People tend to forget that the Jesus of the Christmas story eventually grew up, was sadistically tortured and put to death. During the holidays we can’t help but think of him as “the little Lord Jesus,” who “laid down his sweet head” in a manger. It’s hard to understand why people would come to hate and insult him, conspire against him, and hound him to his grave.
But it’s not just the baby Jesus. It’s also the man Jesus who, according to the Bible, “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” Why on earth would anyone want to kill a person who went around doing good?
There is a disconnect in many people’s minds between the life Jesus lived and the death he died. The story feels a little like a poorly written movie which, when over, leaves the thoughtful viewer dissatisfied. Why did the lead character die? Why did people hate him so much, when he was so kind? It doesn’t make sense.
The summary statements in the creeds – “born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried” – aren’t much help. They don’t even try to tell us why. Preachers frequently explain Jesus’s death in exclusively theological terms: He died a sacrificial death by the will of God. Yes, he did, and the theological purposes behind his death were clearly of the utmost importance. But those purposes were achieved through the machinations of real people who had strong personal motives for wanting Jesus out of the way.
People in authority viewed Jesus as a threat. This started early, when King Herod (who also executed two of his sons because he suspected them of plotting a coup) heard about the birth of a child in the royal line and dispatched soldiers to kill him. As odd as it seems, the old tyrant on his throne saw the sweet baby in a manger as a real and imminent threat.
According to the New Testament, Jesus’s life was threatened numerous times, most often by the religious leaders known as Pharisees. They regarded Jesus as a challenge to their authority in the synagogue. His unstinting criticisms of their hypocrisy and greed stung them badly, and threatened their credibility. As the old Baptist preacher Vance Havner used to say, “Jesus was not crucified for saying ‘Behold the lilies of the field, how they toil not, neither do they spin,’ but for saying, ‘Behold the Pharisees, how they steal.’
But the Pharisees were not alone in their fear and hatred of Jesus. With them stood the Herodians, who hoped to regain the Emperor’s approval and return to power. Israel had always been a cauldron that brewed revolution, and the Herodians suspected Jesus of stirring the pot. They knew that Rome wouldn’t like that, and their hopes depended on Rome’s pleasure.
Then there was Israel’s aristocracy, the Sadducees. They exercised leadership over the high council (the Sanhedrin) and oversaw the country’s religious life. They did this from a place of privilege and wealth that most of Israel’s citizens could only imagine.
But that place of privilege and wealth was tenuous. They could only hold onto it by pleasing the occupational government and serving its interests. When they failed at that (fell short of revenue quotas or failed to suppress uprisings), their leaders were routinely deposed.
When Jesus stormed the temple (a story told in all four gospels) and maintained control of it for an entire day, the Sadducees panicked. Such an act was prelude to an uprising, and an uprising was prelude to a Roman military campaign that would crush the nation and remove them from power. So they took action, and within days Jesus was arrested and executed.
According to the New Testament, the murderous rage and unjust actions of Jesus’s enemies could not stop God from achieving his purpose. In fact, he incorporated them into his plan. God is, as the biblical writers never tire of saying, unstoppable. The hatred that put Jesus on a cross was no match for the love the laid him in a manger – and raised him from a grave.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/5/2015