I’m a sucker for irony. Movies, books, news, you name it, if there’s a good ironic twist, you’ve got my attention. Maybe it’s irony’s stark depiction of the unexpected. Maybe it’s irony’s way of framing a reality in a new and freshly graspable way. Maybe it’s irony’s penchant for forcing into light the absurdities of previously held positions. I don’t know what I like so much about it. It may be all of the above. Whatever it is, I know irony helps me learn.
Scripture is full of irony. Google defines irony as “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.” However, when the Holy Spirit inspired the ironic passages of Scripture, the results are often far from amusing. Many examples are just downright sad. The story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering and crucifixion serve as proof of what I mean. The Creator whom the universe cannot contain allows himself to be captured and detained. The Creator allows the created to strike him, spit on him and put him on a cross. The immortal Author of Life dies. The Lawgiver, Righteousness incarnate, becomes sin, so that sinners can become the righteousness of God. These tragic ironies certainly don’t amuse, but they do indeed speak truth and bring lasting peace and joy for those who trust in Christ.
This Lenten season, as I was studying to preach on John 18:28-40, one part of this familiar passage struck me for the first time. You, too, may remember the scene. The Jews bring Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters in order to have him sentenced to death. What caught my attention was verse 28 which says, “Then [the Jewish leaders] led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover” (ESV, emphasis mine).
Do you see the irony? When the Jewish officials and high priest get to Pilate’s headquarters they refuse to go in. The text explains why. They were afraid that doing so would leave them defiled and unable to eat the Passover. There are a number of ways in which a person could be defiled for the Passover, and any could be in view here. After all, it was a pagan governor’s mansion. It would by no means have been a bastion of Jewish ritual purity.
One plausible, if not probable, concern they may have had was coming into contact with leaven. This was a big deal. During the first Passover, anyone who defiled themselves with leaven would be cut off from their people (cf. Exodus 12:15). Was this their concern? We can’t know for sure. Whatever their fear was, it led them to don a cloak of piety and remain outside. They were controlled by a drive to achieve purity. They couldn’t miss the Passover meal on account of being defiled. That was too embarrassing. That would have been a big, obvious failure. Yet, by their actions, they show that their defilement had already come, and they had just condemned to death the only One who could truly cleanse them. This is tragic irony at its finest.
Also ironic was that, during his ministry, Jesus had warned them against making this very mistake. He told them that true defilement didn’t come from external contaminants but from the wickedness that comes from within a person (Matthew 15:18). Of these defilements, nothing is more wicked than when people believe they can atone for their own sin. Martin Luther said it this way: “The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man was the idea that somehow he could make himself good enough to deserve to live with an all-holy God.” This notion, Jesus taught, is the leaven that truly defiles, and he warned his hearers to avoid it at all costs (Matthew 16:11-12). The Pharisees knew the rules of Scripture, but had failed to grasp its message. Their leaven-laden teachings kept them from gaining the righteousness that comes without charge through the merit and work of Christ.
While we most likely will never encounter a true Pharisee or Sadducee, their yeasty teachings still defile today. We don’t have to look far to find it. If I were to ask you about your credentials to enter heaven, I’d be willing to bet that, even if you knew better, you would at least be tempted to answer the question in terms of your own behavior or performance. It’s easy for us to look at ourselves and think we’re pretty good people or that we must somehow become good to find God’s approval. This lie pervades even the Church.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were avid “church-goers” and “good” people by most accounts. They went to synagogue, sang in the Psalm choir and taught Sabbath school. They had an impeccable reputation, and all the AWANA badges to prove it. Their problem was not what they did, but what they thought what they did did. They thought by it they would earn salvation. This bore with it a devastating effect. Their showy pride drew people’s eyes from the salvation of Jesus to worthless and silly salvation games of their own making.
As we journey with Christ this Lenten season, the cross reminds us of the futility of our own efforts to be right with God. He didn’t just die for those who couldn’t turn it around on their own. He died for ALL to bring forgiveness to ALL who trust him because we ALL need it. This is the Gospel. Ironically, because of this, and only because of this, does our defilement go away.