Tag Archives: Extortion

Firing a Warning Shot Across Religion’s Bow

But when [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Matthew 3:7-10

As Jesus appeared on the scene, the political landscape in the land of Palestine was a complex one. The Roman Empire occupied the territory and the occupational forces maintained law and order. Rome maintained regional civil ruler which gave the residents of the area a local authority. Herod the Great died a few years after he slaughtered all the baby boys of Bethlehem, and his rule was divided between his sons. If you were Jewish, however, your life and religion was subject to the authority of the High Priest and religious leaders who managed the Temple in Jerusalem. It operated much like a city-state under Roman authority. The temple had its own currency (thus the need for the money changers that Jesus would throw out) and economy.

Both Rome and Herod knew that the Jewish people held allegiance to their religion above any civil ruler. They’d been living under one foreign power or another for over 500 years. Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans had all occupied their land. The Jewish people had no allegiance to any of them. They High Priest and religious leaders ruled their people through their intricate system of laws and held the power of salvation by cutting people off from making their sacrifices or deeming their sacrifices unacceptable. Religion had become a powerful racket.

John the Baptist was a prophet, an outsider, and a troublemaker for the status quo. People flocked to the wasteland outside of Jerusalem to hear him preach a message that resonated with those marginalized by the Righteous Racket of the Temple’s power brokers. John told people to change their hearts, to repent of their sins, and he washed them in the waters of the Jordan rather than insisting they go pay exorbitant currency exchange rates to purchase “official” temple goods for sacrifice at the Temple. In other words, the more popular he became, the more he cut into Temple profits and represented a potential for uprising that threatened the power of the Sanhedrin’s powerful syndicate.

So, the High Priest sends envoys to check out this vagabond upstart. John wastes no time. He fires a prophetic shot across their bow. One is coming who will change everything. Tectonic plates in the spiritual realm are going to shift and the Temple’s racket will be no more. The first shot in a conflict is fired which will ultimately lead those same religious racketeers to pay 30 pieces of silver for Jesus’ betrayal and they will stop at nothing until He is executed.

Yet, just like Herod the Great in yesterday’s chapter, in God’s economy those who stop at nothing to cling to power will ultimately find it slipping from their grasp. The Jesus they executed would not stay in the grave, and His followers would “turn the world upside down” within a generation. At the end of that same generation the Romans would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, and with it they would torch all of the Jewish genealogical records. If you can’t substantiate who is from which tribe then you can’t determine who the Levites are, or who descended from Aaron and qualified as a priest. The Temple and its sacrificial system were no more.

Come gather around people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing

featured photo courtesy WallyG via Flickr

Contrasts in Corruption

Jan_Luyken's_Jesus_21._Zacchaeus._Phillip_Medhurst_Collection

A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.

When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” Luke 19:2, 45-46 (NIV)

In Jesus’ day corruption was everywhere. I realized as I read this morning that today’s chapter is bookended with a fascinating parallel. It begins with the story of Zacchaeus.

Zac was a “chief tax collector.” In the days of Roman occupation, the empire broke up territory into tax regions. The tax collectors were locals who knew their neighborhoods, local businessmen, and had first hand knowledge of where the local money was. Tax collectors had a base amount of tax that the Roman Empire demanded they raise and send to Rome. There were, no doubt, others in the regional political machine getting their cut, but beyond that the tax collectors could keep whatever they could extort from their own people. The more money they squeezed out of their neighbors the richer they became, and Zac was a very wealthy man. As a “chief tax collector” Zacchaeus would not only have extorted his own share, but he was likely getting a piece of the action from other collectors in his territory. He was a extortionist and racketeer, the first century equivalent of a local mob boss.

Contrast this with the Pharisees and religious leaders who ran the temple. They judged Zacchaeus as a traitor and a sinner and they would look down their ecclesiastical noses at the extortionist. But, the religious leaders were total hypocrites. They had a thriving racket of their own. Good Jews were required to make regular pilgrimages to the temple to make sacrifices and offerings for their sins. Jews regularly came from all over the known world to make their annual sacrifices. To take advantage of this, the Pharisees in charge of the temple minted their own currency and the priests demanded that people buy the supplies for their offerings from the approved temple merchants. Of course, the temple merchants only took temple currency, so people would have to visit the temple “money changers” to exchange their local currency at exorbitant exchange rates. At least with Zac and the money changers there was no pretense about what they did with their money. The high priest and the religious leaders were corrupt extortionists, but they cloaked their racket in pious religiosity. They used God to launder their public image and both social and religious leverage to line their own pockets.

Jesus visits Zacchaeus’ house (creating all sorts of gossip, whispers and condemnation from all the good religious people). By the end of the visit, Zac’s heart and life had changed. He agrees to give away half of his wealth and make amends with all whom he’d cheated (the list was likely to be very long).

Jesus visits the temple. Unlike the sinner, Zac, the Pharisees and religious leaders refuse to repent of their extortion and racketeering. They choose, instead, to plot to have Jesus killed. His teaching, and his driving of the money changers from the temple were a threat to their power and their income. They would have none of it. Jesus needed to be rubbed out.

God’s Message teaches that sin is common to all. Both the tax collectors and the religious leaders were infected with the same appetite for greed and power. There was no difference in their sin, only in their response to Jesus. The traitorous “sinner” Zacchaeus opens his heart to Jesus’ words and turns away from his racketeering ways. The good religious people close their hearts to Jesus’ words and sink to even lower into corruption in order to safeguard their wealth and power.

Today, I’m thinking about the contrast in these two stories. I’m aware some people think of me as a good, religious person like the Pharisees, but I don’t ever want to be like the temple leaders who played a religious game to hide their lust for wealth and power. I’m also aware that some religious people think that I am not being religious enough and I don’t tow the line on their religious standards. I am divorced, I have tats, I don’t hide my love for a pint of good beer and an occasional cigar. And, I hang out with those sketchy artists and theatre types.

I am admittedly not perfect, but I hope that, like Zacchaeus, my heart and soul will always be open to Jesus’ teachings and that my life will always be enthusiastically responsive to Spirit and Truth.

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