… and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.”
Matthew 26: 4 & 5
The right to free assembly is one of our most basic rights in western culture. Even during the pandemic, when the whole point was to avoid mass gatherings, many governments found it difficult to enforce restrictions on those gathered to protest those self same restrictions. It is so basic to our society that I think we take it for granted.
It was not so in the Roman Empire. I think the Romans understood that the assembly is the fundamental building block of government. Any gathering outside the senate was viewed with suspicion, a possible form of insurrection. Roman governors were usually tasked with ensuring any allowable assemblies in their jurisdiction did not get out of hand. The overarching premise was “Don’t let any group get out of your control. That is how governments fall.”
So riots were often career enders for Roman governors. And any governor sent to a province where his predecessor was let go over rioting was sure to begin with an iron fist. So the chief priests and elders of the Israelites are anxious to avoid any such situation. Their ultimate aim to solidify their power base; the longer their authority to rule goes unfettered, the better.
In Jesus’ day, the political question for Jews was “How long until we can return to self-determination? How long do we have to put up with Roman rule?” It was not a question of submission, not figuring out how to make the best of a bad situation. They wanted out. They figured they were better off without Roman, Greece or any other foreign ruler.
This is why Jesus is such a threat. On the one hand, He presents Himself as a superior authority to the Sanhedrin. This is an existential threat they cannot abide. But on the other hand, they cannot get rid of Him without risk the backlash of the people. Yes, you can read it as simple populism, the leaders of Israel pandering to the people. But I think they also had their best interests in mind, trying to keep things at a low boil until they were really ready to throw off Rome.
What they had not considered was that self-government is still a form of oppression. Jesus came to rescue us from oppression, and particularly the variety that is self-inflicted. Here He is unlocking the prison doors and the prisoners are doing their best to grab the keys and re-lock the doors. Because they know that we are always ruled by our liberator. If the Israelites can emanicipate themselves, they can do what they want. But Jesus knows where that ends. He was in the garden. His heart broke then as it will break again at the rebellious people of Jerusalem.
True freedom is following Jesus. Many people find themselves in bondage to others, a controlling spouse, an overbearing family or an incredibly demanding boss. We dream of liberation, whether through self-employment, moving far from family or idealizing divorce. But like most forms of escapism, these do not free us from that which truly plagues us, self. Only Jesus can do that.
“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Romans 7: 24 & 25
Lord, I want to be free. Loose me from the bonds that restrain my obedience to You.