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Jesus the ‘terrorist’

THE GOSPEL (Mk 12:38-44) makes it clear to us why Jesus’ public ministry ended up on the cross.

It was not really because he had said anything against the Roman Government that he was sentenced to death by crucifixion. It was rather because he had touched some raw nerves in the Temple Administration. There were certain things that he said about the financial abuses that so angered the Temple authority figures who happened to be supportive of the Roman Imperial government. These were the ones who labeled Jesus as a “terrorist” and succeeded in getting the Roman Government to have him arrested on the allegation that he was inciting people to sedition or plotting to overthrow the government.

There was really no such thing a due process for him; there was only a semblance of a trial that was fast-tracked by his detractors. They managed to use the Roman government’s anti-terrorist law as a weapon against legitimate dissenters, like Jesus. As soon as they got him convicted, they immediately distanced from the case and kept mum, as if they had nothing to do with it.

But what was Jesus guilty of? He was guilty of being too critical of the ruling Jewish authorities. He was found to be too blunt in his words; of calling a spade a spade with regard to their abuses. In Matthew 23, his words are even harsher. He calls them “serpents” and “a brood of vipers,” and “murderers of prophets.” Listen to what he said in today’s Gospel, “They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers.” In short he had openly accused them of corruption and of turning religion into a business and an opportunity to suck out the blood of the poor.

There is another biblical character who also did something like this: the prophet Daniel. In Chapter 13 of the Catholic versions of Daniel, we have the story of Daniel’s conflict with the priests of the Babylonian god, Bel. The supposed setting is the exile, and we are told that the Babylonian priests had succeeded in turning their religion into a lucrative racket. They conditioned the people into believing that their god demanded rich offerings of grains, olives, animal meats, wine and oil because he needed a lot of food. They also threatened them that their god could get angry if he went hungry and might punish them for it.

The hero in the story is the prophet who boldly challenges their racket and gains the ire of the king. Unlike Jesus, Daniel is more successful. He is able to prove his point that it was not their god who was eating up their offerings, but rather the priests, their wives and their children. In the end, Daniel gets vindicated.

This funny little story which you’ve probably never even read in the Bible, is not really about the Babylonian priests. I am more inclined to believe that it was written to caricature the ruling priestly class of the Jerusalem temple, and to criticize them for their abuses. It was something of an anti-temple polemic.

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The point of the story is clear: God has no need of burnt offerings and sacrifices. The prophets have pointed this out many times because the people tended to think that they could get away with murder and corruption by offering costly sacrifices. They regarded them as a short-cut to salvation. Do you remember that song by Peter Paul and Mary that said, “If religion were a thing that money could buy, then the rich would live and the poor would die.”? Israel was required to pay tithes—meaning ten per cent of their earnings, and it was clear in their tradition these were not offerings to God. They were rather their obligation to the priestly family of the Levites who did not get their share or portion when the promised land was divided, because they were to regard only God as their “portion and cup.”

This has been an issue of the prophets, already centuries before the time of Jesus. In Micah 6, 6-7, we hear the prophet saying, “With what shall I come before the LORD… Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves… with rams, or with streams of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn child for my sins?” Then the answer follows on v. 8: “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

We have this too in Psalm 51, “For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse. My sacrifice is a contrite spirit. A humble and contrite heart you will not spurn.”

What Jesus and the prophets before him were pointing out in their critique of burnt offerings and sacrifices was the tendency to develop an attitude of false righteousness—as if they could buy their way to heaven, as if God owed them a debt of gratitude for what they offered. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus tells his disciples not to imitate those who blow the trumpets to call attention to themselves when they did their almsgiving.

In one of the weekday Prefaces prayed at Mass, there is a line that expresses this beautifully. It says, “You have no need of our prayers, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in your grace.” The logic of Christianity is: God is not asking for ten percent; he demands 100 percent. What pleases God is when we learn to live our whole lives as gift, as a thanksgiving offering.

This is what Catholic doctrine calls participation in the common priesthood—the priesthood of holiness of life. The challenge to follow the way of Jesus, who is both the priest and the victim, the offerer and the offering. He does not say I will offer a lamb for your sins. He will say, I am the lamb, I will offer my life for you. His gift is not a token sacrifice but his whole life.

“Jesus the ‘terrorist'” is a homily delivered by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of the Diocese of Kalookan on Saturday, June 6, the 9th Week in Ordinary Time. He was reflecting on the Gospel of Mk 12:38-44.

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