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Sadducees and the Election

By January 24, 2016 3 Comments

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?

degroat 4What 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.

Chuck DeGroat

Chuck teaches Pastoral Care and Christian Spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His sojourn as a pastor meandered through Orlando and out to San Francisco, where he started church counseling centers in both places. Chuck is a church consultant, a therapist, a spiritual director, and author of four books. He’s married to Sara and has two teenage daughters.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    For a balanced treatment of the Sadducees, see the Jewish scholar Ellis Rivkin’s remarkable book, What Crucified Jesus, from 1997.

  • Intriguing! It is of note that the Sadducees were also the group who insisted that the prophets had no place in the canon, especially when the prophets diminished the role of the temple/priesthood and critiqued the leaders who chose power over faithfulness. Perhaps we also all struggle with letting our privilege give us a “bible within the Bible” and leave out the difficult parts.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I think that’s an anachronistic judgement about the Sadducees and the canon. What canon? The one established by the Pharisees after the destruction of the Temple when there were effectively no more Sadducees? During the Second Temple era, there was no “Bible” in the way that we know it. There was the Torah, and there were the Scrolls of the prophets and the scrolls of the Writings. If you go to any synagogue today, you will not see a Bible in the Ark, you will see a Torah scroll or two. Also, there were any number of prophets who were aggressively positive about the priesthood and the temple, such as Ezekiel and Haggai, and Isaiah and Micah were certainly balanced on the temple.

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