It is sometimes stated, and at other times implied, that Jesus was killed for opening the doors of God’s mercy to prostitutes and tax collectors. This is sort of true, but mostly misleading. It’s true to say, and needs to be said (as I will in my sermon this upcoming Sunday), that Jesus upset some of the Jewish leaders because he extended fellowship and mercy beyond their constricted boundaries. But it is misleading to suggest that Jesus was killed for just loving too much, as if inclusive tolerance were the chief cause of his enemies’ implacable intolerance.
Take Mark’s Gospel, for example. 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 their 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 reputation as a healer and miracle worker spreads the crowds come to him in larger and larger numbers and the elite 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 a general rule, as his popularity (but not necessarily success) 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. They accused him of many things (Mark 15:3). 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 the culture often despised. Most of all, they hated him because he claimed to be from God and, in fact, equal with God himself. They could not recognize his divine authority and identity.
In a nutshell that’s why the Jewish leaders (religious and political), and later some of the crowd they incited, hated Jesus. Jealousy was no doubt part of it. 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 (though they faulted him for that too), 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 18:19-24). In short, 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 certainly not an excuse for our own hard-heartedness. Conservative religious people are often prone to distancing themselves from “sinners and tax collectors.” We need Jesus’ example to set us straight. But we must put to rest the half-truth (more like a quarter-truth really) that Jesus was killed for being too inclusive and too nice. True, the Jewish leaders objected to Jesus’ 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 of deity, authority, and Old Testament fulfillment, he would not have been murdered.
So as we tell people about Jesus, let’s certainly talk about his compassion and love (how could we not!). But if we don’t talk about his identity as the Son of God, we have not explained the reason for his death, and, just as crucially, we have not given people reason enough to worship him.