Sunday, April 7, 2013

Choosing the Emperor Over the King

I know we are a week past Easter Sunday, but something has been running through my mind ever since our Good Friday service at my church nine days ago.

At the Good Friday service, I was given the following passage to read from John 19:15. 

They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” 
Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” 
The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”

Now, I realize that everything that happened in connections with Jesus' trial and crucifixion was already known by God. He wasn't taken by surprise by any of it. Even so, I still find the dynamics that were going on in this situation very interesting...and very challenging.

What do I mean?

I suspect most of my readers have heard enough background to the events surrounding Jesus' crucifixion to know that the chief priests were not, in fact, fans of the emperor. Israel was a country occupied by a harsh and powerful foreign power. The people of Israel detested the Roman armies that occupied their land. The chief priests themselves considered the Roman governor to be so unclean that they refused to even go into his quarters to bring their complaint against Jesus, because that would make them unclean and unable to participate in the Passover.

So why then, with this much hatred toward the occupying power, would these same chief priests shout out their loyalty to the Caesar? Why would they demand to crucify one of their own people?

We have to remember that not everything Jesus said was all sweetness. Jesus saved his most scathing comments for these chief priests and the Pharisees who considered themselves extremely holy. Jesus, however, called them "whitewashed tombs" (Matthew 23:27), a brood of vipers (Matthew 12:34), blind guides (Matthew 23:24). Jesus called them hypocrites on repeated occasions. 

There was no love lost between Jesus and the majority of the religious leaders of his day. So when crowds of people began to follow Jesus these leaders could foresee the threat to their positions of power. The threat could come in one of several ways.
  • If they did nothing, and more and more people followed this Galilean prophet, they would lose power because they would lose followers.
  • If they opposed Jesus openly, and arrested him publicly, the people would likely side with Jesus, a riot would ensue, and the Roman powers-that-be would hold the Jewish religious leaders responsible. Then Rome would step in and strip these leaders of their power. To their way of thinking, they had to at least appear to cooperate with Rome.
Can't you just picture the scene in the meeting room as the chief priests and other religious leaders are plotting their strategy?
     "King of the Jews. Ha!" one says. "He's no king of mine."
     "And if he were a king, you know good and well he wouldn't leave us in our positions. No use cooperating with him!"
     "No, we must get rid of him...and we have to do it in secret, so we don't set off a riot."
     "Well...maybe a riot a some point wouldn't be so bad....but only if we can make it look like the fault of the governor."
     "I never thought I'd hear myself say this," says one man with an impressive beard and flowing robes. "You all know that if every ship in Caesar's navy sunk to the bottom of the ocean, his armies all perished from the plague, and Caesar himself drowned in his own hot tub, no one would be happier than me. But the fact of the matter is that Caesar isn't going anywhere. If we are going to keep our positions, we have to convince the Romans that we are Caesar's biggest fans."
"Yes, yes!  Hear! Hear!" Cries of agreement break out around the room. 
And so it was that the KING who came to bring the people he loved back to God was rejected, and the loyalty was declared to the hated emperor who cared nothing for the people he oppressed.

We could stop right there and look at this as an interesting historical incident. We could smugly condemn the chief priests for their horrible, self-serving attitudes.

On the other hand, we could turn the spotlight on ourselves. No, we are not standing in the courtyard of Pilate's palace screaming, "Crucify him!" and declaring that "we have no king but the emperor".

We do, however, face choices every day where we choose whether we side decisively with our KING of truth, or with the "emperor of expediency". We do face situations from time to time where, with something important to us at stake, we may be tempted to compromise what is right to keep from losing what we want to hold onto.
  • A business executive might face decisions like this on a regular basis. Doing the right thing might mean being passed over for a promotion, or losing a current position.
  • A parent dealing with a child's tantrum could choose to take the time to teach and discipline the child in a meaningful way, or that parent could choose to use threats, bribes, or outright lies to achieve the desired goal of quiet!
I'm not going to spend lots of time giving examples. I'd like to invite you to consider ways that, for the sake of expediency, you have chosen (or been tempted to choose) the wrong way instead of the right way. When or how have you ever been tempted to side with the "emperor of expediency" rather than the KING of truth?


  1. It's easier to accept a minor inconvenience (like a slightly unsettling government), than a revolutionary change (like a God who asks you to undo 2 thousand years of tradition and try a different (better) approach). I understand why the Jews chose Caesar, but many deep down, must have known it was wrong...but knew with Jesus, it would mean destroying all their belief systems and starting over at scratch. Pride got in the way, and pride is a nasty trait to have.

  2. You are right that it wasn't just their reluctance to lose their positions. Thousands of years of belief and tradition were indeed at stake. But I suspect that the threat of loss of power probably did play a part in their reluctance to see the truth and receive it. Thanks for sharing your take on this.


Any thoughts on this post? I would love to hear from you.

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