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The Real Jesus

Chapter 16

Confronting the Pharisees and Sadducees

   Spiritual awareness brings spiritual comparisons.
   The Pharisees and Sadducees were rival religious organizations. Though normally deeply divided, they could find temporary alliance in their hatred of Jesus. His popularity with the common folk — made poignantly obvious by their own unpopularity — and the sensational size and growing scope of His ministry made Jesus a significant rival for the affections and admirations of the people.
   These religious leaders, like most religious leaders in all religious groups from time immemorial, inspired more superstitious fear than sincere loyalty in their followers.
   The religious situation in first-century Palestine was not that different from the way it is today.
   Most people were not members of a religious group. The average Jew back then was like the average American, Briton, German, Frenchman now. He probably had a certain form of piety, attended the temple very occasionally at one of the festivals, and perhaps even tithed in a good year. But the average Jew was not a Pharisee, Sadducee, or Essene any more than the average Israeli is ultra-Orthodox.
   This point becomes obvious when we compare the population of the country with the membership in the different religious groups.
   A conservative estimate of the population of Palestine at the time is about half a million. According to Josephus there were approximately 4,000 Essenes for one period and about 6,000 Pharisees for another. We have no figures for the Sadducees, but being a priestly group they probably had fewer. If we are generous, we still come up with probably quite a few short of 20,000 for all the religious groups put together. This would make only about one out of 25 a member of a formal religious organization. This is conservative; it could have easily been one out of 30 or 40. This means only about 4 percent or less of the population had any specific affiliation with a religious group.
   The average Jew was what later rabbinic literature referred to rather disparagingly as an am ha'arets, "person of the land." He was considered to have a certain small amount of religious piety or scruples without being overbothered with religion. He had some definite views about certain aspects of religion so long as it didn't affect how he lived. After all, it wasn't easy to make a living and, like all peoples at all times, a short weight or a little water in the wine was easily overlooked. Of course, many were very honest and conscientious individuals, yet still did not claim any religious affiliation.
   A certain amount of respect was paid to the priests and the religious teachers. But this respect was no different from that of the average layman today. They told jokes about the Pharisee with the bloody nose because he so averted his eyes from looking at an attractive girl that he didn't see the wall until too late. They thought it was funny when the young bull got away and had to be wrestled down by the priests in their robes before they could sacrifice it. And the many street-corner preachers were considered as much wild-eyed fanatics as they are today.
   It has been a standard myth that the Pharisees were an overwhelmingly dominant force in Palestine in Jesus' time. This erroneous view is based on late rabbinic literature, but recent studies — especially those by the well-known scholar Jacob Neusner — have shown that the situation was quite different after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 from what it was before. Rabbinic Judaism was a post-AD. 70 phenomenon which descended directly from the Pharisees and therefore tended to exaggerate their historical significance.
   Judaism before A.D. 70 was much more pluralistic than is commonly believed, with a variety of different groups and sects, many of which disappeared in the Jewish war against the Romans.
   In the decades following the destruction of Jerusalem, rabbinic Judaism was hammered out and became the dominant religious influence on Jews (though again the average Jew was still the am ha'arets who basically ignored the detailed regulations proclaimed by the rabbis). Later rabbinic Judaism was Torah centered. Study of the law and legal disputations were common activities of the rabbis and their disciples.
   But Pharisaism differed in many ways from the later rabbinic Judaism. The Pharisees were not a group formed to study the Torah. They were an organization of laymen who agreed to observe certain purity laws so that they could imitate the priests in the temple.
   In other words they tried to make their home into a model of the temple and their table into a model of the altar. They were a table fellowship group. Even though they were concerned about such things as Sabbath observance, the bulk of their concern was with laws relating to eating.
   They washed pots and pans because that was necessary for ritual purity. They criticized the disciples of Jesus for eating with "unwashed" hands (Mark 7) because the disciples had not followed the purity regulations (regulations nowhere required in the Old Testament except for the priests in the temple). They were scrupulous about tithing, not because they were concerned about the priests, but because they could not eat something unless it had been properly tithed!
   Naturally, this was so much nonsense to the average Jew. What was to be gained by imitating the temple priests? Even the priests did not observe these purity laws outside the temple in their own homes. It is not hard to see why there were only 6,000 members or so of this superstrict table fellowship group. One had to conduct his life with his mind constantly on minute regulations of ritual purity with no purpose other than the desire to be able to sit down at a table from which non-Pharisees were excluded.
   The Sadducees were a group associated mainly with the priests (Acts 4:1). Their activities centered mainly around the temple, and this is why their influence on Judaism was totally finished when the temple was destroyed.
   The main appeal of the Sadducees was to the upper classes. Consequently, they had less popular appeal than the Pharisees and others.
   Yet many of the professional scribes were Sadducees. The scribes were a professional class roughly corresponding to the civil servant or bureaucrat of today. They were trained in the law (the term "scribe" is basically interchangeable with "lawyer") and the literature of the Jews. They held various administrative and educational posts. They were respected much as are the legal and medical professions today. So when Jesus said, "The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat," he was recognizing their prestige and authority as teachers. (But then He went on to condemn many of their practices and examples! — Matt. 23).
   The third Judaic sect of the first century — the Essenes — is not mentioned in the New Testament. Most scholars feel the Qumran community — immortalized and popularized by the Dead Sea Scrolls — was a leading Essene center. Other writers indicate that Essenes also lived in various villages and cities throughout Palestine. They were very much a minor group, though, and probably kept somewhat separate because of their exclusivist attitudes.
   The popular press has long engaged in speculation about Jesus being an Essene or associated with the Qumran community. Such absurdities have been almost universally rejected by Qumran specialists. There is no evidence that Jesus had anything to do with the Essenes and Qumran. As already mentioned, the Essenes are not even mentioned once in the entire New Testament.
   The Pharisees in Jesus' time, obsessed with their own rules and traditions of religious ritual, were no better and no worse than any other religious group of any other time. It is a basic psychological trait of human beings that, as one becomes more convinced of his own spiritual purity, especially if it can be expressed through physical means, he simultaneously becomes less tolerant of others. In a word, he becomes self-righteous.
   Self-righteousness is the antithesis of Godly righteousness. It can in fact become the most insidious of sins because it is the most difficult to recognize. It is not particularly hard for a prostitute to know what she is, or for a murderer, drunk or thief to know what he is. Perhaps it becomes progressively more troublesome for a liar and a covetous person to recognize his sins. But the self-righteous person, one who thinks that he has not committed any sins, "knows" he is righteous and he "knows" that he knows it, is in the gravest danger of insidious self-delusion and ultimate self-destruction.
   Whatever is required, the self-righteous person thinks he does; whatever is forbidden, he thinks he eschews. Yet God states that "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23), and that the personal recognition of one's own sinful nature, mind and heart is the essential first step in the conversion/salvation process. For the prostitute or murderer it can be easy, but for the self-righteous person this can be an intolerable stumbling block. It's no wonder that Jesus Christ reserved His fiercest attacks for the self-righteous religious leaders, who epitomized the attitude and approach of all religious leaders of all religions from all times (and do not represent just one persecuted race).
   The Pharisees personified the concepts of spiritual rank, show, pecking order, and degree of sanctimoniousness. How all such self-righteous characters know how to hate! (Satan himself must become at least a little jealous over their vituperative musings; their filthy, lying, carnal-minded plots.)
   A "righteous posture" is always center stage; all the lights are on — it's opening night, and all the critics are out there. Give it your best!
   Religious folk have always taken themselves altogether too seriously, and the Pharisees were no different. But they, like all other people of past generations, are dead. They were religious fanatics. They were spiritually proud, while being morally corrupt. They were hypocrites. They persecuted Jesus and finally succeeded in killing Him.
   But the "Jews" did not!
   Oh, the Pharisees were Jews, all right, but then, so were most if not all of the disciples and early apostles, and so were the great majority of all the converts during the early days of the church!
   And, to once again state the obvious, so was Jesus Christ Himself.
   Consequently, to capitalize on and exploit the fact that the Jewish religious leaders were involved in the crucifixion and murder of Jesus in order to support even implicitly an anti-Semitic attitude is the height of historical absurdity, ludicrous in the extreme, and only serves to broadcast one's own ignorance. In fact, surely a far greater case could be made for a "pro-Semitic" attitude, based on the clear New Testament testimony that the leading apostles and disciples and the great majority of the early church in Judea, as well as the core members of the churches even in the Gentile world, were all Jewish!
   An ultimate contradiction is to posture that one is wearing the cloak of "Christianity" (which says to resist not evil; turn the other cheek; pray for — and even love — your enemies) in order to persecute the Jews or, for that matter, any other group, creed, race, organization or individual).
   After the miracles of the loaves and the fishes, a continual furor began in the towns and villages as leading Pharisees from Jerusalem began stirring up the crowds. The confrontation between these religious leaders and Jesus was easy to foretell, and His denunciation of them as "hypocrites," who honored Him with their lips but whose heart was far from Him, was stinging. Jesus said, "Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" — and thoroughly scolded them for their man-made traditions which He said made the Word of God of no effect.
   Many falsely assume the religion of the Pharisees was the Old Testament religion, the religion of Moses.
   No way. Even though Jesus said that they sat "in Moses' seat," recognizing their inheritance of the authority of Moses (in administering the law), He warned against the doctrine of the Pharisees, which He specifically called their "leaven."
   The added corruptions; the repressive, restrictive, hyper-religious customs and traditions of these men were what Jesus attacked. They had made the Word of God, a way of life spelled out in the scriptures, of "no effect" by their traditions.
   After all, very few even today figure their religion is any good to them if they can understand it, do they? Isn't it much better if it borders on the mysterious, the unknown, the obscure? Isn't it more effective to gaze in wonderment at bizarre, detailed, carefully arranged rituals performed by some person dressed in obvious "religious" garb, and vaguely "guess" this must be pleasing to some sort of divine being, than it is to observe and appreciate the practical, day-to-day way of life that God lays down in His Word?
   The Pharisees decided it was holy to fast twice each week, as if on a righteously rigorous schedule. (You'd be a rich man if you could have a dollar for every day those pretending religious fanatics failed to really fast "twice in the week," even though they openly bragged about it.)
   Jesus was well aware of the story about the Pharisee and the publican. He said, "Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Luke 18:10-14).
   Here was the attitude of the Pharisees again: That of spintual pride, vanity, ego, self-importance and hypocrisy! The publican (normally suspected to be a cheat by the illiterate masses) knew what he was, and was repenting of it. The Pharisee was only interested in what the publican was, and had absolutely no doubt of his own "righteousness." He could not admit that he had any of his own sins, and bragged he was entirely righteous.
   Unfortunately, the "leaven" of the Pharisees is very much alive and active in too many religious folk. Spiritual pride, vanity, pretense, hypocrisy — these are blatantly obvious in many a posing, pompous, pseudo-spiritual person today.
   Jesus told of the martyrdom of men of God in times past, and then indicted the Pharisees because they admitted to being descendants of those who had done such things.
   The implication of Christ's words are clear: if the Pharisees had lived during those earlier days, they would have perpetrated the same crimes! Not only this, but Jesus also implied that they were plotting His own murder, and that some of them would remain alive to be involved, no doubt, in the murder of James, Zebedee's son; of Steven; and the attempts on the life of Paul!
   There were those, Jesus said, who "worshipped" Him. That is, they "revered" and "adored" His person; they "believed on Him"! But He said, "in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men" (Matt. 15:9).
   How many who are professing Christians believe that today? After all, the very essence of "salvation" according to the way many look at it is to accept Christ as personal Savior, to believe on Him; to admit you are a sinner, and to worship Jesus!
   "If you love the Lord, honk!" says the bumper sticker. The guy in the automobile can look pityingly on each unsaved sinner who passes without honking — because he thinks "loving the Lord" is the key to salvation.
   "If you believe — you shall be saved!" is the popular belief. But the demons believe, James said — and demons aren't "saved." Jesus said belief can flower into worship, and still be done in vain.
   To those who believe "on" Jesus — how about believing what Jesus said? It's possible to worship even the real Jesus, and still do it in vain — remember, those Pharisees and others were facing the real Jesus and blew it, where millions today only fantasize about a fake Jesus, a counterfeit, and so start off worse than the Pharisees!
   Jesus could become very angry at the Pharisees, but His anger was not self-oriented; He wasn't mad because His own ego was bruised.
   Jesus directed His anger through an outgoing spirit of love, coupled with grief toward human beings who were so bigoted and pig-headed they could not see the simple truths before their eyes. For example, read Mark's account of Jesus' healing of the man with the withered hand.
   "Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him" (Mark 3:1-2, RSV).
   Notice, there was no doubt in these religious leaders' minds whether Jesus had the power to heal — they knew He had that power!
   So why didn't they rejoice? As religious leaders whose primary job was to "feed the flock," and to be as gentle shepherds over the "little people" in their charge, why should they not have been deeply grateful for the miraculous power that Jesus exercised which brought such blessed relief from physical aches and pains, from blindness, deafness, dumbness, epilepsy, leprosy and all the other hideous diseases which afflicted a sick and poverty-stricken generation?
   Strangely, since these murder-plotting Pharisees postured themselves to be religious leaders and the proprietors of the Holy Scriptures, they should have at least had full knowledge of the terrible penalties God would impose on any such individuals who were guilty of forming various clandestine alliances with other religious and philosophical organizations with which they normally would have had no relationship whatsoever.
   Jesus was in the synagogue, and these religious leaders watched Him to see whether He would heal on the Sabbath so they might accuse Him!
   Thus, Jesus was being baited. They almost expected, indeed hoped and prayed, that Jesus would heal on the Sabbath in order that they might have what they felt was tangible evidence that Jesus had done something wrong! Just a few verses earlier, the Pharisees had tried to accuse Jesus because His disciples were plucking ears of grain and eating them on the Sabbath day, and Jesus had to tell them of how David ate the shewbread, and remind them that the Sabbath was not a yoke of bondage and a burden, but "the Sabbath was made for man" not "man for the Sabbath; so the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath." (Strange, isn't the Sabbath the only day which is truly sanctified by God in the Bible?)
   Jesus looked about Him and spied the man with the withered hand and said, "Come here." Then He said to the Pharisees, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to harm, to save life or to kill?"
   Again, that ringing voice of authority and that level gaze of conviction. combined with the logic of those words, were simply too much for these hypocritical charlatans. They simply had to shut their mouths in the face of such piercing logic. They couldn't answer either way. If they said, "Yes, it is lawful to do good," they would give full approval for Jesus' actions of healing on the Sabbath. If they said it was lawful to do harm, then this would be an obvious flagrant violation of the biblical principles for which they stood.
   "And He looked around at them with anger."
   That's right — Jesus was mad. After all, doesn't the Bible say, "Be ye angry and sin not"? (Eph. 4:26).
   The Spirit of God helps an individual control and direct these emotions, so that they are not motivated from vanity and ego.
   Jesus' anger had nothing to do with the relationship between Himself and the Pharisees! He was not "mad at them" in the way you or I might have been! Actually, He loved them — hoped the best for them, wanted to see as many of them as possible come to themselves and repent (though He knew according to the prophecies of the Old Testament this was exceedingly unlikely); Jesus expressed outgoing concern for them, all the while plainly calling the truth "true," labeling their attitudes and woeful lack of character for precisely what it was!
   The Bible says, "And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored" (Mark 3:5).
   Notice, the Pharisees saw one of the most incredible miracles in all of history! It defied anything any human eye had ever seen before! They actually saw an emaciated, withered, shrunken limb, grotesque in its gnarled condition, extended out toward Jesus to gradually swell to individual fingers and assume full size with a normal, healthy skin color, able to grasp and reach and be utilized with the full capability of the marvelous human hand.
   Instead of congratulating the man, receiving him joyously, clapping him on the back, and having the rewarding experiences of gathering around to give a good honest shake and grip to that newly restored hand, then turning to congratulate Jesus and thank Him for having so freed and healed a member of their own congregation, "the Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him."
   Such is the shameful account of religious bigotry. Unfortunately, such bigotry is alive and well in many a human heart to this day!
   The Sadducees and Pharisees, as true to form as all competing religious groups, were constantly battling one another.
   Religious arguments on all matters great and small constantly seesawed back and forth between them. They no doubt allowed their bitter hatred for each other to occasionally overwhelm their hatred for Jesus, and this record has been preserved as a witness to the abject futility of religious bickering for all generations down through history.
   The occasion of Jesus' last public teaching in Jerusalem was particularly meaningful. The ruling Sanhedrin had formally challenged Jesus' authority, demanding to know whether He was an accredited teacher or not. Mark, Matthew and Luke all record the challenge of the Jewish leader who asks Jesus, "Just who in the world gave you the authority to do these things here in the temple, teaching the people and saying the things you are saying — where does your authority come from?
   Jesus said, "I will ask you one question — and if you can give me a straight answer, then I'll tell you the source of my authority.
   "The baptism of John, did it come from heaven, or originate with men? Answer me!"
   Dozens of people heard this rapid-fire exchange in the temple. Nobody ever talked that way to the esteemed religious leaders. What were they going to do! In a hastily huddled caucus, the Sanhedrin reasoned among themselves.
   In hurried and nervous whispers, and with the curious gaze of their constituents fixed on the backs of their heads, they came to the awfully embarrassing conclusion that they were stuck: if they were to admit the baptism of John had come from a heavenly source, they knew Jesus' answer would have probably been, "Then why didn't you believe him?"
   On the other hand, if they should claim John's ministry and baptismal practice came from only a human source, the rulers of the Sandhedrin "feared the people"; because everyone surely held "John to be a prophet."
   One of their number, chosen to be the spokesman, finally gathered himself to his full height, arrayed in his robes and great dignity, and gave Jesus their studied opinion.
   Perhaps he put it this way, "The full question of John's authority has not yet been formally brought before the Sanhedrin, and such an egregiously complex question, considering its enormous implications and ramifications, would demand thorough consideration. We would therefore require a great deal of further study and deliberation before we could ever attempt to answer such an impromptu matter: consequently, we would wish to make no comment on John's ministry and baptism at this time." (Or he might have just said, "We don't know!")
   Jesus' conclusive statement twisted their consternation into knots, "Since you obviously can't answer me, neither will I answer you by what authority I am doing all these things."
   Then followed three keenly incisive — and obvious — parables in which Jesus exposed the hypocritical leadership of the religious leaders: the parable of the two sons, the parable of the wicked husbandman, and the parable of the marriage feast for the king's son.
   Matthew's account begins with the parable of the man who had two sons (see Matt. 21:28-46).
   Jesus said, "What do you think about this? There was a man who had two boys and he carne to the first and said, 'Son, I want you to go to work today in my vineyard,' and the boy said, 'I won't do it.'" But afterward he repented and went to work.
   The father carne to the second lad and said the same thing. And the boy answered, "Yes, sir, I am going,'' but he didn't go.
   "Which of the two did the will of his father?" Jesus asked the leaders of the Sanhedrin.
   They had to admit the obvious, which was "the first."
   Then Jesus, speaking directly to their leaders, in the audible presence of dozens upon dozens of people in the immediate environment of the temple, said, "I'm telling you the truth: petty crooks and whores will enter into the kingdom of God before you — because John carne to you preaching and following the right way of the law of God, and you didn't believe him!
   "But the petty crooks and harlots of our society believed him! When you saw that happen, you still didn't repent. Even when you saw John's ministry changing human lives, you never opened your mind so that you could believe John's preaching.
   "But, before you leave, let me give you another parable [Matthew, Mark and Luke all record it]: There was a man, a homeowner, who had planted a vineyard and had grown a protective hedge around it; he also had set up a wine press and built a tower for the production of wine. He then became an absentee landlord as he was forced to go away to another country.
   "When the harvest time was near, he sent some of his servants to collect the profits from his vineyard. But the renters willfully and maliciously ambushed his servants — beat one of them, murdered another, and stoned a third. The injured ones carne back to the landowner, and so he sent another servant, only to find that they did the same thing to him. They injured him badly, and threw him out.
   "Seeing that he was totally failing by sending his servants, the landowner decided to send his own son, reasoning that they would revere him because after all, 'he is from my own family.' But when the renters saw the son, they conspired among themselves saying, 'Now this is our real opportunity: he is the heir of the property — let's kill him, take away his inheritance and claim it for our own!' So they captured the son, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him in a nearby lot."
   Jesus then turned to the leader of the Sanhedrin and asked, "When the lord of the vineyard shall return, what do you think he will do to those renters of his property!"
   The leaders answered, "No doubt he will utterly destroy such miserable creatures, and turn around and find some new renters who would give him the profits which are rightfully his when they are due."
   They had trapped themselves. They could give no other logical answer in front of the crowd, despite their refusal to answer concerning John's baptism.
   Jesus then asked, "Why, have you never read in the scriptures" (an acid-laden question, for they were supposed to be the most highly skilled in this business claiming to have known every minute aspect and understanding), "the stone which the builders rejected, that same stone is made the chief cornerstone. This was the doing of the Lord, and it is wonderful in our eyes"? (See Psalm 118:22, 23.)
   "Therefore, I'm telling you, the kingdom of God is going to be taken away from you, and will be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And anyone who falls on that chief cornerstone is going to be smashed to pieces. But whoever it shall fall upon, will be scattered as dust." (A veiled reference to Isa. 8:14-15.)
   The chief priests and Pharisees did not need to be either especially learned or bright to perceive that Jesus was talking about them, and so in another whispered conspiracy, they frantically tried to find some method whereby they could arrest him. But the crowd of excited, enthusiastic people milling all around thought Jesus was a prophet, and the religious leaders were smart enough to realize they were asking for big trouble — a potential riot in an occupied city is inviting disaster — if they continued with their plan to physically abuse Jesus. Their time would come; but just now they feared the crowd — knowing that such a precipitous act would be illegal. They felt totally thwarted and frustrated; Jesus' popularity with the crowd, who obviously believed He was a spiritual leader and a prophet, was growing.
   Matthew's gospel then includes the next parable where Jesus explained that the kingdom of heaven was "likened unto" a certain king who decided to throw a big wedding feast for his son who was the prince, and so sent all of his servants out to call the invited guests to the marriage.
   Unfortunately, and for whatever reason, all of those who had received formal announcements to the wedding refused to come. So the king sent other servants out telling those who had been invited, "Look, the feast is all ready, all the preparations are made, much hard work has been done, all the special foods and meats are here, the wines and drinks are the finest and have taken much time to order; the rooms are decorated and the musicians have been hired to entertain you — so won't you please come to the marriage feast for my son?"
   But the guests ridiculed the king, his son, the marriage, the feast and especially the invitation. The last, in fact, became a common joke. Nobody would have shown up now, so they all scattered. One went to his own farm, another back to his business, while the remainder of them manhandled the servants, bruised and injured some, even murdering others.
   When word filtered back to the king, he was furious. "Angry" was in fact much too calm a word to describe his feelings. He wasted little time in sending his military units to destroy the murderers, and burn their city to the ground.
   Then the king got back to the matter of the feast; he told some other servants, "The wedding is ready and those whom I had invited earlier have proved unworthy to attend, so I want you to go out into the county roads and highways and collect as many people as you can find — I don't care who they are — and tell them that I want them to come to my son's wedding feast."
   So the servants went out into all the towns, villages, highways and byways, gathering together as many as they could find, without respect to economic standing, social status or personal reputation; bad and good, the servants were not to discriminate or make value judgments as to who should, or should not, come to the king's feast. All were now to be invited, and finally the palace banquet table was filled with guests.
   When the king entered and looked them over, he noticed one man who had not bothered to dress up in wedding attire. Apparently he did not appreciate or respect the magnificent opportunity he was being given.
   The king then went up to him and asked him, "Friend, how is it that you came in here not having a wedding garment on?"
   The man was struck speechless; he couldn't answer. The king turned to his servants and said, "Tie him up hand and foot and cast him out into outer darkness, for there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth — because many are called, or invited, but only very few are chosen!" (Matt. 22:1-14).
   The meaning of this parable was transparent to all who heard it. There was no doubt that the religious leaders were the first guests who had scornfully rejected their own king's generous invitation. Their reward was swift.
   But the story had another point, a final twist. One of the guests who, though not deserving it, was fortunate enough to receive such a priceless opportunity did not appreciate it. His end was the bitterest of all — he was so close, yet so far.
   The Herodians and the Pharisees had conspired together to load each of Jesus' audience with a handful of spies who pretended they were believers, applauding Jesus' words, nodding and looking at Him with bright-eyed agreement, in order to trap Him in some error of speech, some illegal activity or some seditious plot. The whole idea was to be able to bring about Jesus' arrest and turn Him over to the authority of the governor (Luke 20:20).
   Finally, this mixed group of Pharisees and Herodians had an opportunity to ask Him a question — so they gave their best shot: They wanted to force Jesus into a direct conflict with the Roman authorities. They sought to get Jesus to condemn Himself.
   To the question they maliciously concocted, Jesus dared not give either a "yes" or a "no" answer. "Master [Teacher or Rabbi], we know that you are true and what you teach is true, that you do not seem to be a respecter of persons or play any favorites among those of different social standing, and that you are indeed teaching the way of God — so we would really appreciate it if you would answer this question.
   "Is it lawful to pay Caesar tribute money or not?" (In other words, "Why should we have to pay taxes to this pagan, heathen warrior?")
   Jesus knew their collusion; He could immediately sense their vicious, sneaky maneuver. Jesus knew they were a pack of hypocrites (Mark 12:15) and bluntly called it straight: "Why are you trying to tempt me, you pack of hypocrites? Show me a penny."
   Someone dug into the fold of his robe and produced a "penny" (denarion in the Greek language, which was a coin of considerably more value than a "penny" of today.) Then Jesus, understanding how they would respond no matter which way He answered, said, "Whose image and superscription is on the coin?" They answered, "Caesar's," and He said, "Fine, since you say it is Caesar's, why don't you give it to him. Since Caesar's picture is on it, it's his coin. So you should give to Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and you should likewise give to God the things which are God's!"
   Everyone absolutely marveled at Jesus' deft ability to turn a dangerous and potential trap — He could have been arrested — into such a beautiful example. And the words of this powerful verse, which have been immortalized in the King James English, are worth repeating, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's" (see Matt. 22:16-22).
   There was no other possible answer. If Jesus had played it "safe" and said, "Yes, it is lawful to pay tribute," the religious leaders would have no doubt accused Him of rejecting all of the common hopes and teachings of the future kingdom of Israel, the total sanctity of the law of Moses plus the authority of the Sanhedrin, and claimed that He was giving public recognition to a Gentile government, approving its domineering occupation of their homeland, and indeed almost paying homage and obeisance to a pagan idol.
   If Jesus had answered, "No," they could have accused Him of being an illegal insurrectionist who was trying to bring about an uprising against the Roman state: they could have reported Him to the governor, who had had his hands full with similar situations over the past several years, as one false teacher after another had tried to incite followers into bringing about a revolution and wresting the rich kingdom of Judea away from the Roman armies.
   Later, first the Sadducees and then the Pharisees were again totally silenced when they brought their favorite trick questions to Jesus.
   The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and so, in order to confuse the Pharisees' dogmatic assertion of this doctrine, contrived an absurdly elaborate situation involving seven marriages to the same woman.
   This never failed to befuddle and silence the Pharisees, much to the Sadducees delight. They took the same question to Jesus. "Rabbi, Moses writes to us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife behind him, yet leaves no child, that it is the obligation of his brother to marry his widowed wife, and to raise up seed unto his brother that their name be preserved in Israel. Now it so happens that there were seven brothers we know about, and the first married, then died, having left no child. The second son recognized his obligation and married his dead brother's wife, and they didn't have any children, and he finally died. The third did the same thing, and finally all of them did the same thing and married the woman, clear up to the seventh, all of the brothers successively dying, yet no one ever managing to have a child. Finally, still childless, the woman also died. The question is, In the resurrection whose wife will she be, because all seven had her to wife?"
   It was important for the sake of this story that the Sadducees explain that each of the seven successive brothers had no children, because if any child had been produced, it would have meant there was no further obligation for the next brother, even upon the death of the elder one, to marry the woman — for an heir would be living, and the name would be preserved.
   The Pharisees habitually stumbled all over themselves in their ultralegalistic approach to the Scriptures, trying to ask all sorts of counterquestions: they probably tried to find out how old the parties were, how long they lived together, whether or not their marriage was successful, whether there might have been some "unseemly thing" or other problem which could have nullified one or the other of the seven marriages, etc. But the whole futile exercise always ended up in hopeless confusion, with no one actually able to give the Sadducees a satisfactory answer.
   Jesus turned this trick question into a positive lesson, not only against their hypocrisy, but as an opportunity to teach the truth about the nature of the Resurrection, which millions of people still refuse to believe today.
   He said, "It's obvious you are making a big mistake, and don't even know the scriptures, or the power of God. Because when people rise from the dead, they will neither marry nor give away a daughter or son in marriage, but will be exactly as are the angels in heaven — not physical, but spirit beings — sons of God's, sons of the resurrection and therefore not subject to the laws of human marriage. But concerning the dead, and the fact of the resurrection, haven't you ever read in the book of Moses [Jesus' favorite "putdown"] in the place concerning the burning bush, how when God said, 'I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob'; that that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living? You have no idea how far afield you are from the truth of the scriptures!"
   When the crowd around heard this incredible answer, they were absolutely astonished.
   Several of the scribes — most likely Sadducees themselves — then had the intellectual honesty to say, "Master, you have certainly answered well" — though perhaps not yet the courage to admit how wrong they were or to repent of it (see vv. 23-33).
   And Luke says that from that time on, the Sadducees dared not ask Him any further questions!
   I don't blame them!

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Publication Date: 1977
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