Conflict with the religious leaders
This uniqueness of Jesus and the revolutionary contrast of his teaching with the traditions of his people were the source of much of the conflict, which brought Jesus to his death.
The fashion in which Jesus brushed aside some of the customs and prohibitions most cherished by the Pharisees appeared to these self-constituted guardians of Judaism to threaten all for which they and their forefathers had fought against the surrounding world of paganism. What seemed to them to be his disregard of the Sabbath, his contempt for prescribed ablutions, and his willingness, even eagerness, to associate with those whom they regarded as sinners were in their eyes unforgivable breaches of religion and good morals.
In his turn Jesus believed the attitude of the Pharisees to be basically wrong, even blasphemous, and to be leading astray not only themselves but also those who looked to them for guidance. In characteristically vivid language, all the more biting because of its humour, he described them as blind leaders of the blind, with the ditch as their destination. Their error was their belief that they would earn God's favour by their deeds, or, to put it in another way, that they could accumulate merit with God by obedience to His law. This attitude, Jesus saw, bred meticulous care to conform to a set of ethical principles and of ritualistic acts, with a satisfaction in having approximated to them which nourished the deadliest of all sins, pride. Also contributing to pride was the satisfaction of recognition by other men with its associated striving for the approval of men and for place and position, a striving which might even lead one to pray, to undertake ascetic practices, and to perform deeds of mercy for the applause of men.
All this Jesus excoriated in trenchant phrase and apt illustration. He pictured the self-satisfied Pharisee praying in the temple "with himself" and, in a fashion which must have made the Pharisees writhe, placed in contrast and with approbation a member of that class which good Jews loathed as a symbol and instrument of the hated Roman rule, a tax-collector, who, conscious of his sin, pled humbly with God for mercy. To be sure, this portrait of the Pharisee was a caricature, probably deliberately so. At least some of that party were as unhappy as were the prophets whom they honoured over emphasis upon legalism to the neglect of just dealing, mercy, and humility before God. Yet there was that in Judaism which in practice so denied what Jesus was profoundly convinced to be the only correct view of man's relation to God that he believed that he must put the contrast as sharply as possible. In a parable which must have been puzzling on first hearing, Jesus told of the owner of a vineyard who in time of harvest gave exactly the same wage to those who laboured only one hour as to those who had been at it all day. The point, so disturbing to the Pharisee, was that one could not acquire merit with God by piling up good deeds, partly at least because, as Jesus said in another parable, even if we did all that is commanded by God we would only be doing our duty and would deserve no reward.
Jesus appeared to go out of his way to antagonize those in charge of the worship of God in the temple in Jerusalem. He held up for admiration as one who had fulfilled the law of love to one's neighbour a nameless representative of that group whom the Jews despised, the Samaritans, and pilloried a priest and a Levite as having been quite callous in their failure to observe it. His choice of the dramatis persons must have been with an express purpose and not casual. It would bring out with crystal clearness the contrast between God's commands and the religion of the leaders of worship.
Jesus also appeared deliberately to challenge the Sadducees, the politically influential group, which controlled the temple. He was scandalized by the fashion in which God's worship in this central shrine of his people's faith was being callously prostituted as a money-making device — in profit in the very courts of the temple from the exchange of money to the temple coinage and from selling pigeons and sheep and oxen for sacrifice. It may be significant that two of the accounts of this "cleansing of the temple" stress his indignation at those who dealt in pigeons. The sale of these for sacrifice by those who could not afford the more expensive sheep and oxen offered a way of making gain from the poorest of the devout and was especially abhorrent to one sensitive to injustice to those "who had no helper." It appears that for a time Jesus and his followers so took possession that "he would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple." This both angered and alarmed the Sadducean clique which controlled the shrine, for it threatened their revenues from their share in the proceeds of the money-changers and merchants and might bring down on them the Roman authorities, hyper-sensitive as the latter were in an occupied land which was seething with unrest to any move which might lead to a popular uprising.
By his teaching in Jerusalem in these parlous days Jesus did nothing to allay the enmity and fear of either Pharisees or Sadducees. In a peculiarly, sobering parable he denounced them as faithless administrators of a trust. He also made it clear that he regarded them as the descendants of those who had killed the prophets.
Maddening to both Pharisees and Sadducees was Jesus' quiet attitude of authority. Jesus would not submit himself to be controlled by them, but challenged them and for a time appeared to have popular support. He was accused of making himself equal with God and of admitting that he was the Messiah. If he were permitted to continue, so these critics argued, he would jeopardize the law and order maintained by the classes which ruled in synagogue and temple. They could rationalize the offense he had given to their pride by saying that in the tense situation which existed in Palestine where they were like men sitting on top of a volcano which might explode at any moment, it would be the part of wisdom to eliminate Jesus rather than to risk his setting off an eruption.