A Bad Time for a Messiah

It’s really a bad time for a Messiah…

After viewing the clip that Thom Schultz showed of his upcoming documentary about a policeman who wants to start a ministry in a local pub, a man approached him and shared his discomfort with Christians who allow themselves to be seen in or near a bar. “What kind of witness is that?” he asked. “Especially when the Bible is so clear about the evils of alcohol.”  He reminded him that Jesus faced criticism for hanging out with those whom the religious establishment looked down upon. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’” (Matthew 11:19).   “I know,” he said. “And that bothers me.”    He toldThom how alcohol is the root of “all of society’s problems.” He said he seizes every opportunity to condemn those who drink. “We are called to confront sin whenever we see it,” he said. “And that policeman is not helping the cause.”  Before I could remind this man of Jesus” first miracle, he brought it up. “I know Jesus turned water into wine,” he said. “That’s always bothered me.”   I asked, “If Jesus were standing right here, what would you say to him?”  He said, “I’d ask him, ‘What were you thinking?!’”

Well that strikingly similar to the problem Annas and his son in law Caiaphas had with Jesus.

For the ordinary people of the Jewish homeland they might not see a Roman soldier on a day-to-day basis but the imposition of Roman power was certainly there. In the client kingdom of Judea Herod’s rule and Herod’s forces would have been the political entity. Everyone knew that Rome was the power behind the throne. Everyone knew that Rome was the source of both the wealth and also the source of some of the problems that occurred in the Jewish state. So the political reality of the day was of a dominant power overseeing the life on a day-to-day basis.

Herod the Great was probably one of the greatest kings of post-Biblical Israel, but you wouldn’t want your daughter to date him. He was ambitious, brutal and extremely successful. He brooked no opposition, either with family or with politics. Thanks to the political connections of his father he was able to marry into the ruling family in Judea. Under his leadership post-Biblical Israel rose to political and material heights unheard of since Solomon. Herod was a successful client king. He paid tribute to Rome and stayed on the correct side of any kind of Roman fracas.  He protected the political independence and liberty of Jews in Israel. He advertised the success and wealth of his own regime and the importance of his people by having an incredibly ambitious program of building.  Some of the most beautiful buildings that still exist in the land of Israel were done under Herod. Of course, his greatest gift was what he did with the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the symbolic and political heart of the country. By rebuilding the Temple … refurbishing it … making it enormous and really one of the architectural marvels of the ancient world, he not only increased enormously the religious prestige of Judaism, but also enabled Judea to have a positive balance of trade. Jerusalem became one of the major centers of world trade and travel. It is one of the real untold ironies of Jewish history that this guy we love to hate really leaves the most indelible mark on the face of the land.

The situation of Judea at the time of Jesus was that its’ economy was robust. It’s a new world because of the arrival of Rome and because of the accomplishments of Herod’s rule. Herod had a long and impressive reign.  But, at his death, his kingdom, which was the largest extent for the Jewish state since the time of David and Solomon, was subdivided among three of his sons. One son, Archelaeus, took Judea, the most important of the three sub-divisions. But within ten years, he was removed by the Roman overlords, and replaced with a military presence posted there by the Roman administration to oversee the political activities of the state.

Pontius Pilate, is one of those posted to Judea. Archeology tells us that at Caesarea Pilate was building a Tibereum, a temple for the Emperor Tiberius, as part of the Imperial Cult.  At the time of Jesus there was a series of religious tensions, many of them focusing on the Temple. On the other side, there is the political and socioeconomic tension that we see reflected in the rise of social banditry. The historian Josephus actually mentions over a dozen of rebel bandit figures.  The political tension is fueled by religious ideas and expectations. And here again, Jerusalem and the Temple seem at times to be a kind of focal point of their ideas.

The Jews, as the Gospel of John calls them, knew they were walking a fine line of maintaining some level of freedom and prosperity  in their civic and religious lives so long as they didn’t upset the Romans.  But nor could they miss the signs that Jesus had done. He healed blind people and people with mental and physical ailments. He fed thousands distributing fragments of a few broken loaves and fish. Together the four Gospels record 37 miracles of Jesus interspersed with his teaching. The Gospel of John concludes by saying “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that ever the whole world would not room for the books that would be written.

We know from John 6:15 that there was a popular movement to make Jesus king.  This culminates in the Palm Sunday narrative of John 12.  The people sang from the 118th Psalm.  We contrast this with the story in John 10: 31ff. where the Jews, not the general population … took up stones again to stone him. 32Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” 33The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” 34Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? 35If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ —and the scripture cannot be annulled— 36can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? 37If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. 38But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” 39Then they tried to arrest him again,  The discussion among the Jews during their inquisition of the man born blind and his parents is a fascinatingly human moment:

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The man formally blind seems instructs his inquisitors: 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

When Lazarus was brought back to his sisters from beyond hope: Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” That was the reason the story is told in the Gospel of John – for that clear declaration of Jesus’ Messiah-ship. In another instance, a bit earlier in John we read: Again he (Jesus) said to them, “I am going away, and you will search for me, but you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” 22Then the Jews said, “Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” 23He said to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. 24I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.”                         Belief in the eventual coming of the Messiah is a basic and fundamental part of traditional Judaism. It is part of Ramban’s 13 Principles of Faith, the minimum requirements of Jewish belief. In the prayer recited three times daily Jews pray for all of the elements of the coming of the Messiah: ingathering of the exiles; restoration of the religious courts of justice; an end of wickedness, sin and heresy; reward to the righteous; rebuilding of Jerusalem; restoration of the line of King David; and restoration of Temple service.            Though the messianic concept is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Torah  traditional Judaism maintains that the messianic idea has always been a part of Judaism. The term “Messiah” literally means “the anointed one,” and refers to the ancient practice of anointing kings with oil when they took the throne. The Messiah will be a great political leader descended from King David (Jeremiah 23:5). He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5). He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel. He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions (Jeremiah 33:15). But above all, he will be a human being, not a supernatural being.

Traditional lore has it that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the Messiah. If the time is right for the messianic age within that person’s lifetime, then that person will be the Messiah. But if that person dies before he completes the mission then that person is not the Messiah. Was Jesus this long anticipated figure?  In the face of all this the members of the counsel are reported to have asked “What should we do?”  Given our present prosperity, our freedom to practice our religion and control our civil life, maybe we should wait for a Messiah in a coming generation?   In retrospect, everything they feared might happen if they acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah happened within a generation.  Jerusalem was sacked, Herod’s temple was desecrated and destroyed, the economy was devastated as were there lives.  Early Asian Christian communities sent care packages to feed those who remained in Judah.Today it’s still the same question about Jesus that faced members of the counsel back then.  What should we do about Jesus?  We know what was their answer.

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