Sunday, March 28, 2010

Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, has a genuine dilemma: He wants to save the Jewish people...

....from yet another disaster and he’s got a troublesome, self-appointed prophet with a large following in the holy City during the lead-up to Passover.

I suspect few Christian preachers this week are likely to sympathize with his dilemma. More likely, he and his fellow priests will be cast, quite simply, as villains in the tale— protecting religious power, collaborating with Rome, or perhaps just elitist in their contemptuous cruelty toward populist leaders. The Passion story lends itself easily to this sort of “good guys/bad guys” reading, and I certainly preached my share of such sermons in decades past.

Reality, however, is seldom quite so bright with moral clarity, and this story is no exception. Rather, the portrayal of Jesus’ provocative entrance, parabolic rejection of the priestly leaders, arrest, trial and death is a tragedy in the proper sense, much like Greek tragedies, albeit with a biblical twist uncharacteristic of the Greeks. The tragic dimension is that the characters, each with his own virtues and faults, do not fully realize what they are doing.

Far from a simplistic story of good and evil, the Passion reveals the unsettling clash of conflicting virtues, both personal and social—virtues that cannot be fully reconciled. Jesus is caught in this clash, even provokes it, and himself participates in its ambiguities. If each party to the drama may be said to be “protecting their own interests” a fair reading must recognize that there is real value in each of those “interests,” not merely a venal self-serving. This week I intend to offer daily reflections on this tragic, even ironic, dimension of Holy Week—more provocative, I believe, that the usual good vs. evil reading.

And there’s no better place to start that Caiaphas. Jesus has been a growing problem in what was probably a “Jubilee” year, with farmers at loose ends and the Jubilee theme of liberation. And Jesus proclaims the imminent “kingdom of God” and does nothing to quell a growing buzz that he may proclaim himself Messiah. Reports have come that he has told his followers to “take up their cross” which is, in fact, a Zealot slogan, a provocative and confusion campaign motto for a man who tells the multitudes to “love their enemies.” With over a million pilgrims in and surrounding the City, the situation is fraught with peril.

Just last fall, at the festival of Sukkot, an armed insurrection had to be put down by the Roman legionnaires stationed in Jerusalem, and the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, is more on edge than usual. Rome is willing to leave the business of governing the Jews to the High Priest and Sanhedrin, the Jewish Senate, so long as things don’t get out of hand, and the Nazarene may well be the spark to ignite the next insurrection.

Pilate is the most brutal of the Roman procurators yet. He sees Judea as a hotbed of potential trouble for Rome, situated as it is astride major trade routes in Greater Syria, and pivotal for the defense of the Roman Empire against the Parthian Empire to the East. With the constant danger of terrorist attacks against Roman authority or non-Jewish settlers—like the sacking of the Galilean city of Sepphoris only three and a half decades before—Caiaphas knows that, for the sake of the Jewish people, he must maintain the peace.

I don’t imagine that Caiaphas is a saint, please understand. The Talmud itself contains traces of the hatred many Jews felt for the high priestly rulers and their Temple police. But neither is he the crafty villain of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” nor the sinister power-monger of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” nor the “perfidious Jew” of history Christian anti-semitism. He’s a man in a position of responsibility for the affairs of his own people.

The heart of my argument is this: when Caiphas says (as he is reported to have done) “It is good that one man should die for the people,” this is not a cynical political ploy, but what seems to him a simple responsibility, perhaps even a noble and just one. Rather it offers a more troublesome and thought-provoking mirror in which to see the tragic inevitability of the clash of various human needs, desires, and legitimate concerns which can never be wholly harmonized.

This is a tragedy in which God is active, not merely to reveal the faults of the participants, as in the Greek theater, but, more astonishingly, to bring good in spite of, and even through, the sorrowful and calamitous events.

Other themes to be explored this week:

Was it the Jews or the Romans—and is the Passion narrative intrinsically anti-Judaic?
How did Jesus bring this upon himself?
The enigma of Jesus and Judas
Why do all the disciples say “Is it I?”
God’s dark night of the soul
Is hell the longest way to heaven?


  1. Thanks Bob... I look forward to the remainder of the series!

    Mack Harrell
    West Orange, NJ

  2. Bob, As humans we appear to have trouble holding contradictions and prefer to see things one way. Paint it black or white. I think you called that a Pagan viewpoint ;-)

    It's so easy to slip into this week pledging our heart-felt devotion to Jesus or conversely feeling guilty that we are one of the crowd shouting crucify him. Much more difficult to see the truth in each character as well as the missing the mark.

    Excellent way to keep watch this week, thanks for the reminder and example in Caiaphas.

    Pat McKenzie