History does not exactly recall Jesus Christ as a rabble rouser, but Jesus did engage in provocative behavior. Twice, once at the beginning of his public life, and once at the end of his public appearances, Christ disrupted the business of the Temple by overturning the money changers’ tables and driving the pious dealers away with a whip.
In gentlemanly fashion, Jesus further frustrated the learned scribes and the devout Pharisees on the street corners of Galilee and Judea by answering questions intended to embarrass him with quips that shamed his religious interrogators instead. With responses that have become proverbial, Jesus publicly settled discussions about taxes to Caesar, the eternal destiny of the woman with seven husbands, the origin of John’s baptism, the Sabbath rest, the greatest commandment, paying the Temple tax, and the possibility of divorce. Jesus’ astute observations delighted the crowds, but did not endear him to the teachers in Israel.
Already smarting from Jesus’ oral challenges, the religious leaders took greater exception to the Master’s working of miracles and his forgiveness of sin. Clever talk on the street corner was one thing; but assuming Divine prerogatives was clearly blasphemy. In the recent motion picture, “Son of God,” the mounting antagonism between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day, so familiar from the Gospel passages read at Mass, grows apace cinematically well-illustrated by the raised eyebrows, pursed lips, exasperated sighs, clenched fists and shrugged shoulders of the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus was perhaps perceived as more of a threat by the higher echelons of Roman and Jewish society. And to give the devil his due, news commentator Bill O’Reilly, in his recently co-authored book, “Killing Jesus,” ably and graphically depicts the corruption that permeated the Roman Empire and the Jewish hierarchy throughout Jesus’ lifetime. The possibility that Jesus would upset the Judeo-Roman system of civil taxes and temple taxes, depleting the coffers of both politicians and priests alike, caused as much alarm as his preaching and healing. On a time line from Jesus’ birth until his death, O’Reilly cites the corruption and cruelty needed to support the lavish greed of Herod the Great, his son Herod Antipas, Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, the Jewish high priests, Annas and Caiphas and their priestly cohorts.
Slaughter, crucifixions, family betrayal and murders, along with heartless taxation of the citizenry, supported a grand scale of luxuriant living that neither the temple hierarchy nor the Roman authorities wanted to relinquish. The danger of insurrection, the peril of heightened public awareness, the risk that any charismatic personality might pose — such signals were quickly noted by the ruling authorities.
Jesus spent most of his public life in Galilee, away from the Temple establishment and away from the Roman authorities. Christ’s decision to go up to Jerusalem for what would be his final celebration of the Passover was a courageous act, and it was perceived as daring, even foolhardy, by the apostles: “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Happily, St. Thomas spoke up bravely, “Let us too go up to Jerusalem and, if need be, die with him.”
Christ’s final return to Judea, and its capital city Jerusalem, was made even more hazardous by his miraculous concern for his dear friend Lazarus, whom he famously raised from the dead. The public acclaim that this restoration of Lazarus evoked was so intense that Jesus’ fate was sealed. “So from that day on there was a plan afoot to kill him,” observes St. John ominously.
Jesus’ gift of life to Lazarus resulted in the Master’s own demise. Today, the Catholic Church speaks out eloquently and acts provocatively in so many ways on behalf of life. But now, as then, the defense of life is a thankless task. American society publicly abhors street violence, random shootings, terrorism and genocide, but this same America legally defends abortion, fetal experimentation, assisted suicide, palliative procedures and capital punishment. Opposing the current ruling class is just as frustrating in modern times as it was in Jesus’ day.