It is sometimes said that Jesus was killed on account of his inclusion and tolerance, that the Jews hated him for hanging out with sinners and tax collectors. This is the sort of sentiment which has a bit of truth to it, but only a tiny bit. No doubt, Jesus upset many of the Jewish leaders because he extended fellowship and mercy beyond their constricted boundaries. But it is misleading to suggest that Jesus was hated for simply being too doggone loving, as if his inspiring tolerance were the cause of his enemies’ implacable intolerance.
Take Mark’s Gospel, for example (because it’s the one Gospel I’ve preached all the way through). By my reckoning, Jesus is opposed once for eating with sinners (2:16), once for upsetting stereotypes about him in his hometown (6:3), a few times for violating Jewish scruples about the law (2:24; 3:6; 7:5); and several times for “blaspheming” or for claiming too much authority for himself (2:7; 3:22; 11:27-28; 14:53-64; 15:29-32, 39). As Mark’s Gospel unfolds, we see the Jewish leaders increasingly hostile toward Jesus. Although the fear of the crowds stays their hand for awhile, they still try to trap Jesus and plot his destruction (8:11; 11:18; 12:12; 12:13; 14:1: 15:3, 11). There is a lot the Jewish leaders don’t like about Jesus, but their most intense, murderous fury is directed toward him because he believes “I am [the Christ, the Son of the Blessed], and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:62).
The four Gospels, as we might expect, emphasize different aspects of the Jewish opposition. Luke, for instance, makes more of Jesus’ identification with the society’s cast-offs as an issue for the Jewish leaders, while John makes more of Jesus’ unique status as God’s equal. But the basic outline is consistent in all four accounts. As Jesus’s reputation as a healer and miracle worker spreads, the crowds come to him in larger and larger numbers, prompting the elites to despise him more and more. As a general rule, Jesus was popular with the masses (the exception being in his hometown of Nazareth), and as his popularity increased with the crowds, so did the opposition from the Jewish leaders.
The Jewish leaders disliked, and eventually grew to hate, Jesus for many reasons. Mark 15:3 says the chief priests “accused him of many things.” They were angry with him for upsetting their traditions and some of their scruples about the law. They looked down on him for eating with sinners and associating with those deemed unclean or unworthy. But most of all, they hated Jesus because he claimed to be from God, and as time went on, dared to make himself equal to God.
That’s why they hated him; that’s why the crowds turn on him; that’s why Jesus was put to death. The Jewish leaders could not recognize Christ’s divine authority and identity. Jealousy was no doubt part of it (Matt. 27:18). But deeper than that, they simply did not have the eyes to see or the faith to believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. That’s why in all four gospels, when the opposition against him reaches its climax, Jesus is not charged with being too welcoming to outsiders, but with being a false king, a false prophet, and a false Messiah (Matt. 26:57-68; Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:66-71; and less clearly in John 18:9-24). They killed Jesus because they thought he was a blasphemer.
In the end, it was the implicit and explicit claims Jesus made to authority, Messiahship, and God-ness, not his expansive love, that ultimately did him in. This is not an excuse for our own hard-heartedness or a reason to distance ourselves from today’s “sinners and tax collectors.” We need Jesus’s example to set us straight. But we must put to rest the half-truth (more like a one-eighth truth, really) that Jesus was killed for being too inclusive and too nice. The Jewish leaders may have objected to Jesus’s far-reaching compassion, but they wanted him dead because he thought himself the Christ, the Son of the living God. If Jesus simply loved people too much he might have been ridiculed by some. But without his claims to deity, authority, and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, he likely would not have been executed.
So as we approach another Holy Week, let’s certainly talk about the compassion and love of Jesus (how could we not!). But if we don’t talk about his unique identity as the Son of God, we have not explained the reason for his death, and we have not given people reason enough to worship.