By Akin Ojumu

“Absolute Religious Power Corrupts Absolutely”

To those who frown whenever a man of God is subjected to criticism, I recommend Matthew 23. And to the irate church members prone to throwing a hissy fit every time their anointed daddy-in-the-Lord is rebuked, take one teaspoon of Matthew 23 three times daily for five days to calm down your frayed nerves.

Throughout His 3-year ministry, the ire of the Lord Jesus was mostly directed at the religious leaders, whom He didn’t mind naming and shaming openly. Repeatedly, Jesus called them out for their vast corruption and hypocrisy. And the people loved Him for boldly saying out loud what they all knew to be true but were afraid to speak of openly.

As you can imagine, the constant public humiliation got under the skin of the religious leaders, and the incessant harangue got the Sanhedrin pretty mad. In response, they plotted to trap Him in His words and get Him to say something that would cause the public to turn against Him. Also, they hoped the Romans would arrest Him for public disturbance and threat to Roman peace. On all counts, they failed.

One of the reasons the Lord Jesus denounced the religious leaders relentlessly was because their teachings and practices had turned the people away from God and were leading them straight to hell instead. Judaism had become a Ponzi scheme, the religious leaders had transformed the worship of God into a means of extortion, and the House of God had become a den of robbers.

The religious establishment and the Jewish ruling aristocracy, who were virtually one and the same, maintained a policy and practice of collaboration with the oppressive Roman conquerors. The leaders were lackeys of the enemy and mere appendages of Roman domination.

Appointments of High Priests had become purely political, based on power and manipulation. Bribery and violence characterized the religious establishment. For instance, High Priest Ananias enhanced his reputation by giving bribes to key people in positions of influence.

To continue to operate the Temple, the religious leaders invented an elaborate system of extortions to generate funds that included the Two-Drachma Tax (Matthew 17:24-27) in addition to multiple tithes and offerings imposed on the people. Also, they made it a habit of disqualifying the animals the people brought from home for sacrifice and instead sold them animals from their own stock at hugely inflated prices.

In furtherance of their extortion scheme, the religious leaders installed on the Temple ground rows of stalls where they made the people come and purchase items needed for the sacrificial offerings. Jesus condemned this whole arrangement, calling it a “den of robbers,” and he went on to overturn their tables and drive the extortionists away from the Temple (Matthew 21:12).

From the gains of their extortion scheme, the families of the High Priest and the religious leaders became extraordinarily wealthy. Like leeches sucking the life blood out of the people, they grew fat on the labor of the poor. They lived lavish lifestyles; massive mansions in the suburbs, richly embroidered attires, gold rings on all five fingers of both hands, (hence the name, five-fingered man), etc. Incredible sums were paid as dowries and allowances for perfumes and jewelry. The widows of High Priests were beneficiaries of extremely generous pensions, paid right out of the Temple treasury.

Furthermore, the religious rulers were not very sympathetic to concerns of either the lower cadre priests or ordinary Jews. Josephus recorded instances of Chief Priests sending their servants to take by force the tithes from lower-ranking priests, “beating those who refused to give,” with the result that some of the poorer priests starved to death. 

A high-ranking rabbi in the Jewish aristocracy referred to ordinary Jewish people as “unclean animals” who were so worthless and inferior that it was alright to kill them on holy days when the butchering of clean animals is forbidden. Another rabbi said that it was acceptable to “tear a common person to pieces like a fish.” 

Illustrating the decadence of the religious leaders was when Pilate brought into Jerusalem (and possibly into the Temple court) several busts of the emperor. For fear of losing the privilege they enjoyed, the religious leaders looked the other way and said nothing. It was not until ordinary Jewish people protested to Pilate, entreating him to remove the images, for such were contrary to their laws, that the images were removed.

This was the context in which Jesus pointed to the poor widow dropping her last two cents into the Temple treasury. The Lords comment regarding the poor widow and the others who were contributing to the Temple’s coffers (Mark 12:41-44) was not a word of commendation for, or a recommendation on, sacrificial giving. Rather, it was a lament and criticism of the economic oppressiveness and inequity of the religious establishment.

Stay tuned for next time when we’ll discuss what really motivated this poor widow to drop her last two cents in the Temple treasury.


Popular posts from this blog