John C. Rankin. Jesus in the Face of His Enemies. W. Simsbury CT: TEI Publishing House, 2011. Print.
The author calls Jesus in the Face of His Enemies a “modest book.” Do not believe it. This is a powerful book. It is a literary experiment analyzing the events leading up to the trial of Jesus.
The book is divided into two distinct parts. The first half presents the events of the week between Palm Sunday and Jesus’ arrest as a story, using dialogue from the Gospels when relevant. It is told from the perspective of an educated Jew who has honestly not made up his mind about Jesus. Though not a play, the format is reminiscent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which intersperses the story of the two protagonists with dialogue from Hamlet when they encounter people in the Danish court. This technique may also be a nod to Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth film which includes an inquiring Pharisee named Zerah, an invented character.
The second half of the book becomes a commentary or analysis of the first half. Both halves work together to point out certain patterns of the men who opposed Jesus and Jesus’s behavior when encountering their challenges.
One clear point is that “Jesus loves mercy and opposes hypocrites who hate mercy.” (72) Jesus treated His opponents with respect even though he recognized their hypocrisy, so they ended up silencing themselves.
While the author does not bring up any contemporary instances, any reader can see parallels with current “politically correct” attempts to silence any discussion not in line with the opinion of the elites on many subjects whether gay marriage, Islamic jihad, gun control, global warming, or whatever. Jesus’ opponents attempted to silence Him but could not. Indeed, they were silenced, not by external pressure but because they had nothing to say. The ultimate lesson is that injustice is unmerciful, so that when they cannot prove Jesus either heretical or politically subversive, they stack the deck with a midnight kangaroo court.
The author sees the religious elite as Jesus’ opposition. First, they tell Jesus to silence the children hailing Him on Palm Sunday. (Matthew 21:16, cf. Luke 19:39) Then they challenge his credentials as a rabbi. (Matthew 21:23) Then they try to trap Him to choose between church and state (or more accurately Temple and state). (Matthew 22:17) Then they try to tempt Him on a pet dogma—what the book calls “theological nitpicking.” (Matthew 22:23-28) Finally they engage in what Rankin calls “theological grandstanding” to try to show they know more than He does. (Matthew 22:35,36)
Jesus also asks them a question which no one answers. (Matthew 22:41-46) Jesus begins these public confrontations by citing the eighth Psalm, one of the most powerful Messianic Psalms in the Bible. The book notes that most of the educated religious leaders would have known the Psalm by heart. Though Jesus only says, “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise,” (Matthew 21:16 KJV) He did not complete the verse of the Psalm. However, many in the audience would have known that this is followed immediately by the clause “because of your enemies that you may silence the enemy and the avenger.” (Psalm 8:2b NKJV)
Jesus’ last public observation concerns Psalm 110, a universally recognized Messianic Psalm. Rankin shows how both Psalms imply a Trinitarian doctrine.
In some cases the Gospels identify a specific party that challenges Jesus. Rankin gives us a little background to each of them. The three parties mentioned are the Herodians, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees.
The Herodians are politicians, supporters of the ruling family of Herod. At best they are indifferent to the Jewish religion, its beliefs and practices, as long as Herod’s family stays in power. This means that they, too, have perks as Herod’s allies. It also means political peace since the Herod family is allied with Rome.
The Sadducees are the most sophisticated. They are the true elite, associated with the Jewish High Priestly family which claims its ancestry from Aaron. While they keep the Temple rituals, they do it more for the political and religious stability that those rituals maintain. The Temple rituals help keep the masses in line. The priests must be treated with respect. They also want peace with Rome since they know they are allowed to practice their unique national religion only because Caesar has not yet prohibited it. They do not consider the Hebrew Scriptures literally true.
The Pharisees would be considered the most orthodox. They do believe in the Scriptures. But they are also elitists. They look down on other Jews who are less educated and poorer than they. They do believe in a coming Messiah, but they assume that the Messiah will be like them. Jesus’ basic message is “Repent!” (cf. Mark 1:14,15) That message might be OK for Gentiles and obvious sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes, but as one rich leader maintained to Jesus, they have kept the Law. (See Luke 18:18-25, Jesus did not disagree with him about that). The Pharisees have no need to repent. They are better.
Rankin gives insight into particular arguments both Jesus and His opponents use. For example, Jesus’ words about sheltering Jerusalem as a hen shelters her chicks is first spoken in the context of calling Herod a fox. (Luke 13:31-35) The fox kills the little chickens who are unprotected the way Herod’s grandfather killed the baby boys of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16) or the way this Herod killed John the Baptist. (Mark 6:16ff.) To use the language of John 10:12, Herod is a hireling, not a true king who cares for the well-being of his nation.
This book points out that the Sadducees’ taunting question about the woman who was married seven times was a kind of stale joke among the Jews by then. A woman by the name of Sara was said to have had seven brothers as husbands in the apocryphal book of Tobit (3:7-17; 6:9-17; 7:9-21 et passim). No Jew ever considered Tobit as inspired Scripture—indeed it has a number of characteristics of a folk tale. A sophisticated Sadducee who considered only the five Books of Moses authentic, would have scorned a story like Tobit.
Among the many connections with the Hebrew Scriptures made in this book, Rankin points out that an “I don’t know” answer to a question can be an indication that the speaker is denying truth. When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain answered, “I do not know.” (Genesis 4:9) The Lord was giving Cain an opportunity to confess his sin and repent, but Cain did not do so. Similarly, when Jesus asks a group of Temple leaders whether John the Baptist was from God, they also reply that do not know. (Matthew 21:27)
When genuine ignorance is in place, there is a possibility of openness to truth, of a willingness to change. But with Cain and the Pharisees, their responses to the light of the questions was to flee into the darkness. No openness to the truth, no willingness to change. (124)
Unlike his opponents, Jesus honored those who questioned Him.
Jesus loved them and was patient with them, speaking the truth in love. When He was challenged by their hypocrisy, Jesus responded by creating a level playing field. He gave them opportunity to show whether their position held any integrity, and when they failed to show it, they were the ones who condemned themselves, not Jesus. (125)
Jesus is our pattern to follow. John Rankin has made a career of arranging respectful encounters with today’s elitists—atheists, academics, abortion activists, and the like. Although this book does not share specific encounters or experiences with these people, Rankin does show all of us the model that Jesus gave us: Love your enemies, promote the level playing field, and do not expect everyone to be excited about Jesus just because you are.
This book is rich and an important one for our day.