My wife is one of those people who gets a subscription to Amazon Prime every four months, when the company tries to tempt her back with another one-month trial. It turns out there’s a good bit of Christian fare on the service and we occasionally resort to digital sedation for the kids.
Last night’s feature was a cartoon adaptation of the Gospels I’d never seen. It looked anime-influenced and the voice-acting was a tad over-the-top, but it struck me as scripturally sound. While serving up dinner, I caught the scene out of John in which the Sanhedrin plots against Jesus. Cartoon Caiaphas, looking rather less impish than he does in most depictions, raises his hand for silence and utters those unwittingly prophetic words: “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
Here’s what came over me like a thunderclap (which I know I’m risking by writing this): The high priest’s reasoning seemed solid and his intentions noble. Maybe it was the sympathetic visual portrayal of the character—the lack of that familiar hunch and legalistic sneer, more like a pre-fall Saruman than like a Semitic emperor Palpatine—that made me rethink his motives. Or maybe it was the influence of good historians in my life this year. Whatever the cause, I could see where Caiaphas was coming from. The crown (or in this case, the ephod) rests heavy, and one can imagine the pressure on a man tasked with mediating between an unruly people and an unforgiving empire.
Then there’s the theological excuses the Sanhedrin might have fielded: Jesus wasn’t the first itinerant yokel to proclaim Himself Messiah. They were a dime-a-dozen in first century Judea, and there was a long and venerable tradition of responding to them with wood and nails. Recall as well that Yahweh had spent the better part of a millennium pounding into Hebrew skulls that He was the only true God, and that no one should make pictures of Him or claim equality with Him. Israelite kings who forgot this quickly found their nation under new management.
Jesus wasn’t the first itinerant yokel to proclaim Himself Messiah. They were a dime-a-dozen in first century Judea, and there was a long and venerable tradition of responding to them with wood and nails.
Now imagine that a Man waltzes into Jerusalem who claims to be both the image of the invisible God and equal with Him. Imagine that this Man’s parentage is sketchy and his popularity starting to draw attention from the Italians. And imagine that this Character has just ransacked the Temple market and assaulted several dove-merchants of sterling reputation, ignoring along the way the careful theological reasoning and Sinaitic penumbra you invoked to justify this lobby of lucre. And then imagine, on top of it all, that this Nazarene nuisance unleashes a string of invectives and insults against you and your esteemed colleagues.
What would you have done?
Caiaphas was, of course, wrong—as tragically and damnably wrong as any human being has ever been. My point is that the cosmic regicide he committed didn’t require anything beyond the ordinary endowment of human fear, blindness, and pride. This cartoon was right not to depict him as a ravening goblin, because he wasn’t one. He was a man—a very reasonable and logical man by earthly standards. And he—along with Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate—reasoned and logicked himself into murdering God.
Ed Stetzer used to quip on “BreakPoint This Week” that Christians should be comfortable professing things that don’t seem reasonable. “After all,” he would say, “we believe God became a Man, died and rose from the grave, and is returning someday riding a white horse, with a sword coming out of His mouth.” Quibbles about apocalyptic imagery aside, Ed’s point is well-taken.
We Christians worship a wandering wonderworker who got Himself killed by winning arguments with canon lawyers. He was born, according to embarrassing records that somehow survived, in a feeding trough. Respectability isn’t in our DNA. If, at the heights of medieval scholasticism, ensconced among basilicas, stained glass, and Aristotelian distinctions, men who claimed the name of Jesus ever fancied themselves refined, the joke was on them. They were fools—at least by the world’s standards.
We Christians worship a wandering wonderworker who got Himself killed by winning arguments with canon lawyers. He was born, according to embarrassing records that somehow survived, in a feeding trough. Respectability isn’t in our DNA.
Perhaps this is what that itinerant yokel meant when He told His followers, “whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave,” and when He prayed, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” Perhaps if the One whose very nature defines reason, logic, and wisdom resorts to such inversions, we are worse off than we thought. Perhaps there was no room for God in the halls of learning or temples of established piety. Perhaps a stable was His only alternative to judging us immediately.
I’ve benefitted a lot this year from reading and listening to British popular historian Tom Holland. He’s not a believer (yet). But he grasps the paradox at the heart of Christianity. In an interview with Anglican minister and spoken-word poet Glen Scrivener, Holland urges Christians to let our freak flag fly:
“If you’re a Christian, you think that the entire fabric of the cosmos was ruptured by this strange singularity—someone who is a God and a man sets everything on its head. And to say it’s ‘supernatural’ is to downplay it. This is a massive singularity at the heart of things. And if you don’t believe that, it seems to me you’re not really a confessional Christian.”
As my children absorb the story of Jesus—either through Amazon Prime trials or through our Scripture reading, I hope they also catch this whiff of otherworldly truth so many skeptics and Sanhedrin have missed. I hope they detect in the gospel’s foolishness a Divine conspiracy to humble the proud and dethrone the mighty. And I pray my heart can grow young enough this and every Christmas to join them beside the manger to learn again what true wisdom looks like.