By: Penni Bulten
Jesus was constantly turning the tables on iron-fisted hypocrites who undermined the rule of law, especially two groups who regularly tried forcing him and everyone else into their molds: religious legalists and bureaucratic statists.
The Herodians, sometimes teaming up with hypocrites among the Pharisees, tried to trip up Jesus (Matthew 22:15-22) with the question: Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar or not? His answer draws the line: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to him. Government claims only its own privileges, not God’s nor anyone else’s.
Legalists were divided between Sadducees and Pharisees. Jesus had more in common with the Pharisees, but the hypocrites among them received his greatest condemnation. They provoked him repeatedly by honoring their own laws above God’s, including by denying their parents aid money via nominally dedicating it to the temple.
The most entertaining question put to Jesus came from Sadducees, who had the priesthood and party control over the Sanhedrin. “If seven brothers marry a widow, whose wife will she be in the Resurrection?” Jesus’ answer began: You neither know the Torah nor the power of God (Matthew 23:23-33). He showed that their own Torahs actually taught the Resurrection they denied.
Scribes, teachers of the law, were specialists sometimes affiliated with a party and sometimes not. A Pharisee-affiliated scribe gave Jesus the best question, and the best reply to Jesus’ answer. “Of all the Commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two laws hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40).
The scribe replied: “Well said, Teacher! You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other than him. To love him with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Jesus, seeing he had answered wisely, replied, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God!” This silenced all his questioners for the day.
Another day when Jesus trumped a crowd of legalists by superior interpretation of the law came when they brought a woman caught in adultery. They had broken God’s law themselves, by bringing her alone (Deuteronomy 20:10). He directed them to proceed but with the admonition, “Only he who is without sin may cast the first stone.” Sinners all, they dropped the matter (and their stones) and left.
Legalists continued joining statists to attempt to trap Jesus; with a traitor’s assistance, they thought they succeeded. Although Pilate attempted to wash his hands of a whole mock-trial, they pushed for Jesus’ execution. They derided him on the way to the cross, both centurions and Sanhedrin members (though at least two abstained).
Roman soldiers nailed him to the cross and, along with religious leaders, hurled insults at him. Jesus maintained his composure, even to the point of dismissing his spirit to the hands of God. (Normally the Romans controlled how long the victim suffered by breaking their legs or not.) When Jesus died, the temple veil, a thick curtain dividing the Holy Place from the Most Holy, split in two during an earthquake. All this had an impact on one soldier, who had never seen someone on a stake dismiss his own spirit. “Surely this is the Son of God,” he proclaimed.
The tearing of the Temple curtain displayed visibly what Jesus had already demonstrated actively and accomplished spiritually: freedom from the tyranny of sin (Luke 23:44-49). The two upright Sanhedrin members, rejecting the majority’s decision, boldly came to ensure Jesus’ body was not just thrown aside. Joseph of Arimathaea claimed the body from Pilate. Then Nicodemus helped him prepare it for burial and sealed the tomb.
Pilate and the unbelieving Sadducees and Pharisees were not out of the story, though: they placed a guard at the tomb and Pilate ordered the Roman seal as well. In one of the greatest setups in history, they fell into their own pit. Pilate, who had wanted to wash his hands of the whole affair, ended up compelled to place the statist seal of approval on the death of Jesus.
Yet the Roman seal could not bring the death penalty to him who dared to break it, unauthorized, any more than the religious leaders could prevent his inevitable triumph. Jesus’ resurrection was a triumph not only over legalists, but also over the powers that be, death and Satan. The victory of liberty and defeat of statism stand assured. Just as the Treaty of Paris followed the Declaration of Independence, so his resurrection will be followed by his just government!
Penni Bulten is a homeschooling mom who is fascinated with the Founding Fathers and their faith, both the noted and the notable. She can be reached at [email protected]