Day 23: Sympathy for the Villain

John 7:37-52

Common English Bible (CEB)

 37 On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and shouted,

   “All who are thirsty should come to me! 
 38 All who believe in me should drink! 
   As the scriptures said concerning me,[a] 
      Rivers of living water will flow out from within him.”

 39 Jesus said this concerning the Spirit. Those who believed in him would soon receive the Spirit, but they hadn’t experienced the Spirit yet since Jesus hadn’t yet been glorified.

 40 When some in the crowd heard these words, they said, “This man is truly the prophet.” 41 Others said, “He’s the Christ.” But others said, “The Christ can’t come from Galilee, can he? 42 Didn’t the scripture say that the Christ comes from David’s family and from Bethlehem, David’s village?” 43 So the crowd was divided over Jesus. 44 Some wanted to arrest him, but no one grabbed him.

 45 The guards returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked, “Why didn’t you bring him?”

 46 The guards answered, “No one has ever spoken the way he does.”

 47 The Pharisees replied, “Have you too been deceived? 48 Have any of the leaders believed in him? Has any Pharisee? 49 No, only this crowd, which doesn’t know the Law. And they are under God’s curse!”

 50 Nicodemus, who was one of them and had come to Jesus earlier, said, 51 “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?”

 52 They answered him, “You are not from Galilee too, are you? Look it up and you will see that the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee.”

 

You know, sometimes I think the Pharisees get a bad rap.

I know, I’m guilty of doing it too. The gospels are pretty heavily slanted against these guys, for good reason; every story needs a bad guy. Every McClane needs a Gruber, every Batman needs a Joker, every Bugs needs an Elmer. Bad guys give balance to the good guys; they provide the conflict that sets the plot in motion. The gospels tend to pain the Pharisees much like this:

 

 

Not pretty to say the least. Thoroughly evil, thoroughly power hungry, and bad all the way through. Jesus calls them hypocrites,  vipers, foxes and thieves. But is that really the case?

History shows that pharisees weren’t an inherently bad group of people; in fact, they were a rather compassionate and holy sect, very much interested in living and interpreting the Torah as best as they could for the glory of God. They were teachers and rabbis, solidly good people for the most part. They weren’t cackling villains, wringing their hands with glee when Jesus was being punished; they were concerned primarily with upholding the Torah, and being just and merciful people. It was never their intention to be the bad guys.

Jesus came in with a different interpretation of the Torah, and pointed to himself as the culmination of the Torah. He called himself the Living Water, the Bread of Life, the Son of the Living God, the Way, Truth, and the Life. People were calling him the Christ, the Messiah, the one who was foretold to come and deliver Israel.

And the pharisees, trying to be as faithful to the Torah as they saw it, had a problem with that. Not his compassion, not his healing ministry, not any of the things he did. They had a problem with the things he said, the teachings he espoused. As John makes the case, that’s what’s really important here, not that you be a good person, but that you believe in Jesus.

For the pharisees, Jesus could not be the messiah. He wasn’t who they thought the messiah would be, he was disobeying the Torah, and he was calling himself God.

It wasn’t that they hated Jesus; it was more like they were trying to be faithful.

In my mind, the less Emperor Palpatine, and more Alec Guinness from The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

The basic story is this: Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Guinness)  is in command of a squad captured by the Japanese in World War II and are now POW’s. As part of their punishment, the prisoners are made to build a bridge near the camp. All were required to work, including the officers. Nicholson rebels, and quotes the Geneva Conventions, claiming that forcing the officers to do manual labor instead of managerial and supervisory duties was breaking the agreed upon rules of the Conventions. Punished, tortured, and humiliated, Nicholson stands by his position, rigidly adhering to the rules. Eventually the Japanese commander gives up, and doesn’t force them to do manual labor.

So far, so good.

However, as a result, Nicholson is now supervising the construction of an enemy bridge. If a bridge is going to be built, it’s going to be done the right way and by the rules. His pride in his work and his rigidity in following the rules clouds his perspective; he forgets that while the bridge he is building is good, the bridge itself aids the enemy, and could mean the downfall of the allies. When the bridge is built, he realizes the potential damage the bridge could mean for the allies, he has this great moment of horror at his own actions.

“What have I done?”

In trying to live up to their high standards and interpretation of the law, they missed what was really going on. Nicholson, trying to do things the right way, wound up causing more harm than good. I think this may have been the way it was with the pharisees. I’m in no way saying that they are to be absolved of putting an innocent man to death, but I can see their perspective on the matter.

Are they pure villains? Are they irredeemably evil? Or did they just miss the forest for the trees?

I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

 

 

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About grantimusmax

Grant Barnes, aka Grantimus Maximus, aka The Nerdcore Theologian. He is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a Masters Degree in Divinity. He is also a commissioned elder in the United Methodist Church, and Senior Pastor at Hemphill First United Methodist Church and Pineland United Methodist Church. He graduated from Texas State University Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in English, minor in History. He watches way too many movies, reads too many books, listens to too much music, and plays too many video games to ever join the mundane reality people claim is the "Real World." He rejects your reality, and replaces it with a vision of what could be, a better one, shaped by his love for God.
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