Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Has Jesus deliberately brought his death upon himself?

This, the third in a series of Holy Week meditations, explores the Passion narrative through the lens of tragedy, rather than a “good guys vs. bad guys” approach. As the week moves toward its end, the focus will become the ways in which the tragic saga of Scripture illuminates the tragic dimensions of our own world as the inescapable arena of God’s redemptive love.

Caiaphas' Dilemma, Part 3

By the time Jesus enters the holy City for Passover, he seems determined to provoke the crisis he has successfully avoided for his entire public ministry—a crisis that can only, from any wise earthly viewpoint, end in his execution.

Common Christian interpretation through the ages saw in his staging an in-your-face entrance to the City as “the Son of David” and his aggressive challenge to the Temple commerce and leadership the clear and simple unfolding of a plan Jesus has known his whole lifetime: that he was born to die for the salvation of humankind.

While having no wish to deny the redemptive power of Jesus’ living and dying as a “ransom for many,” as he puts it (which will be explored later in the week), I am hardly the only contemporary reader to find this heavily doctrinal, “pre-destined” reading of the events of Holy Week a bit too scripted-in-advance for real life. Can the text yield a different reading?

Yes, Jesus comes to Jerusalem for a final, climactic confrontation with the Temple leadership and their Roman overlords, and declares to them forthrightly, in front of a large assembly of pilgrims, that the right of rulership will be taken away from them. Yes, he brazenly allows the disciples to sing Messianic anthems in public. But did he set out, from his baptism onward, knowing it would come to this?

From joyful Messenger to "Man of Sorrows"

Certainly the Man who was embraced by the warm light and dazzling love of God at his baptism, and returned from his sojourn in the wilderness “in the power of the Spirit” launching a spectacular campaign of preaching, teaching, exorcism and healing is not presented to us as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” He is a God-intoxicated ecstatic, a “Spirit-man” as Marcus Borg calls him, with a message of great good news. In Galilee, the God of bounteous gifts, of warning and judgment, of infinite mercy and forgiveness, invites all Israel to a wedding feast though the ministry of Jesus.

This “Galilean spring” of Jesus’ ministry, as it is remembered in the gospels, is full of hope, as well as denunciation of the religious and social forces that bar people, especially the common folk, from access to God’s bounty. The “kingdom campaign” grows, and soon Jesus is sending out companies of messengers armed with some of his own shamanistic, charismatic energy, to remote towns and villages, promising that the kingdom may, in fact, arrive in power before these emissaries have returned (Matthew 10). So the story comes down to us. This sounds like a Man who expects some success in his mission.

At midpoint, in the gospels, Jesus is portrayed as doing an about-face, suddenly ruminating about a coming death — not at all his earlier message. Did he, in his God-illumined joy, originally believe that the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” would turn toward him? Certainly his sad, or perhaps bitter, denunciations of the Galilean towns Capernaum and Chorazim (Matthew 11:23-24 and Luke 10:15) speak to a certain level of frustration!)

The gospels are written in hindsight, when the full story is known, so it’s easy enough, (especially if one mistakes Jesus‘ righteous fidelity to the God he serves for total human infallibility) to read back into the narrative something that isn’t actually there until the Transfiguration and Jesus‘ first announcement of his impending Passion (cf. Mark 8). If we refrain from such hindsight, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the growing opposition Jesus faces has forced him to reconsider his strategy, perhaps even the ultimate purposes of his mission. As it comes down to us, he turns to the Scriptures for guidance and finds there a more tragic aspect of being God’s “Servant.”

But whatever the secret of his interior life at this midpoint juncture, the disciples are certainly shocked when he seems to change plans in midstream. On the one had they are told that some of them will sit "on his right and left" in the the new world order, and on the other that the “Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinners, and die, and be raised again.”

(I know there are many scholars who would remove these sayings from the mouth of Jesus, as well as any aim to some sort of Messianic identity, but, for me, such alternate scenarios simply remove the enigma and skandalon in the story as it is told to us, giving us a Jesus who is wise, socially progressive, and massively misunderstood—someone we can live with more easily in our day than a radical visionary whose bright hopes turn dark and tragic as he seeks to follow the inner stirrings of the Spirit’s voice.)

Provoking the Confrontation

And so, as the Story goes, he goes to Jerusalem to bring on the final crisis (much like Robert E. Lee who decides that Gettysburg is the “make or break” moment to win or lose the Civil War, and spends his army extravagantly, only to go down to defeat).

For me, the parable Jesus shoves in the face of the Temple priests speaks to this interpretation powerfully. A landowner has rebellious tenants. He sends messengers to call them to account, but the messengers are killed. So he sends his own Son, reasoning that they will respect him as the direct representative of the Owner—but they kill him also. Jesus is presented here describing the arc of his mission: it begins with the hope that they will “listen to the Son,” but ends in the young man’s slaughter. Yet, somehow, out of this, God’s purposes will be accomplished, for the vineyard will be taken away from the tenants and “given to another.” (See Mark 12:1-12)

This parable has, unfortunately, borne a good deal of anti-Judaic fruit through the centuries, being understood classically as a transfer of “chosenness” from Israel to the Christian church. But such an anti-Judaic slant isn’t in the story itself. Jesus has presented himself as the representative of the kingdom of God—as the messenger and hinted-at embodiment of God’s true overlordship of Israel. Just as Samuel had declared Saul no longer God’s chosen leader, and Jeremiah had warned of the fall of Judean leadership, so Jesus tells the priestly caste their days are numbered—which, in fact, historically they will be. His denunciations of Israelite leadership are no more anti-Jewish than those of the great prophets.

What he has done, however, does seal his own fate, as well as announce theirs. He is wedded to his mission of proclaiming the kingdom, even if this is the result. He will not, perhaps cannot back down. They can see no way to yield to what seem dangerous and unpredictable demands. The clash and conflict of these competing values become the cross on which he is crucified


Why does each of the disciples wonder if he is the Betrayer?

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