From The Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 27, beginning in verse 27:
Some of the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into their headquaters and called out the entire regiment. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him. They wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head, and they placed a reed stick in his right hand as a scepter. Then they knelt before him in mockery and taunted, “Hail! King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and grabbed the stick and struck him on the head with it. When they were finally tired of mocking him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him away to be crucified.**
The type of new covenant that Jesus was sharing in stories and proclamations with his people – first century Jews – was expressed as the coming of a kingdom. The Kingdom of Heaven/God. It’s upon you, he would say; it’s like a returning, like a coming back from exile, like a homecoming for a wayward son; it starts out small and will grow like a huge tree where all the birds can nest; it’s a party for the poor, diseased, crippled, vagrants, prostitutes and anyone else that wants in; it will be like the end of this world, and the beginning of a new one; it’ll be cosmic, on the scale 0f stars falling from the sky and the sun turning red; every knee will bow to the King – including, by inference, Caesars, governors and provincial rulers like Herod and Pontius Pilate.
Many Jews loved this part of the story, including – maybe especially – the Pharisees. They were anticipating it even, trying to purify themselves and their country of infidelity (sound familiar?) to prepare the way of the Lord. They were looking forward to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, to the perfection of the Word. What the leaders found so unnerving is that this utterly powerless, homeless, seemingly passive (turn the other cheek, the violent try to take it by force, etc.) was declaring that the Kingdom would happen through him. He referenced himself as the Son of God and the Temple. It was obvious he was taking away from their base of power by his miracles and food and stories and wisdom.
So, the leaders (the usually feuding Pharisees and Sadducees – who weren’t so happy about upsetting the Roman power structure as the Pharisees – as well as priests, scribes, etc.) came up with a plan. They captured Jesus and brought him to the Roman government. They then charged him with a half-truth: This man is an insurrectionist by claiming that he is the King of the Jews. According to the account given in the Gospel According to John, when Pilate tried to release the popular man, the leaders countered that Jesus’ claims to be the King of the Jews was a threat to the power of Caesar. In this, they were correct.
In fact, though, today as I looked over the passage in Matthew 27, I was struck by how little that threat meant to the occupying forces. They weren’t just mocking Jesus by calling him and enacting scenes with him, on the cross and in his torture, the “King of the Jews.” They were mocking the Jews and their supposedly backward nation, as well as all that they held dear (to my ears, though, I hear traces of Abu Ghraib). Over the next several generations, the Romans would tear apart the land of the Jews and scatter them. But now those who watched over the land (as occupying forces are wont to do) felt little more than contempt for such a puny, little, insignificant, backwards nation that truly believed they were better than anyone else.
The Jews knew this claim to be a massive threat, however, because they believed the promise given to Abraham at the beginning of the old covenant: I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others… All the families on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2,3). This promise would be repeated and expounded upon in the prophets.
And the saga continues…
*My caveat is that I do not wish for anti-Semitism (or anti-any other people group) or any other such misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Such things are immoral and against the spirit of the whole of the Bible and of the God I worship. With that being said, I’m not trying to offend anyone or make anyone feel threatened or even exclude anyone, but I believe that more illumination is needed, not just hollow political correctness.
**New Living Translation, thank you very much.