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Caiaphas: When Selling Out Costs Too Much

Matthew 26:57-68

Sometimes “selling out” can cost too much!

True story. Funny. Speedy Morris is the basketball coach at LaSalle University. A few years ago, he was falling into the trap of enjoying his rise to a position of power and prominence in the athletic world. In fact, it was all going to his head, until one morning, he was jolted back to reality! He was in the bathroom shaving when his wife called out to him that he was wanted on the phone by Sports Illustrated. Speedy Morris was so excited by the possibility of national recognition that he nicked himself with his razor and ran, a mixture of blood and lather on his face, and fell down the steps, badly twisting his ankle. He scrambled up, hobbled over to the phone, picked it up, and the voice on the other end said: “For just seventy-five cents an issue you can get a one-year trial subscription…”!

Sometimes selling out can cost too much!

True story. Not so funny. Caiaphas was the high priest in Jerusalem at the time when Jesus was crucified—and he, more than any other single person, was responsible for putting Jesus on the cross. If the guilt can be laid upon any one person then the one is not Judas who actually betrayed Jesus or Pilate who actually sentenced Jesus, but Caiaphas who is the real villain in the Passion Story.

While our scripture lesson touches but briefly upon Caiaphas’ place in the story of Jesus, it is likely that Caiaphas and his father-in-law, Annas, orchestrated the whole thing—the arrest, the trial, and the crucifixion. It is likely that during the ministry of Jesus when certain people were watchdogging Jesus’s every move and trying to trip Him up with loaded questions, that these emissaries had been set out by Caiaphas in search of an excuse, any excuse, to silence Jesus. It is likely that Caiaphas and Annas were getting rich through the heavy taxes they had levied upon the people—in fact, their greed, corruption, and luxurious living were by-words among the people on the street. It is likely that Caiaphas was the one most responsible for turning the Temple into yet another means of bilking people out of their money, so insensing Jesus that He referred to the Temple as a “den of thieves.” It is likely that Caiaphas was the one who hit upon the crafty solution of letting the Romans kill Jesus and then shrewdly hatched the plan to put Him into Roman hands. It is likely that Caiaphas was the one who whispered into the ear of Pontius Pilate the insidious words: “If you let this man go, you are not a friend of Caesar…We have no king but Caesar!” It is likely that in everything Caiaphas did, he had one purpose in mind—to hold onto his position and his power. In other words, Caiaphas had sold out.

And most frightening of all, it is likely that when Caiaphas started out, he was a good man, full of idealisms, sincerity, and hope. He wanted to be a high priest, God’s man for the people, but somehow he had lost his way, lost his early dreams, lost his original motivation, lost his sense of ministry. He had become a wily politician, a schemer for power, the insecure victim of his own greed and covetousness so that he wound up being God’s servant in name only. The story of Caiaphas sends a warning flare into our lives. His story shows us how selling out can cost too much. His story shows us how good people can slowly but surely lose their way. His story shows the peril of choosing comfort over commitment in life. But let me be more specific…

Caiaphas chose position over purpose.

Somehow over the years, Caiaphas had lost his sense of purpose in life—and instead all that mattered to him was his position. In that regard, he was a success. He held the office of high priest for eighteen years. Generally those who held that position did so for only a few years at most. You see, the high priest served at the pleasure of Rome, and Rome demanded high priests who were submissive to Roman authority, who had no ideas of their own, who had no purpose in life but to be Roman puppets. And though Caiaphas may have begun his priestly career with the most genuine intentions, those good intentions ultimately proved to be the paving on his road to Hell. He chose position over purpose.

A few years ago, a college student came by to see me. I could tell that he was troubled. He proceeded to tell me that he had been elected president of the student body at his small college up in Georgia. I congratulated him on his achievement. But then he said: “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I love the honor of being president of the student body, but I really don’t want the responsibility of it all.” So I asked him: “Why did you seek the position?” He answered: “Doesn’t everyone?” You see he had gained a position of great honor but he had no sense of purpose. He was like what someone once said about one of the presidents of the United States: “The problem with him was that he didn’t want to be President, rather he wanted to have been President!” That is to say, he wanted the position but not the pressure; he wanted the honor but not the responsibility; he wanted the lofty image but not the hard work.

A year or so ago, one of the retiring bishops of the Methodist church said something that fascinated me. He was reflecting over his years of service as a bishop and he quoted Mark Twain. Mark Twain said: “If you carry a cat home by the tail you will learn some things you just don’t get in books!” I think that Bishop was saying that being a bishop is more than an honor—it’s hard work, with lots of hard decisions and hard travel and hard meetings and hard pressures to confront. It’s more than an honor—it’s a ministry. And the purpose is more important than the position.

So the story of Caiaphas warns us of how easily it can happen, this temptation to choose position over purpose in life.

Caiaphas also chose safety over service.

Many people today seem to be confusing the concept of safety and service. They mistakenly believe that being saved means playing it safe! Caiaphas, when he tried to silence Jesus, was concerned about “playing it safe.” The rich young ruler was trying to find the secret of life, but he missed it because he “played it safe.” Simon Peter’s most embarrassing moments came in those times and places where he tried to “play it safe.” Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of his master may well have been the direct result of his trying to “play it safe.” And when Pontius Pilate washed his hands, he too, was “playing it safe.”

But the fact is that the Bible teaches us that truly “saved” people are always those who are willing to lay their lives on the line for some great commitment. Here is Moses, leaving the comfortable pastoral life of Midian to risk his life for the freedom of his people. Here is Deborah, the heroic leader of early Israel, sacrificing her own personal welfare for the sake of her people. Here is Jeremiah, who sees his nation gone astray and who braves the jeers of the crowd in order to do the will of God. And of course here is Jesus, armed with nothing but goodwill and love, surrendering every source of security and safety, standing up to the awesome power of the Roman empire, striking a blow for justice, and trusting God for the victory. But Caiaphas only knew how to “play it safe.” He had lost sight of why he had become high priest. He had forgotten how to risk, how to care, how to serve. He had become the servant of the bureaucracy rather than the servant of God and God’s people—and nowhere is that more clearly revealed than in the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus.

You see, a crisis reveals who we are. It strips us of all pretentions. Like an x-ray, it reveals what we are inside, beneath the surface. Either it discloses our shadow side of fear and avarice and violence and self-serving actions or it exposes our strength of character and convictions and loyalties and values.

A certain military officer, speaking of this truth, one time said:

“Our ship was torpedoed while we were on a mission, and in a matter of minutes it was obvious we were going down. One kid in the outfit was studying to be a minister and he’d asked to be our unofficial chaplain. As we loaded the injured into lifeboats he was one of the first men I saw. He had a fractured leg, but as I started to pick him up he said: “Go on and help the other guys who are really hurt. I’ll be okay. God is looking out for me.”

I thought that was kind of funny—if God was looking out for him, why was he injured? But when I looked around, I saw some of the other Christians on board had been hit too. And I noticed that they weren’t reacting with panic—they acted like they knew they were going to be all right.

In the years since then, I’ve noticed the same thing many times. You can’t tell if people are Christians by whether or not they have trouble, but you can tell if they’re Christians by how they act when trouble comes.”

That’s too good to let slip! Listen again: You can’t tell if people are Christians by whether or not they have trouble, but you can tell if they’re Christians by how they act when trouble comes.

You could sure tell about Caiaphas by the way he acted when confronted with a crisis. He chose safety over service.

Caiaphas chose convenience over Christ.

How quickly, like Caiaphas, we can forget the whole point of faith. How easily we can begin to see ourselves as “privileged people” rather than “servant people.” How subtly we can slip into the habit of going through life—and through the church—saying: “What’s in it for me?” We forget the cost of discipleship. We forget that the symbol of our faith is a cross. We forget that we are first and foremost servants. And consequently we serve the church if and when it’s convenient. We attend worship if and when it’s convenient. We go to Sunday School if and when it’s convenient. We sing in the choir if and when it’s convenient. We work with children and youth if and when it’s convenient. That was precisely Caiaphas’ problem—and it is here probably more than anywhere else, that the spirit of Caiaphas slips into our lives. We ignore the way of the cross and opt instead for the way of convenience.

A six-year-old girl was suffering from terminal cancer. She had very little time left before she would die, and the time she had was destined to be humiliating and painful. Tubes were running in and out of her tiny frame. The salt blond hair which once had graced her head was now gone. But surprisingly, her sad circumstances could not take away her joy of life or the beautiful smile she wore every day. One day, however, as her pastor visited her, he noticed she was not in her usual cheerful state. Thinking it was due to her pain, he asked: “What’s the matter?” He saw tears suddenly fill her eyes, and she said: “I’m going to have a new body soon in Heaven.” “That’s right,” said the pastor, “but that’s happy news. So why are you crying?” With a profound wisdom that shocked the pastor, the little girl said: “I’m going to have a new body when I get to Heaven, but Jesus will always have the scars…”

How is it that a small cancer-ridden child can recognize the Gospel truth, which we like Caiaphas, so often miss? How indeed!

Well, let me finish like this…

Leslie Weatherhead was a great British preacher who comforted and sustained many with his preaching and his life in wartime London. Night after night, the bombs rained down upon London destroying buildings and setting fires. Weatherhead and his congregation had to move twenty times because the buildings in which they were meeting had been destroyed by the bombs. How could he remain strong and faithful in the midst of it all? He said: “My whole life was changed by a moment’s experience with my father when I was a boy.” He then told how when he was a boy, he disobeyed his mother. He was sent to his room to await the arrival home of his father. As he sat in his room, his anxiety began to build. Then he heard the front door open. He heard the greeting of Father and Mother, and then the continuing conversation which he could not quite make out. But he knew…he knew the story of his disobedience was being conveyed. Finally, he could not bear to wait any longer, so he made his way out of his room and down the stairs. When he reached the bottom step his father appeared, saw him, and moved quickly to gather him up in his arms with these words: “My own wee son.” Across a lifetime of incredibly powerful ministry, Weatherhead never forgot that moment. He could not, as a man, tell the story without weeping. He said: “I shall never ever forget the delicious sense of belonging to my father.”

Oh my beloved, we can belong to our Heavenly Father. When, like the little boy, in full knowledge of our disobedience, we turn in faith and go to meet his embrace. Don’t sell out. Hold fast to Jesus Christ in faith. If you do, then I promise you that you will never forget the delicious sense of belonging to the Father…

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