A point that Wright brings up several times in his book is that the Temple officials of Jesus’ day were heavy into power and the accumulation of personal wealth. I was a bit surprised to read this—not that it is not completely true—but because modern fears of being labeled anti-Semite make it awkward to speak of the corruption in the Temple cult at the time of Jesus. But corruption there was. This isn’t anti-Semitic, or more properly, anti-Jewish, anymore than it is anti-Catholic to speak of the Borgia papacies or the pornocracy of the 10th century. Let’s just be honest. Annas and Caiaphas and their buddies weren’t saints any more than Leo X or John XII were saints. It’s history, no problemo.
Yes, in the final decades of the Temple’s history, to hold the high-priesthood required one to work closely with the Roman authorities even at the cost of fidelity to Jewish principles and in return for this collaboration, the cozy arrangement of religion and power brought considerable financial compensation to those who held religious office. In fact, not only the High Priest but all those priests and levites involved in the Temple administration had access to power and the considerable revenues attached to the Temple. The little guys from the countryside—like Zachariah, the Father of John the Baptist, came in for their two weeks a year of duty and did the routine tasks of the sacrifices and cult before returning to their villages, but the great leaders who composed the Sanhedrin or who were permanently attached to the Temple formed an elite club were men to be reckoned with. There was a great chasm of wealth, social standing, and power between the “chief priests and leaders of the people” (Matt 26:3) and the average Jew. The members of this small elite had no idea of the struggles and challenges of the lives of the mass of the people entrusted to their care—nor did they care. The priesthood to them was simply a sinecure—a personal position that guaranteed them a comfortable life. This was nothing new, Ezekiel in his day scored the priests for having been bad shepherds to the people (Ezekiel 34:1-10), abusing their position to exploit God’s faithful people.
I cannot but think that our Church might be very different if the Shepherds of the New Israel, the Church, had more experience of listening—listening—let me say it again—listening—to the people entrusted to their care. I don’t think too many of the purpled mitered majesties have sat down with the father of four whose wife has anxiety attacks about becoming pregnant again and who is wondering how he is going to put his kids through college. I don’t know how many have sat down with the middle-aged woman whose husband has left her for an overbosomed twenty-something but who is afraid of falling in love again herself because the sacraments are too important to her. I don’t know how many have sat down with gay couple who have had a stable and loving relationship for 25 years but are afraid that the local just-out-of-seminary jerk is going to deny them communion in front of the entire parish or refuse to baptize their adopted child. I don’t know how many have talked with the couple who have unsuccessfully tried to become pregnant for eight years and won’t go in vitro out of fidelity to Church teaching. You see we have all the answers—but do we really know the questions? In speaking of prayer, Mother Theresa said:
Before you speak, it is necessary for you to listen, for God speaks in the silence of the heart.
But it is not only to God that we must listen—or rather, contemplative prayer is not the only place where we must listen to God. We must have the lev shomea, the listening heart of Solomon and tune it to the experience of God’s people. God speaks there too. This is especially true of bishops and priests to whom has been entrusted the ministry of shepherding God’s people. More important than their love for the rules and laws by which they teach and govern must be the love for those whom they have been called to lead. The Law, after all, was made for us, not us for the Law.