Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why does each disciple wonder if he might be the Betrayer?

Part 4 of Caiphas' Dilemma, a set of Holy Week reflections how the tragic dimension of the Passion narrative sheds light on the tragedy inherent in the conflict of human interests and passions.

One can hardly blame Jesus’ disciples for being confused—and more than confused. Jesus has led them a merry chase from the euphoria of his promise-laden beginning, through more than one hint that a vivid restoration of God’s intimacy with Israel is at hand into a time of perplexity and a slowly creeping dread.

As far back as the beginning of the pilgrimage journey to Jerusalem, he has muttered shocking and unbearable things about betrayal, even his death. The disciples have been headed for triumph, but Jesus seems lost in forebodings of defeat. When asked a question about possible status and rank for the disciples in the coming kingdom, his response was both enigmatic and ominous. So, we are told, even as they set out for Jerusalem “they were amazed, and as they followed, they were afraid.” (Mark 10:32)

We may well imagine that some of them hoped he might snap out of it and return to the ecstatic hopes of the Galilean days. For one bright moment the mood seemed lighter as he entered Jerusalem in a not-so-subtle proclamation of kingship by riding on “a colt, the foal of an ass” in a seemingly self-conscious reference to an ancient prophecy. The symbolic of attacking the money changers, coupled with “not allowing anyone to carry anything” (Mark 11:16) through the outer courtyard (which took a coordinated effort of many people, surely) went off without a hitch, short and sweet enough not even to risk arrest. Point made. Profaning the temple judged.

And the crowds! He has been teaching to a growing audience in the Temple courtyard each day, challenging the powers that be with his usual message of God’s love for every level of society and the necessity of returning to the core values of social justice and personal righteousness the ancient prophets first proclaimed.

Yet in the face of all this, the Man they follow has only become more morose. They are more than confused. They are, increasingly, lost in a maze (“amazed) and afraid. They have “left everything behind” — that is, left their wives and children in the care of extended families, left gainful employment, left the safety zone of ordinary life — and now he talks of some mysterious defeat that will somehow turn out all right.

Frayed Loyalty?

As he presides at what will be their final supper together, they are revealed as full of uncertainty as to how they feel about their Master. He “messes with their heads” yet again, as we might say, by the promise that they will be “the judges of Israel” in days to come. Then this curve ball: “One of you will betray me.”

Note carefully what happens next. They don’t cry out “What rascal would do this to you?” Quite the contrary, every single one of them wonders if he himself will be the betrayer: “Lord, is it I?” To me, this speaks of profound ambivalence, self-doubt, and even deeply harbored hesitancy about Jesus himself. Who is this Man who has led them to invest their lives and futures to a misson which he sees as doomed to catastrophe?

“Lord, is it I?” is a give-away sign of just how close to the edge these followers are. And Jesus forces them even further toward the edge by saying that they will all forsake him when push comes to shove later in the night. His apparently changed trajectory and their barely sustainable investment in what they thought was his cause collide.

One response to a crisis of faith such as this is, of course, denial. Peter speaks up quickly on behalf of burying the anxiety, amazement, ambivalence and doubt: “Everybody else may forsake you, but I will not.” Perhaps everyone else at the meal nodded vigorous agreement. Bearing the reality of one’s own mixed emotions, conflicting desires, and dark, dangerous thoughts is a hard skill to master.

Jesus presses further, even into this inner cauldron of ambivalence by saying to Peter (and perhaps to the rest) that “Satan has desired to sift you like wheat” — and implies that he himself has given Satan permission to test them. He offers this as a word of hope, because he anticipates that the “sifting” inherent in going through what they are about to experience with his arrest, trial and death will sort them out into stronger advocates for his cause.

Entering into “The Test”

He is “entering into the Test” himself, as he leaves the supper, travels with the disciples to an olive grove outside the City which ancient tradition believed was family property where his own ambivalences break surface in an agony of prayers. Having already decided that God is leading him toward death for mysterious purposes, Jesus falls into a wrestling match with his own passionate resistance: “If it be your will, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus prays, we are told “with loud cries” (Hebrews 5:7) to be delivered from the fate he has helped bring about (see yesterday’s blog post).

But what of Judas? A disciple’s story of this evening tells us that, during the “one of you will betray me” conversation that “the devil entered into Judas Iscariot.” Whatever this means on the existential level, it would seem to involve any ambiguity on Judas’ part resolving itself into an action plan—another prime way of escaping from ambiguity or doubt.

Was Judas disillusioned, thinking Jesus’ social or religious mission had gone astray? Was the alabaster jar with the ointment that might have “better been given to the poor” the last straw? Or did Judas expect that if he forced the issue and brought on Jesus’ arrest the crowds would rise in rebellion—or that the occasional glimpses of a “larger than life” spiritual reality would break forth from Jesus to miraculously paralyze his enemies? Was he an eschatological radical who thought the Man could summon legions of angels for the Final Battle, as the Dead Sea Scroll community believed?

As the story is told, confusion reigns in Judas’ soul, because when he sees that Jesus is, in fact, slated for execution, he repents for having “betrayed innocent blood” and kills himself in shame, sorrow, or self-loathing.

“It was night,” St. John tells us in a highly symbolic sentence as Judas leaves to summon the Temple police and Roman cohort. Night indeed, when the clash of different needs and visions — the disciples’ sincere investment in Jesus’ mission, the high priest's practical need to avert mob violence, the Roman geopolitical interest, and Jesus’ own resilient determination follow this difficult path — begins to weave the crown of thorns he will wear on the morrow.


Dilemma or staged drama—is Pilate’s hesitancy real?

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?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Is Caiphas trying to save Jesus from what seems his own folly?

We’re following the high priest Caiaphas, who finds himself in a precarious position, and choses to act in a way he hopes will bring desirable results for his nation. My thesis, stated yesterday, is that what we have here is a true tragedy involving the clash of seemingly legitimate, but irreconcilable, values and interests rather than a simple “good vs. evil” tale.

Caiphas' Dilemma: Part 2

In the face a rabble-rousing Prophet’s denunciations of the priestly caste to spell-bound Passover crowds in the Temple itself, Caiaphas decides to strike decisively to avert a possible insurrection and the resultant death of thousands in the crowded city. He is not just “serving his own interests” but those of the nation.

For this preemptive strike, Caiaphas became a centerpiece of almost 2,000 years of Christian invective, which, until recent decades, focused the blame for Jesus’ death on “the Jews” even though it was the Romans who put the Man of Nazareth to death, quite naturally, for “insurrection.” (Thank God, in the light of this, that the Creed says ‘he suffered under Pontius Pilate’ rather than ‘under the Jews.’)

Is the Passion narrative inherently anti-Judaic?

Many scholarly revisionists, Christian, Jewish and secularist, want to shift the blame over to the Romans entirely and leave the Jewish leadership out—in large part because of the horrific history of the Christian anti-semitism through the centuries which has used this tale as the occasion for repeated attacks against the ongoing Jewish religion and people. The early Christians, we are told, under suspicion themselves for being seditionists, don’t want the Romans to lump them with those truly insurrectionist Jews who led the nation into a disastrous rebellion against Rome three decades after Jesus’ execution. After the year 70 every good citizen blames the Jews for being disloyal, and Christians do not want to appear to be threats to Rome.

Perhaps. But, frankly, I don’t see the usefulness of constructing speculative alternatives to the New Testament’s four interlocking accounts of the Passion—even to achieve the highly desirable result of lessening anti-Judaic passions among Christians. Scholarly theories come and go. The New Testament goes on and on, being read and forming the attitudes of Christians.

I am not the only commentator who feels that the Passion narratives we have give a great deal of room for an historically-informed reading in which Caiaphas and his rump Sanhedrin take their place in the story without being turned into villainous Jewish stereotypes. My own thoughts on this subject have been decisively influenced by a magisterial 1963 book The Trial and Death of Jesus by Haim Cohn, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Israel (English edition: Ktav, 1980) as well as other sources.

According to Cohn’s careful review of Talmudic law (insofar as this can illumine 1st century practice) and Jewish custom, Caiphas may plausibly be seen as not only seeking to preserve the peace, but even to save Jesus from self-destruction. His evidence? When Caiaphas presses Jesus to say “yea or nay” to the allegation that he claims to be Messiah (“Are you the Christ, the Son of the Most High?”) and Jesus obliquely agrees, the high priest rips his garments. Tearing garments is an expression of grief for Jews, Cohn insists, not a reaction to “blasphemy.”

The Passion narrative does portray Caiaphas as also shouting “blasphemy” yes; but the ripped garments are about the death sentence he has brought upon himself by not refuting the messianic claim. Any claim to Messiahship (and, in the context of the trial, even the phrase “Son of God” is a messianic title, rather than implying divinity) is so fraught with political implications as to be, prima facie, evidence of intended sedition against the Roman Imperium.

Might Caiphas been trying originally to avert this outcome?

Did Caiaphas originally hope that Jesus would disown the Messianic buzz being put about by his followers? That he could diffuse the movement by imprisoning or flogging the leader without the dangerous spectacle of an execution? The “false” witnesses seem to actually report things Jesus has said, even though they present them as meaning something other than the gospels claim Jesus intended.

As Cohn points out, claiming intimate relationship with God, even mystical union, may be religiously suspect, even blasphemy in some circles, but is not a capital crime in Jewish law. Punishable, but not deserving of death. Jesus’ actual crime seems to be manifestly political. Cohn does not reject the gospel narratives, but does feel that they shift emphasis to “blasphemy” to downplay the legal reason for Jesus’ death which remains an inflammatory charge in the eyes of those who might accuse the nascent Christian community of the same crime.

The Israeli justice’s hypothesis is, of course, not provable, but it seems plausible enough to introduce what he might well call, as a lawyer, “reasonable doubt” in any rush to condemn Caiaphas outright.

Such reasonable doubt needs to inform Christian interpretation of the story. Caiaphas and his Sadducean allies are not “rejecting their messiah,” since the coming of Messiah is not even a part of their ancient Jewish belief, which is rooted in eras of Israelite history before such expectations. That expectation belongs to the Pharisees party, a minority group in the ruling council. For him, the one and only God is Lord Protector of Israel, and chiefly concerned about its survival, faithful to its ancestral customs, as a priestly nation. He must see the nation safely through this and every crisis, so that it can survive and thrive. In God’s own time, the Romans will leave, or grant the nation full self-governance again—without the help of fervent Galilean visionaries like the man standing so defiantly before him.

So, another Jewish messianic pretender (there are so many these days!) will die at Roman hands. He rips his garments over the impending death of another misguided Jewish patriot and invites the verdict: “He deserves to die.” (As to the scene before Pilate, and Caiaphas’ pressing the case for execution, we deal with that on Wednesday.)

By pursuing what seems the necessary, even just course, (even if Caiaphas has been fervently intent on gaining, by hook or by crook, either the capitulation of the Galilean or his admission of guilt) the high priest is pivotal in determining Jesus’ fate. But he acts in ignorance of who Jesus and his true aims ultimately are. And, in so doing, he becomes one of the “rulers of this age” who “did not understand,” as Paul puts it twenty years later, “for had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:8)

Great evils are often committed by those who honestly believe they are pursuing the good. That is part of the tragic dimension of life this Holy Week so starkly reveals.


Has Jesus deliberately brought this upon himself?

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?