment to some of them as a barrier to true religion. He even had the audacity to think that he could add to the Torah: “It is written,” he said, “but I say to you.” These men spent their lives following the Torah and its rituals so they naturally resented being told that they were wrong.

They asked, for example, why Jesus and his disciples didn’t fast, only to be told that one doesn’t fast when the bridegroom is present, but that they would fast after he is taken away from them. There would be no fasting during Jesus’ earthly ministry. That hardly helped Jesus. In the Old Testament, God was Israel’s bridegroom.

On one Sabbath, Jesus’ disciples picked the heads of grain while walking through a field of grain. The Pharisees considered that to be reaping—obviously a violation of the law that forbade work on the Sabbath. This time, Jesus reminded them of the episode in the First Book of Samuel (Sm 21:2-7) when King David’s men were hungry and the priests shared with them bread that had been consecrated to God. (In Mark’s account, but not in Matthew’s and Luke’s, the priest who shared the bread is incorrectly identified as Abiathar. It actually was Ahimelech, Abiathar’s father.)

But Jesus didn’t stop there.

“Something greater than the temple is here,” he said, and, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” He was claiming to have supreme authority over the law. For the Pharisees, that was an unpardonable claim.

There was still another Sabbath episode. Jesus entered a synagogue and found a man with a withered hand. This time, the Pharisees were watching to see if he, would cure on the Sabbath, not doubting, apparently, that Jesus could do it. This time, according to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus showed anger and grief—the first time in the Gospels that he showed emotion—at their hardness of heart. From then on, he would frequently be angry with the Pharisees.

All this was too much for the Pharisees. They went out and met with the Herodians to see how they could put Jesus to death. The Herodians weren’t another Jewish group like the Sadducees and Pharisees. They were followers of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. If they were to put Jesus to death in Galilee, they required his approval. †

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