Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, and said, “What are ye willing to give me, and I will deliver him unto you?”
And they weighed unto him thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-15).
Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city, and told unto the chief priests all the things that were come to pass. And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave much money unto the soldiers, saying, “Say ye, ‘His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept.’ And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and rid you of care.”
So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying was spread abroad among the Jews, and continueth until this day (Matthew 28:11-15).
The past few years have seen a lot of bankruptcy or threats of bankruptcy. Many corporations and banks are no more; even countries have come perilously close to default. Even in America there is wrangling about the debt ceiling and whether the U.S. Treasury will default.
Yet there was a treasury about two thousand years ago that was bankrupt. It still contained money– in fact, it had a lot of money. But it had become morally bankrupt because of the practices of those who oversaw it.
This treasury was originally established from the beginning of the time of the Law. Moses established that every male in Israel should pay a half-shekel a year for an offering to God and for the functioning of the Tabernacle, and then the Temple (Exodus 30:11-16). This was on top of the tithe that went for the care of the Levites and priests (Leviticus 27:30-32), of which a tithe of the tithe was given to God (Numbers 18:26). Other offerings for maintenance of the Temple and other sacrifices were also given (cf. Mark 12:41-44). All of these offerings– by Roman times, mostly offered in money– were intended to provide for the priests who ministered to God and for sacrifices to God. In all things the offerings were to honor the God who commanded them!
By the first century, those in charge of the Temple treasury thought that they were using the money to honor God. And yes, they still did offer the required sacrifices, and the Herodian version of the Second Temple was still being constructed (John 2:20). But something had become more important to the chief priests than honoring God: their standing amongst the people and the power that went with it.
During the week of Passover around the year 30, Jesus of Nazareth rode into Jerusalem, hailed as the Son of David (Matthew 21:8-9). And what is the first thing that He does when He enters town? He goes into the Temple and ritually cleanses it by casting out the money changers and merchants there (Matthew 21:12-14). The chief priests were not amused; they were indignant at Jesus (Matthew 21:15). Throughout the week, Jesus would teach the people in ways that undermined the moral standing of the Jewish religious authorities. No matter that the things He did were marvelous and testified to the power of God working in Him; He was a threat to their power and to all the structures they had built, physically and socially. They plotted to get rid of Him, and when one of His own disciples provided the opportunity, they jumped at it (Matthew 26:3-5, 14-15). They weighed out money that had come from the treasury designed to honor God and gave it as the payment for betrayal of the Son of God.
Based on that act Jesus would be arrested, tried, and executed. On the third day He would rise again from the dead. This was even more inconvenient for the chief priests; they had tried to rid themselves of Jesus, and now things were only getting worse! Their credibility and standing would take yet another hit if this news was made legitimate!
Therefore, they acted as they did before. This time, they did not buy off a greedy Judean; they bought off Roman soldiers, inducing them to claim dereliction of duty, that they had fallen asleep and the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus (Matthew 28:11-15). Even more money was given that had come from the treasury to cover up the work that God was doing, to hinder people from coming to the knowledge of the truth so as to perpetuate the lie!
The moral bankruptcy of the chief priests is evident; and that is precisely what Matthew intends. Jesus has predicted that the entire structure that sustains those priests– the Temple and its sacrificial cult– has been judged and its condemnation evident when they would be destroyed (Matthew 24:1-36). Forty years later, the Romans accomplished what Jesus prophesied, and the priesthood and the Sadducees all but vanish from the scene. That treasury, having already been declared morally bankrupt, was now fully plundered by the Romans.
The “transfer” of moral authority is plain. It is no longer in the Temple and in those who minister to God there; it is now in Jesus of Nazareth, at whose death the veil of the Temple rent in two (Matthew 27:51). He allowed for the forgiveness of sin through the death He experienced; it would not be based on Temple sacrifices (Romans 5:6-11, Hebrews 10:4). Everyone everywhere should listen to Him and seek to follow Him, for God made Him both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36); the chief priests should have listened and not condemned.
The warning is also plain: the religious authorities thought that maintaining their place and their power was more important than honoring God and His work. By dishonoring God and His work, they sealed their own fate, and went on to lose their standing and their power. At some point in existence, either now or in the hereafter, moral bankruptcy results in complete bankruptcy. Let us not be found in opposition to God and His work; let us serve His Son today and be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry