Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Jesus and the Authorities

Here, as promised, is the text of Sunday's sermon at Trendlewood:

Luke 7:1-10

What authority are you under?

Jesus was a human, living in a particular place at a particular time under a particular jurisdiction and a particular religious heritage.

You may have become confused over the years at mentions of Pharisees, Sadducees, Chief Priests, scribes and teachers of the law.

The Pharisees were a Jewish group dating back to the time of Ezra. They believed in particular that the exile in Babylon in 587 BC was because the law had not been kept properly. They were interested in ethics not theology. Especially tithing. There were about 6,000 of them in Herod's day. They kept themselves separate and wouldn't even buy food from a non-Pharisee in case it hadn't been tithed. They had scribes who wrote out detailed explanations and commentaries on the law so that any argument about it could be resolved by reference to them.

The Sadducees were another party or group but their origins are harder to pin down. Whilst Pharisees were populist the Sadducees' appeal was mainly to wealthier people. They stuck to the law as outlined in the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament) and this brought them into conflict with the Pharisees' modern interpretations. Most of them were priests, but not all priests were Sadducees. They disappear soon after Jesus' resurrection. They didn't believe in resurrection, the soul or the after-life because they did not see it in the Torah.

Priests are descendants of Aaron, Moses' brother, both from Levi's tribe. Levites are members of the tribe of Levi not directly descended from Aaron.

The most holy jobs were reserved for priests. Levites got the less glamorous stuff to do. Probably clearing up after sacrifices.

The Chief Priest is the chair of the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin. Since it is a post people held for a period and then stood down it is why we see references to Chief Priests - plural (in the same way as all previous United States presidents are referred to as Mr President). It includes all previous office-holders. High Priest is just another name for chief priest. You find it in some translations.

All these movements had their scribes - the people who wrote things down.

And all taught the law so Teachers of the Law means anyone who did such a work.

And we know Jesus gradually, through his behaviour and teaching, came into contact and opposition with these groups.

He was popular so the Pharisees wanted to like him, but he did stuff on the sabbath, went into unclean houses and hung around with sinners.

He quoted scripture so the Sadducees wanted to like him, but he spoke of resurrection and demonstrated it from the Torah.

He valued the synagogue so the priests wanted to like him, but he acted in a priestly way without being from the right tribe - Joseph's lineage was to David, from the tribe of Judah.

And all this is of nothing in the light of the political situation at the time.

Roman Empire.

Roman occupation.

It was a decree from Caesar that sent Joseph to Bethlehem for a census.

It was eventually an order of a distant local ruler appointed by Caesar who sent Jesus to his death.

And we know, from our current middle eastern politics, what local difficulties there are about whose land is whose and how unwelcome intervention is no matter whose suffering is being alleviated.

But we also know from our own history that under Roman occupation a number of people adopted the Roman way. We have villas, and bathhouses and mosaics under our soil in this land which show not so much an occupation as a changing way of life.

We also know that throughout the Empire, from the Black Sea to modern Spain and North Africa to Hadrian's Wall, there were insurrectionists who worked against the Romans. Zealots - Jesus had one of those in his gang and Barabbas was one too.

Which is why our passage today is the key one about Jesus relationship with authorities.

A centurion. A Roman soldier in charge of 100 men. Seems to have been a good guy. Will Jesus heal his servant?

I think this passage tells us that relationship to authority and faith are two separate things.

There is no need for a Jew to be Pharisaic or Sadduseeic, drawing tighter and tighter the rules of belonging. Faith can be found in the Jewish world and the gentile world and will have its own rewards.

N.T.Wright '...if we see God's authority, at work in Jesus Christ, as any less absolute than that of a military officer, we are, according to the passage, not only mistaken but lacking faith itself.'

Peter observed this. He followed Jesus. Some years later as he reflected he wrote this:

1 Peter 2:13ff

It is for us to work out how to react to a tyrannical boss or what to do if we find ourselves at odds with our MP. But the blessings of faith, and God's mercy, and a relationship with Jesus are available to all.

No comments: