Saturday, April 21, 2012

Replacement Temple

In the forty-fifth verse of chapter twenty of his Gospel, Luke informs us that Jesus was speaking specifically to His disciples, but that “all the people were listening.”  As these two groups of people were listening to Jesus, they heard Him say “Beware of the experts in the law” (20:46a).  This phrase, “experts in the law,” is an oft-recurring phrase in all of the Gospel accounts.  At this point in Luke’s narrative, it has already been used a number of times, thus creating an expectation on the part of those that are hearing this Gospel read aloud (in a performance fashion) in a single sitting. 

The first time we hear this phrase is in the fifth chapter.  Jesus has healed a paralyzed man, while also informing him that his sins were forgiven (5:20).  Without going in to all of the nuances of what was connoted by this forgiving of sins in first century Jewish thought, we can see that it prompts a response on the parts of the “experts in the law and the Pharisees” (5:21a), as they “began to think to themselves, ‘Who is this man who is uttering blasphemies?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (5:21b)  To that thought must be added the fact that the Temple in Jerusalem, with its attendant priesthood, was the place of God’s mediation of forgiveness of sins.  Therefore, by His words and actions, Jesus is offering implicit information about His own mission and the way that He perceives Himself. 

As a forgiver of sins, He is usurping the role of the Temple and the priests, while becoming a threat to their livelihood.  This usurpation is also a commentary on the legitimacy and need for the Temple.  Thus, the reaction of the experts in the law and the Pharisees cannot be disconnected from this commentary on the Temple, which these two groups served and legitimated.  By calling the Temple itself into question through His actions and His mediation of forgiveness, Jesus is calling into question the roles of the experts in the law and the Pharisees as well.  Now, just in case His words and actions of healing and forgiveness were not quite explicit enough, and just in case the challenge that He was offering to the Temple, which would have been well understood by Luke’s Jewish hearers, Jesus adds “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (5:24a).  So not only is Jesus acting in a messianic fashion, stoking hopes of rebellion and revolution and the overthrow of Rome that will bring an end to their occupation of Israel and thus making Himself a target for the empire, Jesus is making Himself a target for the Temple regime as well. 

Shortly thereafter, we are made to encounter the experts in the law again, as we read that “the Pharisees and their experts in the law complained to His disciples, saying ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (5:30)  On the heels of Jesus presenting Himself as a viable alternative, and indeed, even a replacement for the Temple as He also presents Himself as a messiah-figure with all of the expectations that come with such a presentation, we hear this criticism of His actions in relation to Jesus’ table fellowship.  The statement that follows Jesus’ response, which was “John’s disciples frequently fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours continue to eat and drink” (5:33), is also critical of Jesus’ meal practice and His influence, and is a part of the preliminary efforts to discredit this man who seems to be gaining a problematic standing amongst the people.  This, at least, is what Luke appears to be making an effort to portray. 

Moving on to the sixth chapter, we find in the seventh verse that “The experts in the law and the Pharisees watched Jesus closely to see if He would heal on the Sabbath, so that they could find a reason to accuse Him.”  In the twenty-first verse of the fifth chapter, Luke reports what the experts in the law, along with the Pharisees, were thinking.  In the thirtieth and thirty-third verses, voice is given to their thoughts, and we see what are essentially rabbinic challenges through which the experts in the law and the Pharisees seek to gain the upper hand on Jesus in what is essentially going to be an ongoing activity of thrust and parry throughout the course of Luke’s Gospel between Jesus and those who challenged Him.  Now, with these words from early in the sixth chapter, Luke has moved his hearers from an implied understanding of a desire to discredit Jesus through the common and well-understood means of rabbinic challenge, to an open effort to find a basis for accusation against Him.  This is amplified by Luke’s report that, following Jesus’ response challenge to them and His subsequent healing on the Sabbath, and what appears to be Jesus’ victory in the eyes of the people in this particular challenge (based on the response that Luke records), that “they were filled with mindless rage and began debating with one another what they would do to Jesus” (6:11). 

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