Tag Archives: Racket

When Systemic Power is Threatened

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
Acts 4:13 (NIV)

There’s a lot of talk these days about “the swamp.” For Americans, this typically references what is perceived as the professional political class who corruptly rule from Washington D.C. oblivious to the day-to-day thoughts and concerned of the millions who carry on life outside the beltway. In the days of Jesus, Jews could easily have called the Temple in Jerusalem “the swamp.”

For Jewish people living in and around Jerusalem life revolved around the Temple. Not only was it the center of their religion, the only place where sacrifices and offerings were made, but it was also the center of political power. Life was dictated from the religious ruling class of priests and leaders in the temple who interpreted the law of Moses and told people what they could and couldn’t do. These priests, rabbis, lawyers, and scholars ruled over the people and claimed God’s authority for doing so. In reality, these guys had a great racket going. It was a system of power and corruption. They used their power to make themselves rich, lord over the common people, and consolidate their power and positions.

So it was that in today’s chapter, Peter and John’s healing of the crippled man and their bold proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection created a threat, a political threat, to the ruling religious class.

First, it threatened the priests own power and authority to have “unschooled, ordinary men” preaching so boldly. The religious leaders wanted common people thinking that only the educated and extraordinary teachers within the powerful ruling class in the Temple could speak for God.

Second, the miracle of the healing of the crippled man by such “unschooled, ordinary men” went against the narrative that God only works through the religious Temple system and its priests. They, however, had no similar miracles to point to showing that God was doing such things through them. If the common people began to think that the priests and teachers of the law were impotent it threatened their systemic stranglehold on power.

Third, the fact that Peter and John were speaking about this pesky teacher, Jesus, and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead stirred dissension within the religious ruling class itself. Resurrection was a theological topic of hot debate. Those who believed in resurrection and those who didn’t were bitter rivals. You’ll note that it was the Sadducees (an anti-resurrection faction among the temple scholars) who had Peter and John arrested. The high priest is not going to want this miracle business to create an internal rift within the swamp.

Finally, the high priest and his cronies had to have been frustrated that this Galilean rabbi, Jesus, kept coming up. “Didn’t we execute him weeks ago? Can’t somebody figure out what they did with his body so we can be done with this?”

When you threaten a powerful system, that system will act to stamp out the threat to its power. The story of Peter and John healing the crippled man is like the pebble that starts an avalanche. This conflict is just getting started.

This morning I’m thinking about the many times in my life when I’ve watched systemic and institutional authority feel threatened and the ways that authority reacted to consolidate power and diminish or eliminate the threat. I’ve seen some doozies in families, schools, businesses, churches, and civic organizations.

In the quiet I’m mulling over my own circles of influence. In some I am the systemic authority. How do I respond to threats in a positive way, recognizing that my discomfort just might be reluctance to change in ways that would be positive for the system? In other cases, I’m an anonymous cog in a larger system with a penchant for initiating change. How can I do so in ways that are honoring to God and authority?

Indulgent Thought Both Then and Now

These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.
Jude 1:19 (NIV)

The letter Jude wrote to Jesus’ followers in that day was prompted by one specific reason. There were individuals coming to various local gatherings of Jesus’ followers and spreading the belief that if all their sins are forgiven then they have carte blanche to do whatever they want. In the minds of these individuals they had a spiritual “get out of jail free” card and they were going to use it wherever their unbridled appetites took them. This was, of course, a tempting message for those longing to unbridle their appetites with a neighborhood shrine prostitute. The result was trouble in River (of Life) City.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” we are told in the book of Ecclesiastes. Get any group of humans together and you’ll find a few (or more) individuals working the angles, looking for the loopholes, and seeking ways to twist things to their own advantage. This is human nature. The skewed thinking Jude addresses was not an isolated issue. Paul addressed similar troubles and similar lines of thought in his letters to Jesus’ followers in Rome and in the city of Corinth.

Fast forward 1500 years and we see the Roman Catholic church turning such thought into a lucrative racketeering opportunity. In those days the church sold “Indulgences.” These indulgences were basically guaranteed forgiveness, an actual “get out of hell free” card which could be used on demand with any future sin you might commit.

“Headed to your brother’s bachelor party at Brunhilda’s Bawdy Bordello? Stop by the church and stock up on indulgences, then have a great time!”

“Your friend’s spouse has been overly flirtatious lately and you’re tempted to see just how far things might go? Don’t go there until you buy yourself an indulgence from Brother Maynard over at the monastery! Come to think of it, buy two: one for you and one for your lover. You don’t want the threat of their soul being in mortal danger to cool off your mutually hot passions!”

Back in the day this lucrative money-maker for the Roman Catholic church and it was predicated on the same twisted thinking as what Jude was addressing in his day. In fact, it was this very religious racketeering that led Marty Luther to publish his medieval blog post on the local church door in Wittenberg (see featured photo) 500 years ago this October. His “95 Theses” post went viral and led to the Protestant Reformation.

Of course, along my life journey I’ve come to understand that human appetites come in all forms. There are “pretty sins” which we commonly overlook because they are covered in the religious veneer of self-righteousness. “Pretty sins” are simply appetites of human pride and ego-centric power which lead me to diminish and judge others in order to exalt myself and my ego. It was these same appetites which Jesus condemned in His rant toward the religious people of His day. Those “pretty sin” appetites are every bit as powerful and tempting as the “ugly sins” we routinely march out in order to shame people (and make ourselves feel better). In fact, I believe the pretty sins and their underlying appetites may be even more insidious and more dangerous.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. People are people. There is nothing new under the sun. The same human foibles Jude warned against in his letter were present in Martin Luther’s day, and they are present today. This morning is a heart-check for me. I don’t want Jude’s warning to stimulate my “pretty sin” appetites and send me off on a personal witch hunt looking for heinous local heretics who think such things today. I find myself more inwardly focused and asking:

“Are there any places in my life that I am glossing over destructive thoughts and behavior under the indulgent defense of ‘Oh well, I’m forgiven!‘?”

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