In a Gospel passage earlier this week, the Pharisees ask Jesus for some kind of sign to prove that he is the one they are looking for to usher in the Kingdom of God. They have seen or heard of his miracles no doubt, but none of them is apparently good enough for them to give up their control and to trust in him as truly the One sent by God.

Clearly, they are not looking for a relationship with Jesus. At least not yet. They are still trying to size him up, wondering first if they should even take him seriously. Jesus continues to attract more attention as a significant religious figure. Now his religious influence may be starting to take on political implications as they begin to feel their own control threatened. Jesus is becoming something of a rival to them in their power over the beliefs of the people over whom they are set up as teachers.

Jesus for his part never disputes the power or legitimacy of their office as teachers of the law, and even seems to shun the title of “rabbi” himself, though others sometimes address him as such. For he seems to teach with certain “authority,” not conveyed by some institutional or political office, an inner source of authenticity that is inherently true and does not depend upon force or fear to persuade. When he teaches, his words ring true, “and not like the Scribes and Pharisees.” What is this persuasive authority?

The Scribes and the Pharisees were very good at telling people what they should do and how they should live. As Jesus often advised his listeners, by all means do what the Pharisees say you should do, but do not follow their example. And he goes on to point out their hypocrisy because their deeds are lacking in love. They often use the law in ways that serve their own interests and subjugate others to their own judgment and not God’s. Examples abound in Scripture, such as the rush to stone the woman caught in adultery and the excoriation of Jesus himself for healing on the Sabbath. They seem to see a threat to their own control in the way in which Jesus frees people from their dominance.

This pattern plays out repeatedly in the politics of religion and the religion of politics. People who mean to do good for others seek or attain a pulpit or a platform. This elevates them somewhat from the crowd around them and invests in their words and actions a certain authority simply by the entitlement of the degree, rank, age or office they have attained, whether by purchase or endowment. This does not make them suspect or bad necessarily, but it does not make them good either. Often their position brings with it great powers to control the wealth, health and whereabouts of those they serve or who are placed in their charge.

Whatever the particular mission or character of their hierarchy may be, corporate, ecclesiastical and governance structures are occupied by individuals who often want to do good through them but also find a certain security in maintaining and strengthening their own positions. Social philosophers, such as Alexis De Tocqueville, and Frédéric Bastiat, of the mid-nineteenth century, observed how even in nominally non-monarchical — so-called “democratic” — governance models, the tendency of any form of government to expand its powers and control and become tyrannical is inherent in its very nature.

The people of Israel were too familiar with this, and salvation history traces the seed of all tyranny right back to the Garden of Eden: the rivalry between love and power. God created everything good and the human race — male and female — in his own “image and likeness.” Satan, already a fallen angel, did not like this order of things, patterned as it is around the love of a giving and creating God who freed his creatures to “be fruitful and multiply.” Instead, the Evil One, jealous of God’s love for humanity and the order in which he placed it, wants to impose his own will on us, and put our ego — his ego — against God.

God is love. Satan, in all his disguises, is all about power. God frees us to be who we really are, Satan wants us to serve his will, seducing us through our egos into thinking that we know better than God who we are and what will bring us happiness.

When Jesus comes into our lives, he restores that Lost Paradise by liberating us from the tyranny of our ego — or anyone else’s. Disciples of Christ do not live in fear and cannot be controlled by tyrannies, in whatever form they may crop up. When we “let go and let God” we are no one’s serf or slave. In our social and political structures, we seek ways of fostering and safeguarding freedom, ownership and personal responsibility through respect for all persons, regardless of rank, position or power.

What gives us the inspiration and courage to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world is the belief and trust that God loves each and every one of us — all of us — and has planted the seed of this love in our hearts.  Every person has his or her own reality, an identity and dignity given by God and not by any society, state or human institution.

Like many in positions of political power — be it public or domestic, corporate or religious — the Pharisees that Jesus encounters and threatens lose sight of who they and those they serve really are and, ultimately, Jesus, God’s Incarnate Word, really is. God is love and love is freeing, liberating. It seeks not to control and restrain the good, the true and the beautiful, but to let it be. For this freeing love to reach us, however, we must embrace its personal Presence in our heart and soul.

The Pharisees were not, at least for the moment, ready for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Rather, they sought refuge in their rules and customs, and the false security of their political power. Convinced no doubt that they were doing their duty and helping their people, they were only serving themselves, and keeping their people under their control, serving the Moloch of power, not the God of Love. For a while, even Saul himself agreed, until the glorious light of the Cross of Christ finally freed him from his blindness on the road to Damascus. Love and not power is the truth that sets us free.

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