By Panagiotis Melekidis, theologian
Having completed the period of Holy and Great Lent, we are now being led to the Passion, Burial and Resurrection of Christ. Already, on Clean Monday, we read the prophecy of Isaiah: "The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner's manger, but Israel does not know Me, My people do not understand" (1:3).
We are often troubled by the hatred shown by the fellow countrymen of the Lord against His person, a hatred that resulted in a painful death. But in order not to interpret this attitude with emotional or moralistic criteria it is necessary to consider the spiritual condition of those specific historical-societal conditions.
John the Evangelist informs us in his Gospel that the ringleaders in the conviction of Jesus were the High Priests and Pharisees. The castes of the enslaved Israelites were the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots and the so-called poor, which began from the time of the Maccabees.
The Sadducees were a priestly "aristocracy" of Israel, attached to ancient rituals of worship. They did not have messianic expectations and as "aristocrats" they sought good relations with the Romans.
The Pharisees (Heb. perushim: "set apart") were a religious sect, like the Essenes, and consisted of all the scribes and teachers of the law, as well as a number of priests. The sect had a form of a religious order or "brotherhood" and their sectors reached to wherever there were Israelites. Their class was more numerous and compact than the Sadducees. During the time of Christ there were around 6,000 members. Characteristic of them was their adherence to the Law and formalism which leads to its idolization, in the sense that the Law is not the means that leads to communion with the personal God, but it has value in itself. Thus, legal provisions do not liberate, but they operate as obligations; they are a "heavy load" as noted by Matthew in his Gospel (23:4). Their messianism is intense and of a worldly government. Finally, they avoid contact with people that they consider as not having their "purity", and they are indifferent to politics.
The Essenes, like the Pharisees, came from a middle-class background. They were a closed religious order who adopted a strict ascetic lifestyle, which clearly distinguished them from the Pharisees, and they did not befriend people who did not keep their purity. They lived in the cities and villages of Palestine, but also in the desert. They were not at the center of social life. Their attitude towards the Romans was negative and their messianism was intense and peculiar. Essentially they waited for two Messiahs: one political from the genealogy of David and one high priest for religious matters. They were characterized for their meticulous compliance to legal and formal requirements.
The Zealots came from the lower social class. They had clear political ambitions and a revolutionary disposition. They were implacable enemies of the Romans and envisioned the restoration of the kingdom of Israel from the expected Messiah. Many interpreters of the New Testament say that Judas, as a Zealot, betrayed Christ because he was disappointed by the dimension given by the Teacher to the kingdom of God.
In short, this was the "entourage" of Jesus. These people awaited the Messiah and Jesus preached His messianic property. But Christ put Himself above the Law, saying that He came to fulfill it. Moreover the position of false witnesses in the Sanhedrin who said that He would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, was not, for its time, a "childish" accusation. Let us not forget that Israel was a people under Roman power, having as their main reference points the Law and the Temple. His actions, especially with His miracles, but also with His words, could have caused the wrath of the Romans to come against the Israelites. Moreover, His presence divided Israel and this was a dangerous factor in the balance of relations between the conquerors and the conquered, and at the same time it created a new pole of "power" that challenged the authenticity and authority of the religious leadership and found a foothold among the "chosen people". The presence of Christ affected vital interests connected with the guardianship of the Israelites from their rulers. Thus Caiaphas, the high priest of that annual cycle, said: "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (Jn. 11:50).
Of course, we will approach these things and a portion of the people will deny Him, those who waited for a wondrous Jesus that would throw off the Roman yoke and restore Israel. Through these perceptions and circumstances the real Messiah was addressed as a blasphemer who should have, according to the Law, been killed.
Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ισραήλ δε με ουκ έγνω...", February 2001. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.