The day Jesus raged against the system

Political leaders, some of whom may have lost the support of the people, think they can enhance their stature or improve their chances at the polls by pandering to the insecurities, anxieties or prejudices of the majority communities.

Aug 05, 2017

By Anil Netto
How often in our world do we come across instances when politicians have used religion and/or race to serve their political ends? This is happening in not a few countries, no matter what religion is involved.

Political leaders, some of whom may have lost the support of the people, think they can enhance their stature or improve their chances at the polls by pandering to the insecurities, anxieties or prejudices of the majority communities.

Sometimes, they do this by pitting the majority group against the minorities of different faiths or religions. Or, they may try and boost their own sagging credibility by putting themselves forward as champions of their faith or ethnic groups.

In some cases, they may collaborate or make use of religious leaders to enhance their own authority. They could do this by imposing stern religious observances, rituals and laws on the people in the private sphere and on matters governing personal morality. Or, they could build or fund religious monuments that would impress the faithful or celebrate religious festivals publicly on a grand scale.

On the flip side, in return, the religious leaders may then turn a blind eye to the sins of the leaders. Thus, any discussion of the leaders’ plunder, exploitation, imperial domination, colonial adventures, heavy taxation, and personal enrichment (at the expense of the public) is carefully excluded from the religious domain.

This was the type of milieu that Jesus found himself in, in First Century Palestine. It was a time and place when imperial rulers collaborated with the local aristocratic elite and religious leaders to impose an uneasy peace.

At the bottom of the social ladder, on the periphery of the cities, farmers, fisherfolk, artisans and casual labourers toiled and laboured. Sometimes, when the crop failed or when their debt mounted, the unfortunate would fall into destitution.

The Temple of Jesus’ time was the dominant feature of public life in first century Palestine. It was the centre of administration and finance in Jerusalem. And the belief was this was also the dwelling place of Yahweh.

The priestly and religious class leveraged on this to enhance their prestige and impose temple taxes on pilgrims. It was a very ritualistic public observance of religion devoid of the real substance of love and compassion and justice and mercy that Jesus was passionate about.

Behind the scenes, the religious leaders were collaborating with imperial powers who exerted real power over the land to serve imperial interests.

The religious leaders made great play about the need to be religiously clean (rather than unclean). The humble and the meek were punished with harsh laws for offences against personal morality.

But these same religious leaders turned a blind eye to the domination of the Roman imperial overlords — to their economic exploitation, their decadent and hedonistic lifestyles, their cruelty towards any sign of rebellion and their plunder of the land.

Jesus saw through this neat — and exploitative — arrangement and the rank hypocrisy of it all.

In his final week, he exploded in fury in the Temple. When he overturned the money-changers’ tables, it was a culmination of his rage against what he had seen. The exploitation of religion, the political-religious collaboration that painted a false image of God as someone who was a stickler for matters of “cleanliness” while ignoring the larger sins of society that were burdening the people.

And so, his fury in the Temple was probably not just directed solely at the money changers and traders. He thundered that the place was a “den of thieves,” just as he had lashed out at the hypocritical religious class earlier in his ministry, calling them a “brood of vipers.”

When Jesus said he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, he meant that the Father would show the world what real religion was all about — a kingdom of love, peace (not artificial stability imposed by sheer might), compassion and justice.

In our world today, we often see political leaders trying to use religion to enhance their powers while major sins such as the arms race, the accumulation of nuclear weapons, policies that exploit people and the planet are kept away from public discussion. All the while, wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands through economic policies that favour the wealthy.

In many ways, Jesus’ words still ring out today at leaders who make use of religion — a narrow vision of God as someone uninterested in injustice and the larger social sins — to serve their own vested interests.

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