Pharisees, scribes, chief priests–these are the bad guys in the story of Jesus’s life and death. And the disciples, who followed Jesus throughout His ministry, are the good guys. Hmm…is that true? I wonder if we are drastically oversimplifying both the gospel and human nature by viewing these characters in a black-and-white manner. Today’s post explores the nuance in the Pharisees, the disciples, and people in general.
Antagonists: religious officials (?)
Repeatedly throughout all four gospels, Jesus expresses disdain for the Jewish religious officials of the time. He is grieved and repulsed by their cold-heartedness and hypocrisy, which He boldly calls out and condemns. They care more about their social status than their neighbor; they cling to the letter of the law (Law of Moses) while disregarding the spirit of the law. Back before the Babylonian Exile (long before Jesus is born), God speaks through the major prophets of the Old Testament, insisting that burnt offerings mean nothing if people’s hearts are far from His.
Scribes knew the law well enough to contract legal documents (marriage, loan, inheritance, etc.). Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, formed after the Exile referenced above and the later return to Jerusalem, were comprised of men who wanted to “return to the law.” This goal is noble in light of the idolatry and injustice that had incurred God’s wrath. Essentially, they wanted to repent, be reconciled with God, and follow Him.
Had they followed the spirit of the law as well as the letter (boils down to being just and loving with everyone, especially the poor and needy), the religious officials SHOULD & WOULD have served as great allies in the gospels. They were more committed to God and His ways than anyone in society…”on paper,” as they say. However, those serving these roles succumbed to corrupt motives and bankrupt morals. A very gradual perversion must’ve happened over the course of generations, as memories of the Exile faded into the past. [Reminiscent of what kept happening with the Hebrews through the entire OT, eh? I wonder if the whole “gradual perversion” concept applies to American politicians…ahem…back to the topic at hand.] By the time Jesus came, religious officials had risen to a great position in society with much privilege, power, and glory.
I think we should approach our understanding of the religious officials with nuance. Yes, they are generally antagonistic in the gospels…but we should acknowledge that, at least theoretically, they are very knowledgeable of and loyal to God. And, as much as I’ve used the pronoun “they,” I hope there were outliers–people who worked for/in the temple because they genuinely loved God. As I read Mark 12 the other day, I looked on a certain exchange with new eyes. A scribe asks Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus tells him to love God and his neighbor. The scribe replies, “These commandments are greater than all the law put together.” Jesus proclaims, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Protagonists: disciples (?)
The disciples are Jesus’s most faithful followers during His life. Giving credit where credit is due, it’s amazing how they drop what they’re doing and go when He calls them. [Irony: the religious officials reject Jesus, yet uneducated working-class people follow Him.] Up to the crucifixion, they stick with Jesus through all His travels and teachings–even that one time in John 6 when He tells people to drink His blood and eat His flesh to receive eternal life (spoiler alert: it wasn’t a popular statement). 😉
I can’t categorize the disciples as “the good guys,” though. Through much of the gospels, their heads are thicker than molasses. They don’t intuitively understand Jesus’s mysterious, holy words and actions; they need parables explained to them, they illustrate lack of faith several times, and they cannot comprehend His foreshadowings of the future. Those shortcomings could all be chocked up to their lack of education, but there’s more…
Amazingly, the disciples actually have something in common with the religious officials: vanity. After the disciples witness so much of Jesus’s miracles and teachings, in which He helps helpless people and preaches humility and generosity, the disciples have the AUDACITY to argue with each other about who is the greatest among them…after Jesus outright says/demonstrates, multiple times, that the first will be last. Seriously?! As most of us know, one of the disciples, Judas, lights the match that starts the ticking time bomb to Jesus’s death. Peter, the rock of the early church in Acts, denies Jesus three times as He’s on His way to be tortured. Gah! It’s borderline comical how seemingly unworthy the disciples are. But Jesus chooses these hard-headed, flawed men to be the apostles. [What do you think that says of God’s ability to use each of us? And don’t even get me started on every other character in the Bible.]
The religious officials are flawed men, and so are the disciples. The religious officials are supposed to follow God but fall prey to pride and greed. The disciples are supposed to follow Jesus but can’t wrap their minds around His purpose and message. God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit are the good guys; Satan/death/sin are the bad guys. And the others in the story, just like us today, are just guys–with potential to be good, bad, and usually some of both.
As we appreciate the shades of grey in the gospels, may we acknowledge the shades of grey in ourselves and others. Maybe we view ourselves as good–but no one is perfect. Maybe another person did something bad–but they can still repent and change. And, as the featured image depicts, we can all be pig’s butts sometimes (extra grace required).
Thanks for reading! What’s your two cents? Have you learned something or seen something in a different light after reading this? Do you appreciate the ridiculously flimsy connection between the post and the featured image? Let me know in the comments. 🙂
P.S. It’s hard to buy into notions that the Bible was “made up” because, if it were only written as “a tool to control people” or something similar, why in God’s name would someone write the story and the characters to be so morally complex? Ha! Really, though.