One of the first things we notice about this reading is that not all Pharisees were against Jesus. Here’s a group of them who have come to warn Jesus about a plot to kill him. So we need to be careful not to tar them all with the same brush. Many of us have a picture in our minds of Pharisees as sticking rigidly to the letter of the law, but failing to follow its’ intent. We need to be careful about how rigid is our own thinking about them, and allow for a certain range of attitudes amongst them, both conservative and what we might call liberal.
Remember not only this group, who were trying to warn Jesus of danger, but also Nicodemus, who came to speak with Jesus by night. There was also Joseph of Arimathea, described as a member of the council, who Luke tells us (23:50-56) asked for the body of Jesus and laid it in a tomb where no-one had ever been laid. The apostle Paul refers to himself as a Pharisee- in the present tense- in Acts 23:6 and Phil. 3:5. We need to allow for a certain amount of diversity within this group as with any other group of people.
All this has clear implications for how we think of the arrest, trial and death of Jesus. We need to realise that it is a complex task to trace the political and social movements of the day, not to mention the economic situation of various groups in society. I want to emphasise that within the network of various political and social groups of the time, when it comes to Jesus’ arrest, trial and death, we can’t simply say either “The Jews were responsible”, or “The Romans were responsible”. We need to read what the historians and the biblical scholars such as Bishop Tom Wright can tell us about Israel under Roman occupation to grasp what was going on with different groups there and the implications for Jesus’ death.
Jesus came amongst us to preach the Kingdom of God, with every facet of what that meant being displayed in his life- teaching, preaching, healing, forgiving, restoring the rejected to a place within their community, and confronting those who thought that their relationship with God was all sewn up. It was all there in his ministry. But so many were not expecting the coming kingdom of God to look the way it did. Those who wanted to stage an armed uprising against the Romans were so different from the way of peace that Jesus preached. He tried to tell people that the way of violent conflict was was the way to destruction and misery- and death. He taught us that God’s way is the way of peace. He taught us to love our enemies, and he did that in an occupied country.
Can we possibly get to grips with how radical that is, when foreighn troops have taken over your homeland? Can we even begin to imagine what it would be like to live under the heel of an occupying force? I’m not sure that we can. Small wonder that the Hebrew people felt that when God’s kingdom was realised, it would mean freedom for them from foreign domination. They would be restored to the dignity of living freely in their own land, under a ruler appointed by God. Their dreams of national pride and independence would become reality. God, in Jesus, was calling them to the kind of freedom which can only be realised in peace, within and without.
And Jerusalem, which Jesus speaks of as killing the prophets and stoning those sent to it. The Jewish people thought of the temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. However, in their own eyes they were still in exile, as they were in the Phoenecian and Babylonian captivities. They were not free, they were not masters in their own land. God’s presence was no longer in Jerusalem. Jesus’ words “See, your house is left to you” seem to so sadly confirm that emptiness. They thought in terms of God’s glory coming back to the temple when the kingdom of God was restored in power. They couldn’t grasp that in Jesus, God was present with them. That’s a huge ask, and we who have 2 millennia of thinking, writing and teaching behind us need to not be too quick to judge them.
We cannot miss the very moving image of the hen who gathers her chicks under her wings, and Jesus’ cry that he often longed to gather the people of Jerusalem under his protection, just like that. We know of the terribly sad stories of farmyard fires in which a hen, burnt to death, has her chicks safe and alive under her wings. Jesus is saying that this is how much he longs to protect the people from the destruction that will come if they pursue their ways of violence, and all the other things which are inimical to the ways of God. He is alluding to himself as the One who takes on himself all the force of the destructive fire, in order to save others.
But for now, he intends to finish his work- absolute loyalty to God is his focus. And his work is to free others. I believe that one of the deepest things which Jesus wants to free us from is our constant, all-encompassing sense of “us and them”. The pervasive sense of “protecting ourselves” from the influence of others who are different to ourselves. From our felt need to fend off the incursions of those who are different into our lives. It is to perceive the humanity of others as entirely equal to our own, and to live the truth of this.
If this was what we all thought, believed and lived by, then there would be peace, harmony and justice in our world. This is what it would look like if we loved our neighbour as ourselves. We know that the whole world can only look like this by the gracious and wonderful action of God. However, WE are called to make a beginning along this path. We are called to treat everyone as God’s beloved child. Of course we have a long way to go with this. Of course we are not perfect. But we can set our feet along the path, and we can live out our intention to grow steadily in our love for God, for others, and ourselves. This is the call that God places on our lives, and God’s Spirit is there to guide and guard us along the way. Thanks be to God.