The conflict that began on Holy Monday escalates on “Holy Tuesday.” According to the Gospel of Matthew, this day marks the dramatic standoff between Jesus and Judea’s theocratic ruling class.
Jesus is still teaching from the Temple, which he liberated and occupied only yesterday. There, he is confronted by “the chief priests, experts in the law, and leaders of the people,” bitter and scheming representatives of both the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two major wings of Judean society’s religious, economic, political, legal, and intellectual elite. Typically, these two tendencies were warring over arcane theological disputes. Very generally, Pharisees were more often traders, merchants, proto-bourgeois, whereas Sadducees were agricultural elites. But to take down Jesus, they set disagreements aside, as the shrewd do, and formed a united front.*
They are negotiating a volatile situation. Jesus is, after all, a beloved prophet of the people. These elites are searching for a pretext to arrest and execute him, one that does not threaten their own legitimacy. The solution: get him to openly claim to be God himself, commit blasphemy, and estrange himself from the people. And so begins a rhetorical war between Jesus and “the chief priests, experts in the law, and leaders of the people.”
In reading this account, especially against the backdrop of resurgent fascism, it is urgent to hear Jesus, with his universalist message, speaking not just to particular elites, but to blind power. Historically, the Christian tradition has cruelly, and very often officially, stereotyped all Pharisees and Sadducees, even all Jews, as personifications of hypocrisy, false religion, scheming, and greed. We know the shameful, diseased, violent fruit of that bigotry: ghettos, pogroms, the Holocoust. It is incumbent upon all Christians to reckon with this bloody stain, and humbly labor to repair this unspeakable betrayal of the global, ecumenical body of faith our own Jesus prophesied.
The Gospels are recounting lethal disputes between Jesus and particular, specific factions of the Jewish elite in 1st century Judea – the characterizations do not apply to all religious leaders and priests of Judean Judaism, nor do they apply exclusively to them. Can we not see dramatic personifications of hypocrisy, false religion, scheming, and greed among the official authorities of our own faith tradition, the one which bears Christ’s own name? That is our business. “Remove the plank from your own eye…”
So bearing this in mind – Jesus’ religious “betters” ask him, “By whose authority are you doing such things?”
He dodges their question.
Instead, he issues ominous, riddle-like parables. To the masses, Jesus usually grounds his parables in humble symbols, often related to the natural world or daily life – mustard seeds, yeast, fertile harvests, thorns, withered branches, lamps, nets. But the parables he gives these elites turn on relations of power, terms Jesus knew they would understand and feel strongly about – the Parable of the Two Sons, the Parable of the Tenants, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. Each involves a supreme authority making a request of subordinates, often by sending messengers. But the subordinates refuse or fail to comply, in two cases even murdering the messengers.
The authorities, of course, sympathize with the supreme authority. What should this master do, Jesus asks? The authorities all agree, he should “bring those wretches to a wretched end!” But then the meaning dawns on them: Jesus is indicting them. God has sent emissaries, but these elites, despite being God’s mere subordinates, have covered their ears, going so far as to murder those whose prophetic messages disturb their power and preferences. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus says, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
The authorities have to fall back and regroup. They return with another question. Jesus clearly pays no heed to human authority, they think. Maybe they can get him to commit treason, declare himself an enemy of the Roman state. “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus looks at a denarius and asks, “Whose portrait is this?” They answer, “Caesar’s.”
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
I love this answer both because it is funny, but also because it is deceptively profound. I imagine Jesus wearily rolling his eyes. Pay your taxes; attend to those perennial matters of public administration; I am not here to talk about water management and road construction. You are trying to change the subject.
Again, the authorities are speechless, “amazed” and have to retreat. The Sadducees mount a third incursion, but Jesus rebuffs them with superior knowledge of the Torah. “Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,” the Pharisees bring in reinforcements. An “expert in the law” asks him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law.”
In a very helpful distillation of spiritual priorities, Jesus repeats what he has said elsewhere: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Love God; love your neighbor. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. Their common denominator: love. What can Jesus’ enemies say?
Now the mood shifts. Jesus has publicly sparred all day, and he has won every round. He has done it with a light touch, through wit and stories. He’s got the upper hand. But rather than walking away with his winnings, Jesus puts it all on red.
His assessment of Judea’s ruling class has been fairly clear throughout his ministry, discernable through his associations, teachings, and actions. But now, he says the quiet part out loud. Allegory ends, and a direct, cold, brutal deluge of damnation begins, unlike anything else seen in the Gospels.
To fishermen, carpenters, widows, children, adulteresses, prostitutes, even quasi-criminal, knuckle-dragging tax collectors, Jesus says, “Come if you are weary, and I will give you rest.” But here, Jesus is not offering any rest. To the arbiters of power and correct opinion, both Pharisee and Sadducee, Jesus is offering no intercession, no succor. To those whose sleep is untroubled; who feel secure in their righteousness; who jealously guard their high seats, smug in their flawless performance of the correct rites, knowledge of the correct words; who are by turns condescending, scandalized, and terrified by the illiterate, unclean masses who just get it all wrong, and whose misfortunes clearly flow from their filth; whose pride so suffocates their imaginations, so deafens their hearts, that they will harass, smear, assassinate all those prophetic voices and wise teachers who come to remind Earth of the highest law.
For them, Jesus issues damnation.
“Woe to you, you hypocrites, you blind guides!”*
“…You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
“…You have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering. …”
You “defraud widows of their houses, and for a show make lengthy prayers.”
“…You load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”
“…You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”
“You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. …You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
“You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. …”
“You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. …”
“You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!”
“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”
“I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers,” yet “some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue form town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth…”
I read these passages, and I think about the fears I absorbed from pews as a child. I say this with no blame or judgement. I do not think they were the correct fears.
This is the great fear. To stand before the open Third Eye and be morally incinerated by the voice of the Eternal One for shutting the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces; taking away the keys to knowledge; defrauding people of their means of survival; loading them down with impossible burdens, materially and psychologically; abandoning justice, mercy and faithfulness; being obsessed over the appearance of righteousness, but not wanting to shoulder the burdens of real righteousness itself; missing God’s divine forest for the trees of legalism; being complicit in the murder of wise teachers and prophetic voices, only honoring them after they have been conveniently eliminated, the echoes of their message now putty in the hands of the powerful. This is the great fear. To imagine this fury turned upon me conjures the sensation of being thrown out into the cold night, as Jesus warned, where there is eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is the great fear.
It is Holy Tuesday, and the lines have been drawn. Jesus has thrown down the gauntlet, he’s crossed his Rubicon. He will not be absorbed and domesticated. He is dangerous. Now there can be no compromise.
Which side are you on?
As terrifying as estrangement from Spirit is, it is not so easy to choose to stand by this man, Jesus, day after day, over the course of a lifetime, when you see him, nose to nose with the most powerful people in the world, damning them, enraging them – is it? Not so easy when you yourself have had to stand nose to nose with them, faced with the frigid abyss of their grasping, sensed the desperate lengths to which they will go to preserve their illusions. Not so easy when you know the path leads to Calvary.
At least it was not easy for Judas Iscariot. And it is not easy for me.
* These woes are from Matthew and Luke; in Luke, the timeline for Jesus’ issuing of the “woes” to the experts in the law is different.
Marcie Smith is a lawyer teaching in the department of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She has a JD from the University of North Carolina School of Law. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin Magazine and at nonsite.org.