Summary: Why did the common people perceive Jesus' authority as being greater than the Scribes and Pharisees?
As One Having Authority: Summing Up the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached
What is authority? Or as some of the Postmoderns today ask: “Is there any authority?” Is authority the mere power to impose values on others by force? Is authority someone who is knowledgeable about a certain subject?
The question of authority is important here because the common people who heard the Sermon on the Mount were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because they perceived that His message had authority in it. There was something about the person and teaching of Jesus that was different than the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees. What made Jesus’ teaching so authoritative?
The place to start here is with the Scribes and Pharisees. Much of the Sermon on the Mount directly and openly challenged their teaching and practice. The Pharisees considered themselves the authority for interpreting the Law and the Prophets. They certainly knew more of what Scripture said than the common people, even if they were blind to its meaning. As authorities, they imposed their authority on others. They held their interpretation of Scripture over the people. They administered discipline in the synagogues like a Sharia Law court does in Islam. The people were kept in fear of the Pharisees and Scribes, even if some of them respected them for their learning.
The Pharisees looked down on the common people because of their “ignorance” of the Law. These “people of the land” needed to be controlled and guided because they were incapable of running their own lives. In other words, their attitude is similar to the current attitude in Washington, D.C. who think that Americans cannot act responsibly and need to be regulated for their own good.
When we look at the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, we discover that they were far from unanimous in their opinions on the Law and Prophets, just like the Supreme Court of the US rarely renders an unanimous decision. The Pharisees were broken into two camps, the conservatives and the liberals. The conservatives took to a more literal view of Scripture, whereas the liberals interpreted the Scripture to say what they thought it should mean if Moses were alive in their day. They held to a living law that changed and developed over time. In this, they act like the liberals on the Supreme Court who see the Constitution as being an outdated document which needs to be modernized by their interpretation to be made relevant. Of course, by doing so, they break the spirit of the Constitution because the Constitution has the means of amendment built into it. The Constitution is a document of the people to be understood by plain people. It was not written for lawyers. Yet the politicians in Washington do not believe that the people should have any power but should be dependent on the handouts.
The Scribes were the lawyers of Jesus’ day. They wanted complete control over the interpretation of the Scripture. The internal divisions the Scribes and Pharisees were internal to them just like the differences between Republicans and Democrats in Washington. But the one thing they have in common is that they distrust the American people and think they need to be ruled over for their own good. When the Tea Party arose in protest, Republicans were even more opposed to them than even the Democrats and did everything they could to slander them. Even though some of them might have been worthy of censure, the group of politicians in Washington ought to consider their own scandals.
The common people of Jesus’ day held similar feelings about their leaders. No one wants to be treated like a perpetual child. They would hear the bickering among the followers of Hillel and Shammai over the correct interpretation of the Law. This bickering caused confusion among them which destroyed their faith in the Law and the Prophets just like many Americans today are despondent about America. The interpretation of Scripture by the Pharisees made Holy Writ a matter of multiple choice. This of course led to partisanship. It also led to the justification of a person’s conduct because one could always site a Rabinnic authority who would agree with their view. Therefore, even though Scripture was held up formally in high esteem as the authority, the Scribes and Pharisees had stripped it of all authority but their own. In other words, they abused the Word of God to suit their own schemes.
Jesus came as a shock to the Scribes and Pharisees. He did not go to their Rabbinic schools. He did not have a seminary degree or a license to preach. He did not go through the proper channels of ordination. This of course was a direct challenge to Judaism. Besides the divisions among the Rabbi’s, there was also a huge rift between the priestly ruling class, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. There were also many splinter groups like the Zealots, the Hellenists, and the Essenes. They all hated each other. But the challenge Jesus presented to them united them to get rid of Jesus, or so they thought.