It may well be in the calculus of evil that the only character faring worse than a Nazi is the Pharisee. These were the original black hats. In each of the gospel accounts they are the no-accounts, the very foil of Jesus Himself. We, because we are sinners just like them, ascribe to the Pharisees every conceivable sin that we think ourselves not guilty of. We may have to confess to this sin or that, but at least, we tell ourselves, we aren’t like those guys. In our scapegoating narrative we think that when Jesus showed up the Pharisees hated Him for the simple reason that He was good and they evil. He walked down the street, and they hissed and sputtered. He healed a puppy and they kicked it.
The truth is that the Pharisees did hate Jesus, and He rightly isn’t known for showing them a great deal of grace. He called them out for their hypocrisy. He exposed their inner tombs. But the hatred they felt for Him wasn’t mere sour grapes at His approval rating, nor was it as principled as mere evil versus good. It was rather more craven. They hated Jesus not because He called them names, but because He threatened their security, prestige and income. He was going to ruin everything they had worked so hard for, and getting everybody killed.
The Pharisees had brokered a rather uneasy peace between the powers of Rome, and their own people. Rome, you will remember, had no great desire to remake the cultures their army had conquered. Any nation willing to submit to Rome’s military and political authority could go on about their business. Israel, however, wasn’t a nation given to separating their political and theological loyalties. Thus the rise of the Zealots, that sect who, in the spirit of the Maccabees, sought to remove Rome’s yoke. Thus the uprising in 70 AD that led to the utter destruction of Jerusalem. It was the Pharisees who kept their finger in that dyke. And they made a decent living doing it. It was Jesus, however, who kept poking at the levee.
His popularity, His talk of the kingdom, His affirmation that He was in fact the Messiah, this threatened the uneasy peace. If the people got behind Joseph’s son, Rome would awake, and start killing Jews indiscriminately, not bothering to distinguish the Pharisee party from the Jesus party. This is how Caiaphas came, in a moment of treachery, to speak a gospel truth when he said, “nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50). The Pharisees hated Jesus not because He made them look bad with the people, but because He made them all look bad to Rome.
We would be wise to remember this, for the pattern remains. When persecution comes it comes first not from the state, but from that part of the church that seeks to appease the state. The zealous, the faithful, those unwilling to confess that Caesar is Lord will be turned over to Caesar by the feckless, the faithless, those who fear man rather than God. It is those who aspire to maintain respectability, those who remove the gospel’s offense, those who exchange their prophet’s mantle for something more hip, these are they who betray Christ, and His bride. Persecution, in the end, doesn’t divide the church, but exposes where the line is between wheat and chaff. In times of persecution the true church may be burned, but those who escape will only be blown away.
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