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by Chuck DeGroat
As we find ourselves swept up into another election cycle—and a particularly animated one at that—I’m finding myself drawn back to the life of Jesus during Epiphany.
I’ve found myself curious about that politically-savvy crew of social elites called the Sadducees. We often talk about the Pharisees, that educated-elite whose run-ins with Jesus are notorious. But what of the mysterious Sadducees? As we look at Jesus in this Epiphany season, do his interactions with the Sadducees have anything to teach us?
What is fascinating to me is that the Sadducees gained power by class and wealth, while the Pharisees relied on education. The Sadducees were crafty political maneuverers concerned about protecting their power and privilege at all costs. Rigidly conservative, their priority was on protecting the systems and structures that provided their status and benefits, particularly the status of being “chief priests.” A first-century Jewish scholar noted their crude, loud, vulgar, and quarrelsome ways. In contrast to the controlled and put-together Pharisees, these were brash politicians lacking in social grace. Arrogant and self-assured, they had little regard for anyone below their status, and little patience for some lower-class outsider like Jesus. They were unconcerned about him during his early ministry. That is, until his Kingdom message and actions came to their doorstep at the seat of power.
It is then that we see these “chief priests” come to center stage. They are conspiring with Judas to betray Jesus. Their henchman are harassing Jesus at Gethsemane. And in one final act of political expediency, they protect the back of King Caesar by arresting, torturing, and crucifying this “King of the Jews.” This will send a clear message to any other prospective Messiah. You can have your little private cult, but if you start talking about another kind of Kingdom, you won’t be around long to see it come.
I look at Jesus with his grassroots ‘politics’ of the Kingdom and am not surprised that it was threatening to the powerful elites. And I’m prompted to ask how this story might play itself out today, amidst another election cycle. I turn on CNN to see crude, loud, quarrelsome and sometimes vulgar politicians interested in self-protection…protecting the privileged from the outsiders with no special social status. Let’s build a wall to keep them out! These politicians appeal to our fears. What will we lose if they come too close?
And yet, we see Jesus—getting close. He embraces those considered to be outcasts and unclean and irreligious and impure. He lets them in. Everyone seems to be welcome. Are there no limits, Jesus? I mean…please…at some point we’ve got to take care of our own. Peter—his prized right hand man—gets itchy time and again. Status seems to be on his mind. It can’t be good news to him when Jesus, after he is raised from the dead, foresees his inevitable crucifixion. Come on, Jesus. Don’t we get anything special out of the deal?
I am Peter. Are you? I kind of like my special status. Maybe that’s why I was attracted to the doctrine of “election” as a high school student.
I am a Sadducee. Are you? I want to make sure my privilege is protected. When Jesus gets a bit too close, I get a bit itchy too…what implications will his upside-down Kingdom have on my comfort and security?
I am looking to Jesus. Hoping to see. Hoping that my fear does not win the day…
Chuck DeGroat teaches pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.