Caiaphas and Religion
Recent surveys are saying that many people don’t identify with any particular religion. Based on this one might think religion is dwindling. I don’t think it means people aren’t religious. We live in a very religious world.
Sometimes we hear people say they are spiritual but not religious. By that I think they mean they want and believe in something that is transcendent, but don’t necessarily want the forms that come with a particular religion. That’s because religion can be oppressive.
Jesus was religious. Yet, it was religion – and his own religion - that killed him.
The final plan to arrest and kill Jesus was hatched in the palace of the Jewish High Priest whose name was Caiaphas. He is the next person to have an encounter with Jesus.
The High Priest was the leader of all the Jews. When the Roman Empire took over Palestine, the Roman government also decided to take the power to appoint who would be the High Priest. It was part of their control over the Jews. The Romans tolerated the Jews as long as they kept their place. The Jews pretty much hated the Romans for being domineering and messing with their affairs.
The relationship between the High Priest and the Roman government was a delicate dance. But no one could dance with the emperor like Caiaphas. Between the years 37 and 67 – 30 years - there were no less than 28 different High Priests. Talk about job insecurity and high turnover rate. But Caiaphas reigned 18 years, showing his ability to please the Romans. He seemed to be their man.
Jesus is brought before the Sanhedrin. The supreme court of the Jews was called the Sanhedrin It was made up of 71 members who were scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and elders. The head of the Sanhedrin was the High Priest.
The Jews had their own court to enforce their religious laws. The Romans didn’t mess with that. So after Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of the Jewish leaders, they bring him before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. First, this is a religious matter.
There is so much rage against Jesus that the Sanhedrin breaks its own rules when they try him. The rules of the Sanhedrin stated that all criminal cases had to be held during the daytime and finished in the daytime. Jesus is tried at night.
The Sanhedrin could not do criminal cases during the Passover season. This was a holy time and people were to be focusing on God delivering Israel from slavery and Moses and all of that. Yet, Jesus is tried during Passover.
If the Sanhedrin gave a guilty verdict in a case, one night had to pass before the verdict could be finalized. The reason for this was to give everyone time to really think through the situation and open the door for a possible reversal. The Sanhedrin also had to meet in a special hall in the Temple. Jesus’ verdict was immediate and the trial is held in Caiaphas’ palace, not the Temple.
The animosity against Jesus was so great that the religious authorities were willing to ignore their own laws in order to see to Jesus’ death.
The plan was to arrest Jesus in a sly way (NIV- 1984), by stealth (NRSV), secretly (NIV). The Passover brought tens of thousands of people to Jerusalem. The Romans got nervous when so many people were around for this major Jewish festival. The Jewish leaders wanted to take Jesus in a way that would not stir up the people because if it did the Romans would blame the Jews for civil unrest.
Caiaphas knew the Romans were watching him. He knew what would allow him to stay in power as the High Priest. He knew what could get him fired, too.
Another thing when people were tried before the Sanhedrin: Jewish law required two witnesses for a person to be condemned. But it says while the whole Sanhedrin was looking for false evidence against Jesus so they could put him to death, they could not find any. The only people who came forward were false witnesses who did not agree. Finally, two come forward and said that they heard Jesus say that he was able to destroy the Temple and build it in three days.
That wasn’t exactly what Jesus said. In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus say, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” We are also told that he wasn’t speaking of the literal temple but was speaking of his own body.
But the Temple was the most sacred place for Jews. It was where the direct presence of the Lord was believed to dwell. This is where people came to meet God. It was the major symbol for the Jewish people that God was alive and with them. Mess with the Temple and you mess with the entire Jewish people, not to mention the Lord, himself.
When these two people come and tell the Sanhedrin what they think Jesus said, it says Caiaphas stood up. He means business. He asks Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” And it says that Jesus was silent. We get the impression he has been silent this whole time.
I wonder how long the silence lasted. Silence has a way of making everyone uncomfortable. Who knows, but we sense Caiaphas is uncomfortable, maybe anxious, perhaps angry. Certainly he wants to find a way to get Jesus put away.
Caiaphas tries to force Jesus to speak. He says, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
The highest religious figure in the land has an encounter with Jesus. And now Jesus stands before the high figure in all of Judaism, who places Jesus under oath before the living God to say whether he is the Messiah or not.
Jesus responds, “You have said so,” which is like saying, “Yes I am what you say, but not on your terms.” It is interesting that Jesus responds this way in two other significant encounters. He says the same thing to Judas and he will say the same thing to Pilate.
And then Jesus drops the bomb. He says, “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” He is quoting a passage in Daniel 7. In Daniel 7 there is a figure who comes from the clouds of heaven to God and he is “led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
Jesus is saying that this is him, that he is God’s chosen one who will bring in the kingdom of God.
Jesus is saying, “I am now telling you on highest authority exactly who I am, and don’t forget it.”
Caiaphas goes berserk. He tears his clothing. Twice in Leviticus which is the manual for the priesthood, priests are warned that they are not to tear their priestly garments.
Caiaphas accuses Jesus of blasphemy. Blasphemy is a huge deal. If Jesus is lying then he deserves death under the law in the Scriptures. The irony is that he will be executed for telling the truth.
On the one hand, Jesus fully participated in religion. He was a Jew. He was a man of the Scriptures. He said that people needed to uphold all the law and the prophets. He appealed to the Ten Commandments as authoritative. He taught people on prayer, giving of alms, and fasting. His custom was to attend worship in the synagogue each week. He took part in the festivals, went to the Temple, and told a leper who he healed to follow religious practice as stated in the law of Moses. Jesus wasn’t anti-religious. He was a devout Jew.
On the other hand, he challenged his religion. He said about the Scriptures, “You have heard it said…” but then gave his own interpretation by saying, “but I say to you…” It was like he had authority over the very word of God and could go over the heads of the scribes and Pharisees. And of course, he did.
He ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. He touched lepers in all their uncleanness when the Jewish law said this was forbidden. He talked to Samaritans who the Jews hated. He even told a parable about a good Samaritan. A good Samaritan? Who had ever heard of such a thing? He associated with and touched people the Jewish law clearly said should be kept away.
He would do things on the Sabbath day that the Pharisees didn’t think should be done. One time he said, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.” He claimed authority over these two great Jewish institutions: the Sabbath and the Temple. After Jesus healed a man on the sabbath it says, “…the Pharisees went out and conspired against him how to kill him.” It was that incident on the Sabbath that pushed the religious leaders over the edge with Jesus.
When Jesus healed people of evil spirits the religious authorities accused him of being “the prince of demons.” They accused him of breaking their traditions. They asked by what authority he was doing all the amazing things that he was doing. The Pharisees and Sadducees would try to trap Jesus with hard questions and he always gave an answer that they could not deal with.
Jesus warned his followers about the religious leaders. His strongest teaching against them is in Matthew 23 where he goes off on the leadership and pronounces seven “woes” upon them. He lists all kinds of things they do or don’t do that shows what is wrong with their religion. Jesus does not rail against religion. He rails against the leaders.
Jesus was not anti-religion. He never separated himself from his own religion. I think that is an important spiritual point for people who are followers of Jesus yet are judgmental critics of Christianity and the church. Jesus never said, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Jesus shared the very practices, traditions and worship as Caiaphas.
What was religion’s problem with Jesus? It wasn’t that he separated. He didn’t. He didn’t come to replace anything. He just came to tell people that what God wanted was a religion of the heart. He opposed a religion that was proud of itself. He opposed a religion that is “self-righteous, quick to judge and condemn, ready to impose burdens rather than share or lift them.” He opposed a religion that exalted the leaders, that neglected the poor, that looked down on people who were troubled.
Jesus said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Heart, not legalistic regulations. The Lord spoke through the prophets that religion that is separated from the heart is no good before the Lord.
It’s why we do Lent. We take time to ask ourselves, “What is my religion all about?” “Do I profess one thing and live another?” “Is my life in line with Christ?” “Do I trust in the practices more than the Lord?”
Jesus modeled and proclaimed a religion that was not based on the externals, but based on a relationship with the Father through himself, the Son. You see, Christianity is not a religion as much as it is a relationship. It is relationship with God through his only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It doesn’t matter if you are a church member. It doesn’t matter if you went through confirmation. It doesn’t matter if you are baptized, serve on a committee, or are an ordained pastor. Being right with God is having a relationship of love, devotion and obedience with the Lord. It is knowing him.
The purpose of religion is to foster a relationship, a relationship with the living God. When that relationship is not there, and religion only becomes a means of control, getting power over others, or becomes an end in itself, it is worthless. That’s what had happened to Caiaphas and most of the other religious leaders of Jesus’ day.
First century Jews were mistaken if they thought just being Jewish would put them in the right with God. Christians are mistaken if we think Christianity as a religion makes us right with God. Only Jesus the Christ, the one and only Son of God, can make us right with the Father.
I know I get cynical when our churches pay more attention to rules than relationships, when people use it for recognition and power more than to serve and love, when we pay attention to process more than people.
But when Christianity nurtures people, heals the broken, shows compassion to the hurting, tries to reconcile the lost, practices forgiveness and grace, and shows people the kingdom of God, then it is the faith of the heart that Jesus came for.
In the opening of his book, The Kingdom of God is a Party, Tony Campolo, an ordained Baptist pastor and seminary professor, tells of a trip to Hawaii. When you travel from the east coast, where Campolo lived, to Honolulu, your biological clock runs wild for a day or so, and the first night there, Campolo was both hungry and awake at 3:00 a.m. He went off to find an open restaurant, but the only thing open was a greasy spoon diner run by a guy named Harry. So he sat down and ordered a donut.
As he was beginning to eat, a group of prostitutes entered the diner and sat at the counter, trapping Campolo among them. One of the prostitutes mentioned to her friend that the next day was her birthday. Her friend said cynically, "Why are you telling me? Do you want a party and cake; is that what you want?" The first prostitute, named Agnes, said, "Why do you have to be so nasty? I was just telling you. No, I don't expect a cake and a party; I've never have had a birthday cake in my life!"
There was something about this woman that touched Campolo. After they left, he asked Harry if these girls came in every night. When he found out that they did, Campolo and Harry decided to give Agnes a party. Harry did the cake, Campolo did the decorations and Harry's wife got the word out.
The next morning at 3:15 there were crepe-paper decorations, a huge birthday cake and about thirty prostitutes and street people in the diner. When Agnes walked in, everybody yelled "Surprise" and they sang happy birthday. Agnes almost collapsed, and she began to cry uncontrollably. She was at her very first birthday party, and the party was for her! She didn't even want to cut the cake; she took it back to her apartment so she could look at it for a couple of days.
After Agnes left to take her cake home, something just prompted CAmpolo to say, "What do you say; let's have a prayer for Agnes." It just seemed like the thing to do at the time. After the prayer, Harry said, "Hey, you didn't tell us you were a preacher. Why kind of church do you belong to anyway?" In one of those flashes of inspiration where you to say exactly the right thing at the right time, Campolo answered, "I belong to a church that throws parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning!"
But it was Harry who told the punch line to this story; he said, "No you don't. There are no churches like that. If there was, I'd join. I'd want to be a part of a church like that!"
Lord keep us from becoming so refined and sophisticated in our religious practice that we block people from coming to God instead of helping them to him.
Jesus stands before Caiaphas. Like with Caiaphas, when a man or woman is brought face to face with Jesus Christ, they must either love and submit to him, or be indifferent to or even disdain him.
For Caiaphas religion was about power, status and control. But Jesus came to bring grace and mercy. He came to show the heart of the Father. He came to bring a relationship.
How big a deal was it for Jesus? Big enough to die for.
Prayer: Jesus, may our religion be one of the heart, and may our hearts trust, believe and love you above all. Amen.
 John 2:19  Daniel 7:13-14  Dale Bruner, Matthew vol. 2, p.1009  Leviticus 10:6, 21:10  Matt. 12:8  Matthew 12:14  Gary Wills, What Jesus Meant, Pp.76,77  http://tucksdenbighblog.blogspot.com/2006/03/parties-and-prostitutes.html