The Unwitting Prophet Caiaphas

Saturday in the Fifth Week of Lent: Ezekiel 37:21-28, John 11:45-56.

Today, the momentum gathering for Holy Week is palpable, both at home and in the daily readings. Tonight we sing first Vespers for Palm Sunday, and the antiphons will sing of the beginnings of the Passion. In today’s readings, we encounter Ezekiel’s first prophecy of Christ uniting the nations and then the gospel shows how the high priest Caiaphas unwittingly echoes this prophecy. We should pay attention here: Caiaphas is a lesson in not using religious language to justify political moves.

The prophecy recorded in Ezekiel is this: “I will take the children of Israel from among the nations to which they have come, and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land. I will make them one nation upon the land.” The promise of unification on their own land has been integral to the Jewish nation to this day, likely because of verses like this: “they shall live on it forever, they, and their children, and their children’s children, with my servant David their prince forever.” Theirs is a very literal interpretation of this promise, whereas Christians understand this to refer to the new Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God.

John attributes a similar prophetic voice to Caiaphas: “He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” The phrase he did not say this on his own is found throughout scriptures as a way to say that the Spirit of God is active in a person. It follows, then, that John would write that he prophesied. Undoubtedly the same Holy Spirit revealed this to St. John as he wrote down the holy, inspired gospel. It is an interesting comment on the fact that God uses all parts of humanity in His plan of salvation. The high priest, by all accounts a highly political man and perhaps a tool of his influential father-in-law, Annas. Caiaphas was one of five men to serve as high priest who were either sons or sons in law-of Annas, who was high priest from A.D. 6-15 when the Romans had previously deposed him. So, God presents Caiaphas with the prophetic wisdom that Jesus is meant to gather into one the dispersed children of God. What Caiaphas does with this prophetic wisdom is another thing altogether.

The scene in the gospel is the convening of the Sanhedrin. We think of this as being a plot of a few bad apples, but historically the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, which met every day except the Sabbath, was comprised of 71 elders (priests and scribes) and the function of the Sanhedrin was that of a supreme Jewish court, among other things. This was no small cabal of plotters. This was the primary body of respected Jews who held power in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin was undoubtedly central to the operation of the Jewish religious/social state, but since they were under Roman rule and the Roman procurator appointed the high priest, it was plagued with politics (and even accusations of members being collaborators with the Romans). This uneasy relationship with Rome, along with a Jewish populace that chafed at the thought of being subjugated, made those in the Sanhedrin politically jumpy to say the least. 

John writes, “So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, ‘What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.'” This is a summary of what was likely some months of worrying and discussion that came to a head on this day. Their worry is that a Messiah who unites the people would be seen as a sign of revolt or instigation against their Roman rulers. Note how divorced this is from what the common people (like the Apostles) felt and yearned for. The Apostles and other disciples of Jesus show us that the Messiah was more than a political figure. In fact, one couldn’t avoid the fact that Jesus tells them directly that the Kingdom He preached was “not of this world.” The people yearn for salvation and a relationship with God, or at least God’s Anointed One. These are upright intentions. The Sanhedrin, on the other hand, displays none of this. They are stuck in their worldly concerns. In a way, its understandable, since we’ve seen leaders in most every culture prioritize political and territorial concerns over everything else. And yet this is Israel, of which God says “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” (Ex 19:6). St. Peter writes something similar to the Jews living outside of the Holy Land in his first letter: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9). Is the Sanhedrin acting like it is a priestly kingdom or just another secular fiefdom?

John directly quotes Caiaphas as saying, “You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” Caiaphas appears to be a man of determination. Perhaps the vision from the Holy Spirit of what Jesus means to the Jewish people has given him this confidence. But his utterly political perspective twists this prophetic knowledge to its own purposes. If his compatriots know nothing, he thinks he knows something important, but all he does with this important knowledge is to make a cold military calculation: one life to save many. This is the arithmetic of death, of loss. He is ruled by worldly concerns.

Christ before Caiaphas (1308-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna | Image from Wikiart.org.

This is an important lesson for how to live out our lives. If we are open to God, faithful to the spirit as well as the letter of the law, and cultivate love, then we can avoid misusing any wisdom that God grants us. Caiaphas has not grown in the Lord and has not cultivated a heart and mind that is receptive to God’s will. The only will we see present in his short speech is his own cold, calculating will that is preoccupied with earthly power relations.

Thank you, God, for an alternative way that you’ve given us in your Son, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Him. 

  

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