The Pharisee

Could I have been wrong?

I sit here a decrepit, lonely, and useless old man, and I am haunted by that question wondering again and again if I could have been wrong…

I remember learning in the days of my youth how true life comes only from G-d’s perfect law. I learned to live by and revere the law. I was shown that wickedness was a rejection of the law and thus, a rejection of G-d. I was shown how I was not alone and how the lives of my family, my peers, and my nation all received true life when centered on the law of G-d.

But we didn’t hold to the law for it’s own sake alone, G-d’s promise accompanied the law. He promised strength and prosperity to our nation in this land and beyond! He promised we would not be an isolated nation and through us all the nations of the earth would be blessed. You can’t possibly imagine how this promise breathed life into the first small clan of people, Abram’s family, living on the outskirts of modern civilization. Abram showed great faith by trusting G-d with his entire life and moving away from his ancient homeland to a new and unknown land: a land of promise!

Yet even with such faithful beginnings, our nation’s history has been one of a people who have often lost their way, their faith, and their love of the law. We frequently went astray after entering the Promised Land and worshipped other gods. In our darkest times we even went so far as to build altars to foreign gods in our holiest of places. We pushed the law of G-d away, we pushed away its life, and we broke the promise G-d made to Abram. I wonder how many times a people can reject G-d and his life-giving law before they learn their lesson? I wonder if our fathers ever looked back like I am now and questioned their choices?

We were so pitifully lacking in the ability to keep G-d’s life-giving law that our leaders created a set of protective fences around the law. We didn’t want to repeat our past mistakes, we certainly didn’t want to lose our land again, but mostly we didn’t want to miss out on being G-d’s chosen vessel to the nations of the world. And so we built fences. Not literal fences, (though at times they were), but our fathers built traditions around the law, extra laws so to speak, that assured we would never treat G-d’s law with disrespect again. Generations of us, growing up with these traditions and secondary laws learned how to follow the laws of G-d by obeying the traditions of man.

As you might guess, our traditions were cumbersome, but they were necessary if we were to protect ourselves from breaking the real law of G-d. I grew up learning the traditions and laws but I also remember frequently getting in trouble because I had forgotten one of the many legal interpretations and requirements. I always accepted my punishment because I knew punishment at the hands of man was far better than punishment at the hands of G-d.

But I wasn’t motivated by punishment alone. I always knew the law was only a means to an end. I was motivated by G-d’s promise to make of us a great nation, a blessing to the world, and to never forget our nation: I think we all were. Even when in exile we knew he would send someone to free us, unite us, lead us, and then rule the nations. He promised to send his Messiah, a savior of Israel and a king to the world!

Throughout history there have been many times we thought the Messiah had come, but inevitably disappointment followed and other nations would prevail. Assyria, Babylon, the Seleucids, and Rome all took our people, controlled our land, and crushed our spirit. The years of disappointment piled up into decades and rolled into centuries of oppression with no end in sight. As a result, for the most part we learned to be compliant and live under the rule of other nations. They were usually good about allowing us to practice our faith and we were usually patient while waiting for them to move out.

But even so, some urged us to fight the oppressors. Unfortunately, however, the end was always the same. For instance, years ago there was a man we called The Hammer who promised to free us, and for a short time he did. But for all his work he only recaptured a small portion of land and that was only for a relatively short period of time. We eventually succumbed to the surrounding nations and once again became servants to foreign masters. You would have thought it would stop there, but it didn’t. Recently, in my father’s time, a number of upstarts and would-be Messiahs arose, but it always ended the same: their death and our continued servitude.

As I look back at these events and the many others like them I wonder what we thought we could actually do against the vast forces surrounding and controlling us? We no longer had an army and were no longer trained in the art of warfare as we were in former years. We were, and still are, a nation of farmers, merchants, and scribes: who of us can battle Rome? If, and this is a very big if, if we could win such a battle and keep our enemies at bay, then we would need a leader. But our history tells us such a person would almost certainly not live consistently with the laws and traditions of G-d. And as we know, when the king of Israel departs from the laws of G-d, the nation falls.

The only unfailing and unchanging constant over the years has been the laws and traditions of G-d. They give us life and hope in our affliction, oppression, and exile. They give us the promise of a land that we hope someday G-d will make good on, but until such time the law is our singular concern. Our leaders came to that conclusion before I joined the council, and it was a conclusion about which I had no disagreement.

I don’t think any of us ever lost faith in G-d’s promise to renew the land and make of us a great nation, but it had become less important than the daily rigor of keeping our ways pure. I think that’s understandable. I mean, how long do you wait for something before you no longer consider it a reality? The answer for our nation, and our breaking point, was centuries. Eventually we decided we would be vigilant in keeping our religious ways and in protecting the hearts and minds of our people, but it was no good waiting for something that was most likely not going to happen in our lifetime.

It wasn’t long after I joined the council before the newest version of the upstarts came on the scene and most of us had already decided he needed to be silenced. But the longer he was around the more evident this one was different from the others. He wasn’t a political or military man, he wasn’t a priest or an elder, and he wasn’t even from the city: he was a carpenter from a backwater town up north. For some reason, regardless of his humble origins, people listened to and followed him. People said he performed miracles and before long rumors circulated that he might even be the Messiah. But whenever we confronted him he either broke the law or threw our questions back at us. Granted, we saw some things we didn’t fully understand, but he always did them in such a way as to break the law of G-d!

For years he walked the streets of Israel teaching a message often stricter than anything we ever enforced. He said it was not merely what one did that was sinful, but what one thought as well. But how can someone be judged for the thoughts going through their mind? There were other times he seemed to elevate us. He told the people unless their good works were better than ours, they would never find salvation. He knew we were the best examples of how to live consistently with the laws of G-d and he seemingly affirmed our ways. He also spoke of the proximity of the coming Kingdom of G-d as if it could be found just over the horizon. I think many were beginning to be taken in by him, even some in the council, but then his message changed.

At first it was subtle, only giving hints of antagonism, but before long it was a full-on attack. He said the destruction of the temple was coming, he accused us of hypocrisy, and then he called us white washed tombs. As his teaching grew more antagonistic and accusatory our resolve to get rid of him grew even stronger. It wasn’t until he committed blasphemy that we became unanimous in our conclusion. Not only did he claim to know G-d personally, he claimed to be G-d! This was intolerable. For all the sins of the past kings, at least they always knew who they were; they knew their place.

Given our laws, death was the only allowable punishment for someone like him. When the council gathered together and made our decision to have him captured and brought before us, we knew it was not only us who condemned him, but the past affirmed our choice. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were with us. Moses, David, Josiah, and others called for us to protect the law and protect the life giving words of G-d. With such a cloud of witnesses, we knew that even though the crowds had just days before wildly proclaimed this man to be the coming king, they must now follow our lead in condemning him.

But as I look back on our final meeting I wonder if we really sensed the voices of the past or if our own desires for revenge and retribution clouded our minds. It’s true that he had insulted us in front of our people, but what if he wasn’t wrong, what if we were?

I don’t know why, (maybe it’s my age) but try as I might, my memory of the events of the following few days is only a blur to me. I know something happened in a garden, I’m pretty sure of that. I am told that there was a trial and at some point we got our way and the Romans hung him on a cross, but I can recall no specific details of the actual events.

What I do remember, (and this is the seed of what haunts me to this day), is a few days after the crucifixion doubts crept into my mind. We heard the tomb had been vandalized and the body disappeared. We heard he had been seen walking through the countryside. People claimed to have seen him near his hometown in Galilee, some saw him near Bethany, and some even said he had been seen in Jerusalem. But we could never confirm the rumors; we never saw him; I never saw him. Back then I doubted the rumors; I’ve seen crucifixions and know once a person is declared dead, they are dead; the Romans are quite thorough. But I also doubted my doubt because the rumors persisted and I knew of no good explanation.

I thought it was maybe a hallucination. I mean I know individuals can hallucinate, so why not crowds? I’d heard of grieving wives claiming to have seen their husband’s spirit after the funeral, why not his? But I knew those were individuals, I’d never heard of a group claiming to have seen someone after their death. But with such large numbers of people claiming to have seen him after his crucifixion, the only conclusion that made sense was a full-on group hallucination, even though deep down I knew that to be a reach.

If we grant, even for a moment, that he did rise from the dead, wouldn’t someone with such power have done what the prophets of old predicted: lead us to freedom from our oppressors and take back the land? But the only rumor we ever heard was of him talking to his disciples and otherwise generally staying out of sight. That doesn’t seem much like a Messiah to me. How would him hiding in isolation provide universal freedom? If he was alive and staying out of the public eye, we were still in bondage. He was no messiah. No savior. No redeemer of the promise. He was nothing.

And yet there was something about the persistent rumors causing me to wonder if I had been wrong. Was it possible? Could he have been who he said he was? But if he was then I would have to question everything I had been taught and everything our nation believed for so many years. Who am I to question the traditions? Who am I to accuse my teachers of ignorance or falsehood? Who am I?

In those times when you get caught up in the moment and the sentiment of the crowd, finding yourself being pulled along, you don’t take the time to wonder where you are going, you just go. For my entire life I’ve tried to be reasonable, committed to the Law, and devoted to G-d, but now, looking back from the vantage point of old age, I wonder if had lived my whole life in the wake of the moment. Did I ever really think through our traditions and consider whether they were consistent with G-d’s intentions? Could all those who went before me have misinterpreted the Scriptures? Had we built traditions in which we placed more trust than G-d’s word? I wonder who actually distinguishes between the two anymore? After so many years of the one protecting the other, they eventually became the same. But in becoming one, had they not become something altogether new? Was this mixture of man’s tradition and G-d’s words really G-d’s will for us or was it now only man’s will? And if it had changed, did that mean we no longer knew G-d’s law?

I am fairly certain if anyone reads these thoughts I would be instantly discredited and cast away. As I saw with this man from Galilee, you can’t battle the firmly entrenched traditions and expect a warm welcome. But I still wonder if I could have been wrong? Who was this man? I know his name was Jeshua, and I know he taught G-d’s covenantal promises so many years ago pointed to something more important than the land. I know he taught we were to bless the world, just as Abraham was told, but in a way we had never considered possible. He taught the kingdom of G-d was not just a throne upon which a king sat, but a heart in which our G-d lived. What he taught, now that I look back at it, had more truth to it than I was willing to allow. Again I wonder if I could have been wrong?

In the years following Jeshua’s crucifixion and the diminishing reports of his appearances, a strange thing happened. Instead of his followers disappearing into the woodwork and awaiting the next new would-be Messiah, they became emboldened. They preached about how Jeshua came to save us, not from our Roman oppressors, but from sin’s oppression. Large numbers of people listened and followed everywhere they preached his story. In his life Jeshua had only twelve disciples, one of them even betraying him, but now after his crucifixion thousands were joining his movement years. Even some of those leaders with whom I studied believed. They said this man fulfilled the law and prophets and brought freedom for us all, offering a place in his coming kingdom to any who would believe.

But I wonder where and when this kingdom will be? The Romans are still in charge, our nation is still in disarray, and persecutions are now beginning. Those who follow Jeshua’s teachings fall under the sword, not just in Israel, but also around the world. So again I ask, where is this promised kingdom? It certainly doesn’t seem to be on earth right now. For all their talk, all I ever hear them say is that whatever might happen on earth, G-d is setting up his kingdom in each person’s life. They say the kingdom is freedom from sin. They say what the traditions and laws cannot do, Jeshua can. They say the laws and traditions never grant freedom because the moment after offering a sacrifice I’m liable to sin again and once again need to offer another sacrifice. They say because of the death of this Jeshua somehow all of our sins are covered: past, present, and future. But does this sound like a kingdom? Where is the kingdom?

Maybe I was wrong to expect God to come in power and redeem the earth. Maybe I was wrong to think the kingdom promised of old is actual land. Maybe I was wrong to dismiss this man who spoke against and lived contrary to the laws and traditions. But if so, what did I miss in my studies? What did my fathers miss? How can we be blamed for trying to protect the laws of G-d? How can I be blamed?

Even if what his followers say is true, how was I supposed to know to question the teachings of my nation? How was I supposed to know to reject the old and accept the new? Isn’t there always something new? Don’t the laws and traditions provide stability and give us life? How were we supposed to know they pointed to something that is not at all obvious? How am I supposed to know? Tell me, how?

These questions and many more like them are my only companions now, in my waking hours and dark nights when I should be sleeping. I have no answers and no way to settle my doubts. Try as I might, I cannot reconcile the life I once led with the questions I now ask. I hope someday, before the lights dim in my eyes forever, I can find an answer to my question…

Could I have been wrong?

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