Passiontide Chronology: Tuesday of Holy Week

It is Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus likely arises early, as did all the ancients. Days both ended and started early, at dusk and dawn, prior to the advent of electric lighting. They leave Bethany and head back to Jerusalem. Perhaps a few converts can be made before the transcendent events of the Passion begin.

It is only a couple of miles, mostly downhill, to Jerusalem. As they come down the steep hill they see the fig tree Jesus had cursed the day before.

As they were walking back in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from its roots. Peter remembered it and said, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree You cursed has withered.” (Mk 11:20-21).

Jesus had cursed the fig tree, a metaphor for the ancient chosen people, for lack of faith, justice, and charity, the expected fruits in its branches. (This was discussed in more detail in yesterday’s post.) The fig tree reminds us of the day of judgment. “Lip service” faith is easy, but Jesus is looking for real fruit in the branches.

The apostolic band walks on further with Jesus, and they eventually arrive at the Temple, where they are immediately confronted by the Temple leaders:

At their return to Jerusalem, Jesus was walking in the temple courts, and the chief priests, scribes, and elders came up to Him. “By what authority are You doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave You the authority to do them?” “I will ask you one question,” Jesus replied, “and if you answer Me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. The baptism of John, was it from heaven or from men? Answer Me!” They deliberated among themselves what they should answer: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will ask, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’…” they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John truly was a prophet. So they answered Him, “We do not know. And Jesus replied, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Mk 11:27-33).

Jesus questions their question with a question. He seems to engage in the Socratic method, making them examine their premises. In this dialogue the leaders are confronted with their own insincerity. They are asked to consider that their own “authority” is based not on truth, but on power and its trappings. They are asked to consider that they have “too much to lose” because they root their authority in the power and accolades of the people. They are not true leaders, for they do not seek the truth but rather only what confirms their power.

Do not scorn or laugh at them—many of us are in the same condition.

Jesus turns to them and others in the Temple area, teaching them in numerous parables (Mk 12:1). In these parables He lays bare their hearts and reminds them that although they are leaders they are refusing God’s offer of salvation and His invitation to the true feast to which their rituals point.

Jesus begins,

But what do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went. Then the man went to the second son and told him the same thing. ‘I will, sir,’ he said. But he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father? “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in a righteous way and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him (Mat 21:28-32).

Lip service is not obedience. Their refusal to come to faith is disobedience to God. He desires obedience more than ritual observances and sacrifices (see Psalm 40:6).

Jesus warns them that their plots to kill Him will end badly:

A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a wine vat, and built a watchtower. Then he rented it out to some tenants and went away on a journey. At harvest time, he sent a servant to the tenants to collect his share of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized the servant, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent them another servant, and they struck him over the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and this one they killed. He sent many others; some they beat and others they killed. Finally, having one beloved son, he sent him to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized the son, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you never read this Scripture: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:1-11)

At this, the leaders sought to arrest Jesus, for they knew that He had spoken this parable against them. Fearing the crowd, though, they left Him and went away (Mk 12:1-12). They will return shortly with other interrogators.

Matthew records that Jesus then told the following parable, likely to others in the Temple area. In it, He warns them of the urgency of the dramatic decision that is upon them. Do they want salvation in the way God offers? Do they desire the Kingdom of God and its values or do they prefer the present but passing desires of the world? Are they willing to be clothed in the garments of righteousness that God himself provides or do they prefer to wear the fashions of the world?

Once again, Jesus spoke to them in parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to call those he had invited to the banquet, but they refused to come. Again, he sent other servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner. My oxen and fatlings have been killed, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went away, one to his field, and another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops to destroy those murderers and burn their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the crossroads and invite to the banquet as many as you can find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered everyone they could find, both evil and good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he spotted a man who was not dressed in wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ But the man was speechless. Then the king told the servants, ‘Tie him hand and foot and throw him outside into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt 22:1-14).

Now come various interlocutors. Note that the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees agreed on nothing but that Jesus had to go. They “teamed up” against the Lord! This indicates the depth of their fear: even enemies will be embraced to rid the city of this upstart preacher who so threatens their shared power.

Later, they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to catch Jesus in His words. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that You are honest and are swayed by no one. Indeed, You are impartial and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Now then, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them or not?” But Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and said, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to inspect.” So, they brought it, and He asked them, “Whose likeness is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they answered. Then Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” And they marveled at Him (Mk 12:13-17).

This is an attempt to draw Jesus into a cheap political debate and thereby cause division among His admiring crowd. Their concern about taxes is insincere because even those who dispute paying taxes to Caesar walk about with Caesar’s money. Jesus will not be called off message; He says to them, [Give] to God what is God’s.” In this case what they are to give to God is faith in the one whom He has sent, Jesus.

The next opponents of Jesus are the Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection of the dead and seek to ridicule belief in Heaven through a complex and unlikely scenario:

Then some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came and questioned Him: “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man should marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died, leaving no children. Then the second one married the widow, but he also died and left no children. And the third did likewise. In this way, none of the seven left any children. And last of all, the woman died. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For all seven were married to her.” Jesus said to them, “Aren’t you mistaken because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like the angels in heaven. And regarding the dead rising, have you not read about the burning bush in the book of Moses, how God told him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken (Mk 12:18-27).

Yes, they are badly mistaken; they seek to understand heavenly realities using earthly notions. Because the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament, Jesus uses a passage from Exodus as well as their own logic against them. The Sadducees denied the resurrection by saying that God is a God of the living, not the dead. If that be so, though, why does the Lord call himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all of whom have been dead for over four centuries? They must be alive to God! In this way, the Sadducees are set aside.

Finally, a scribe steps forth. Although he is likely seeking to refute Jesus, the conversation ends up being promising:

Now one of the scribes had come up and heard their debate. Noticing how well Jesus had answered them, he asked Him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied, “This is the most important: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your and and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” “Right, Teacher,” the scribe replied. “You have stated correctly that God is One and there is no other but Him, and to love Him with all your heart and with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, which is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that the man had answered wisely, He said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:28-34).

Speaking to His claim to be Messiah and Lord, Jesus invokes the authority of Scripture, reminding them that in Psalm 110 (a messianic psalm) the Messiah is called “Lord,” not merely the Son of David.

While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, He asked, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? Speaking by the Holy Spirit, David himself declared: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand until I put Your enemies under Your feet.”’ David himself calls Him Lord. So how can He be David’s son?” And the large crowd listened to Him with delight (Mk 12:35-37).

Matthew records Jesus delivering a series of woes directed against the leaders and teachers of that time. These are delivered in a lengthy passage, which is available here: Seven woes. It is quite severe and shows a strong indictment of those who “major in the minors,” who maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum. Jesus concludes by saying,

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore, I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ (Matthew 23:33-39).

To emphasize the contrast, Jesus notes a poor widow who gives a small amount but in reality far more generously than do those “leaders” with hardened hearts. Matthew then observes,

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:1-2).

They crossed the Kidron Valley and went up on to the Mount of Olives. Matthew records,

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24: 3-4)

Sitting atop the Mount of Olives, with Jerusalem displayed before Him, Jesus gives the terrifying and yet exhilarating “Mount Olivet Discourse.” It is quite lengthy and is available here: Mt. Olivet Discourse. In it, Jesus describes the coming destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in 70 A.D., forty biblical years after His Ascension. The destruction was the result of a foolish war with the Romans. Had the Jewish zealots accepted Jesus’ call to preach the gospel to the nations, the Romans would have been seen as brothers to convert rather than as enemies to kill. Over a million Jewish people died in that terrible war.

According to Matthew, Jesus also tells the “Parable of the Sheep and Goats” and the “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.” Mark concludes with this: And no one dared to question Him any further (Mk 18:34).

It seems it was back to Bethany that Tuesday night, likely to stay at the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but perhaps with Simon the Leper. It has been a long day of parables and teaching and of engaging with hostile opponents.

Tune in tomorrow, when it is “Spy Wednesday.”

 

The Use of Irony in John’s Gospel

Last Sunday’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus points to a supreme irony in the Gospel of John: Jesus’ very act of raising Lazarus from the dead confirms the Jewish temple leaders in their conviction to kill Him. The contrast could not be clearer. Jesus, who brings life, is opposed by the death-dealing conviction of His opponents. This is but one example of Johannine irony serving to highlight the differences between Jesus and His opponents.

As we approach Holy Week we encounter a lot of contrasts and ironies in John’s Gospel account of the Passion. We do well to look at some of them.

Irony is a literary technique that highlights a striking difference between two or more situations; this difference is known by the audience or readers while the characters in the narrative are unaware.

Another form of irony uses words to express something quite different from their typical meaning. A blind man may “see” better than those with vision. One considered a teacher may be ignorant of truths apparent to the most unlearned and simple of people.

The irony in the story of Lazarus comes several verses after the portion we read this past Sunday. The pertinent passage reads,

Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in Him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Caiaphas did not say this on his own. Instead, as high priest that year, he was prophesying that Jesus would die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also for the scattered children of God, to gather them together into one. So from that day on they plotted to kill Him. As a result, Jesus no longer went about publicly among the Jews, but He withdrew to a town called Ephraim in an area near the wilderness. And He stayed there with the disciples (John 11:45-54).

Yes, this passage is dripping with irony. The occasion of Jesus raising a man from the dead causes the Pharisees to plot His death. He who gives life must be put to death.

A second irony is that Caiaphas “accidentally” speaks the truth. He conspires in murder, but his office of prophet remains! He cannot help but speak the truth because he is High Priest. His prophecy is true, but only in a way very different from what he intends. He is like Balaam’s donkey, which spoke the truth, but as a beast, knew not of what it spoke. Thus Caiaphas is a prophet, but only in an accidental, unknowing way.

Yes, John’s Gospel is rich with irony—in a gleeful, sharp, sarcastic way. We human beings are prone to becoming fodder for irony because we are so fickly and inconsistent; we often play into divine plans even as we resist them!

Consider some other examples of Johannine irony:

I. Straining gnats and swallowing camels – Jesus has been brought before Pilate on trumped up charges. Yes, they have an innocent man on trial and conspire to have him murdered. Yet despite this wickedness, John reports, the Jewish leaders did not enter the Praetorium [the Governor’s palace] to avoid being defiled and unable to eat the Passover (Jn 18:28).

They are more concerned with the ritual impurity of entering the house of a Gentile than the fact that they are conspiring to murder an innocent man (who happens to be the Son of God)!

Yes, this is dripping with irony, a kind of sarcastic and tragic irony. In their foolishness and blindness, they will consider themselves worthy to eat the Passover because they did not enter the house of a Gentile. Never mind that they have conspired to murder an innocent man.

II. Who is really blind here? – In the story of the man born blind (John 9) there are numerous ironies. The blind man himself says to the Pharisees who interrogate him, That is remarkable indeed! You do not know where He is from, and yet He opened my eyes (Jn 9:30). In other words, who is really the blind one here? Why should the student have to teach the teacher?

The blind man (who ironically can now see better than the supposed teachers and enlightened ones) instructs them of what they should know: Never before has anyone heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, He could not do anything like this (Jn 9:32-33).

Jesus later doubles down on the irony by declaring, within earshot of the religious leaders, For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind may see and those who see may become blind (Jn 9:39). They then continue, foolishly and blindly, to take the bait: Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard this, and they asked Him, “Are we blind too?” “If you were blind,” Jesus replied, “you would not be guilty of sin. But since you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (Jn 9:40-41).

The caustic irony cannot be missed. The rhetorical question remains, “Who is really blind here?”

III. The “enlightened” ones stumble about in the dark – One of the themes in John’s Gospel is the battle between light and darkness. This theme is announced in the prologue: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:5). Jesus is the Light of the World, but men have shown that they prefer the darkness due to their wickedness (See John 3:19).

Jesus also says, Are there not twelve hours of daylight? If anyone walks in the daytime, he will not stumble, because he sees by the light of this world. But if anyone walks at night, he will stumble, because he has no light (Jn 11:9).

When Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John merely says, “It was night.” He is not just telling us the time of day. Darkness now has its hour. Although Judas and his conspirators consider Jesus misguided and dangerous, they think that they are the enlightened ones, knowing better than Jesus, who is the true Light.

Here comes the irony: Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane. He and His apostles made it there by the light of Passover moon and because Jesus is the light of the World. In a scene dripping with irony, John notes that as Judas approached the moonlit garden he brought a band of soldiers and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees. They arrived at the garden carrying lanterns, torches, and weapons (John 18:3). Yes, they stumble about on a moonlit night needing torches and lanterns to find their way.

IV. The arresters are arrested – Jesus, knowing their intentions and noting that they have trouble seeing, stepped forward and asked them, “Who are you looking for?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they answered. Jesus said, “I AM.” And Judas His betrayer was standing there with them. When Jesus said, “I AM” they drew back and fell to the ground (Jn 18:4-6).

This is a kind of comedic irony. Sent to arrest Jesus, they are arrested by Him! The implication is that He almost needs to help them up from their fall. They are so overwhelmed by the authority of Jesus and His Divine Name that they fall backwards to the ground.

Some argue that their falling to the ground is a voluntary sign of reverence for the Divine Name. Maybe, but if so, then this is merely another supreme irony: that they would show reverence for the Divine Name while at the same time assisting in an act of betrayal and in the arresting of an innocent man.

V. The decider is indecisive – The description of the trial before Pilate in John’s Gospel is an ironic portrait of Pilate. Though possessed of great local power and the ability to decide Jesus’ fate in a way that will be unquestioned, Pilate is weak and vacillating. He is this way because of his ambition. He fears the crowd and their capacity to riot. Such an occurrence would be a huge blot on his record and likely prevent his future advancement.

Deep within his conscience, Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent of the charges. He correctly suspects that the Jewish leadership has brought Him up for unjust reasons and are serving their own interests more so than justice or religious conviction.

In chapters 18 and 19, John paints a physical picture of Pilate’s vacillation by describing his going in and out of the Praetorium (Governor’s palace) numerous times. In 18:28, Pilate goes out to address the Jews. In 18:33 He goes back into the Praetorium to speak with Jesus. In 18:38, Pilate goes back out to the Jews to say that he finds no guilt and tries to negotiate Jesus’ release. In 19:1, Pilate is back in the Praetorium and yet another compromise indicates that Jesus should be scourged but not killed. In 19:4, Pilate goes back out to the Jews hoping that the scourging of Jesus will have satisfied them. Though he said he had found no guilt in Jesus, he presents Him again after His scourging! Why have Jesus scourged (a terrible punishment) if he found no guilt in Him? Of course the Jewish leaders were still not satisfied and demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate’s fears grow and in 19:9 he goes back into the Praetorium to speak yet again with Jesus. Although Pilate asserts that he has the power to kill or release Him, Jesus looks at this deflated and fearful man and reminds him that he would have no power at all if God had not bestowed it on him. Finally, Pilate emerges one last time in 19:13 and in anger violates his own conscience and hands Jesus over to be crucified.

The dramatic irony is hard to miss. Here is a seemingly powerful man with the office to decide life or death, yet indecisive. He is a vacillator, swaying in the breeze of public opinion. On seven different occasions he goes into or out of the Praetorium. John’s portrait of this leader is dripping with irony. Pilate is more a follower than a leader.

VI. The judge is put on trial – John describes another irony within this irony. Although Jesus is on trial, at a key point He turns the tables on Pilate and it is Pilate who is on trial.

Usually in a trial the defendant is required to answer questions. Pilate begins by asking, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Jn 18:33) Jesus turns the tables on Pilate and asks him, “Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?” (Jn 18:34) Later, when Pilate asserts his authority to pass sentence on Jesus, Jesus reminds him that he would have no authority if God had not granted it to him.

Finally, when the critical moment to pass judgment comes, John writes, When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (Jon 19:13). The Greek text is ambiguous as to who is sitting on the judge’s seat. Does the “he” who sat down on the judge’s seat refer to Pilate or to Jesus? Historically, it was Pilate who sat in the judge’s seat, but grammatically it is ambiguous.

John underscores the irony: Who is really being judged here? Clearly it is actually Pilate who has come under judgment for violating his conscience and succumbing to fear. Yes, it is another dramatic irony wrapped in a grammatical ambiguity.

There are other ironies in John’s Gospel (such as Nicodemus, the enlightened teacher who comes to Jesus by night but needs to be taught Jn 3:10), but allow these examples to suffice.

The use and uncovering of irony is a memorable way to teach. John and the Holy Spirit who inspired him do not hesitate to make use of it. Ultimately, irony exists because we human beings are fickle and often pretentious. Such qualities are the fuel of irony.

See What the End Shall Be – Palm Sunday

The Passion, which we read in the liturgy for Palm Sunday, is too long to comment on in detail, so we will only examine a portion of it here.

It may be of some value to examine the problems associated with the more moderate range of personalities involved. The usual villains (the Temple leaders, Judas, and the recruited crowd shouting, “Crucify him!”) are unambiguously wicked and display their sinfulness openly. But there are others involved whose struggles and neglectfulness are more subtle, yet no less real. It is in examining these figures that we can learn a great deal about ourselves, who, though we may not openly shout, “Crucify him,” are often not as unambiguously holy and heroic as Jesus’ persecutors are wicked and bold.

As we read the Passion we must understand that this is not merely an account of the behavior of people long gone, they are portraits of you and me; we do these things.

I. The Perception that is Partial – Near the beginning of today’s Passion account, the apostles, who are at the Last Supper with Jesus, are reminded of what the next days will hold. Jesus says,

This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed.” But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Note that the apostles are not being told these things for the first time; Jesus has spoken them before on numerous occasions:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Matt 16:21).

When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief (Matt 17:22-23).

We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life” (Matt 20:18-19).

Thus we see that the Lord has consistently tried to teach and prepare them for the difficulties ahead. He has told them exactly what is going to happen and how it will end: not in death, but rising to new life. But even though He has told them over and over again, they still do not understand. Therefore He predicts that their faith in Him will be shaken.

Their perception is partial. They will see only the negative, forgetting that Jesus has promised to rise. Because they cannot see beyond the apparent defeat of the moment they will retreat into fear rather than boldly and confidently accompanying Him to His passion and glorification (for His passion is a lifting up; it is His glorification). Instead they will flee. He has shown the “what the end shall be,” but they can neither see nor accept it. Thus fear overwhelms them and they withdraw into a sinful fear, dissociating themselves from Jesus. Only a few (Mary, His Mother; John; Mary Magdalene; and a few other women) would see Him through to the end.

As for the rest, they see only what is gory and awful, missing what is glory and awesome. Their perception is quite partial. Paradoxically, their blindness comes from not hearing or listening to what Jesus has been telling them all along.

We, too, can easily suffer from a blindness caused by poor listening. The Lord has often told us that if we trust in Him, then our struggles will end in glory and new life. But, blind and forgetful, we give in to our fears and fail to walk the way of Christ’s passion boldly. We draw back and dissociate ourselves from Jesus, exhibiting some of the same tendencies we will observe in the people of that day.

Next, let’s examine some of the problems that emerge from this partial perception and forgetful fear.

II. The Problems Presented – There are at least five problems that emerge. They are unhealthy and sinful patterns that spring from the fear generated by not trusting Jesus’ vision. Please understand that the word “we” used here is shorthand and does not mean that every single person does this. Rather, it means that collectively we have these tendencies. There’s no need to take everything here personally.

1. They become drowsy – A common human technique for dealing with stress and the hardships of life is to become numb and drowsy; we can just drift off into a sort of moral slumber. Being vigilant against the threat posed to our souls by sin or the harm caused by injustice (whether to ourselves or to others) is just too stressful, so we just “tune out.” We stop noticing or really even caring about critically important matters. We anesthetize ourselves with things like alcohol, drugs, creature comforts, and meaningless distractions. Prayer and spirituality pose too many uncomfortable questions, so we just daydream about meaningless things like what a certain Hollywood star is doing or how the latest sporting event is going.

In the Passion accounts, the Lord asks Peter, James, and John to pray with Him. But they doze off. Perhaps it is the wine. Surely it is the flesh (for the Lord speaks of it). Unwilling or unable to deal with the stress of the situation, they get drowsy and doze off. Grave evil is at the very door, but they sleep. The Lord warns them to stay awake, lest they give way to temptation, but still they sleep. Someone they know and love is in grave danger, but it is too much for them to handle. They tune out, much as we do in the face of the overwhelming suffering of Christ visible in the poor and needy. We just stop noticing; it’s too painful, so we tune out.

The Lord had often warned them to be vigilant, sober, and alert (Mk 13:34, Matt 25:13, Mk 13:37; Matt 24:42; Luke 21:36, inter al). Other Scriptures would later pick up the theme (Romans 13:11; 1 Peter 5:8; 1 Thess 5:6, inter al). Yes, drowsiness is a serious spiritual problem.

Sadly, God described us well when He remarked to Isaiah, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep (Is 56:10).

We do this not only out of laziness, but also out of fear. One strategy is to try to ignore it, to go numb, to tune out. But despite the sleepiness of the disciples, the wicked are still awake; the threat does not go away by a drowsy inattentiveness to it. Thus we ought to be confident and sober. Life’s challenges are nothing to fear. The Lord has told us that we have already won if we will just trust in Him. The disciples have forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So they, and we, just give in to the stress and tune out.

2. They seek to destroy – When Peter finally awaken, he lashes out with a sword and wounds Malchus, the servant of the high priest. The Lord rebukes Peter and reminds him of the vision: Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11) Jesus then heals Malchus, who tradition says later became a follower.

In our fear, we, too, can often lash out and even seek to destroy our opponents. But if we are already certain of our victory, as the Lord has promised, why do we fear? Why do we need to suppress our opponents and enemies ruthlessly? It is one thing to speak the truth in love, boldly and confidently. But it is quite another to lash out aggressively and seek to win a debate. In so doing, we may lose a soul. The Lord healed Malchus, seeing in Him a future disciple. The Lord saw what the end would be. Peter did not. In fear, he lashed out with an aggression that did not bespeak a confidence in final victory.

It is true that we are required to confront evil, resist injustice, and speak with clarity to a confused world. But above all, we are called to love those whom we address. There is little place for fear in our conversations with the world. The truth will out; it will prevail. We may not win every encounter, but we do not have to; all we must do is plant seeds. God will water them and others may well harvest them. In Christ, we have already won. This confidence should give us serenity.

Peter has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. So Peter, and we, give in to fear and lash out, driven by a desire to win when in fact we have already won.

3. They deny – Confronted with the fearful prospect of being condemned along with Jesus, Peter denies being one of His followers or even knowing Him at all. He dissociates himself from Christ. And we, confronted with the possibility of far milder things such as ridicule, often deny a connection with the Lord or the Church.

Regarding one of the more controversial Scripture teachings (e.g., the command to tithe; the prohibition against divorce, fornication, and homosexual activity) some might ask, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” It’s very easy to give in to fear and to respond, “No,” or to qualify our belief. Why suffer ridicule, endure further questioning, or be drawn into an unpleasant debate? So we just dissociate from, compromise, or qualify our faith to avoid the stress. We even congratulate ourselves for being tolerant when we do it!

Jesus says, If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mk 8:38). But too easily we are ashamed. And so, like Peter, we engage in some form of denial. Peter is afraid because he has forgotten to “see what the end shall be.” He has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days; we often do the same. We lack confidence and give in to fear; we deny in order to avoid suffering with Jesus.

4. They dodge – When Jesus is arrested, all the disciples except John “split.” They “get the heck out of Dodge.” They are nowhere to be found. After Jesus’ arrest, it is said that Peter (prior to his denials) followed the Lord at a distance (Mk 14:54). But as soon as trouble arose, he “scrammed.”

We, too, can run away. Sometimes it’s because of persecution by the world. But sometimes it’s our fear that following the Lord is too hard and involves sacrifices that we are just not willing to make. Maybe it will endanger our money (the Lord insists that we tithe and be generous to the poor). Maybe it will endanger our playboy lifestyle (the Lord insists on chastity and respect). Maybe we don’t want to stop doing something that we have no business doing, something that is unjust, excessive, or sinful. But rather than face our fears, whether they come from within or without, we just hightail it out.

The disciples have forgotten that Jesus has shown them “what the end shall be.” In three days, he will win the victory. But, this forgotten, their fears emerge and they run. We too, must see “what the end shall be” in order to confront and resist our many fears.

5. They deflect – In this case our example is Pontius Pilate, not one of the disciples. Pilate was summoned to faith just like anyone else. “Are you a king?” he asks Jesus. Jesus responds by putting Pilate on trial: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” Pilate has a choice to make: accept that what Jesus is saying as true, or give in to fear and commit a terrible sin of injustice. The various accounts in Scripture all make it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. But because he feared the crowds he handed Jesus over.

Note that Pilate did this. The crowds tempted him through fear, but he did the condemning. Yet notice that he tries to deflect his choice. The text says, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility” (Mat 27:24). Well actually, Pilate, it is also your responsibility. You had a choice and you made it. Your own career and your own hide were more important to you than justice was. And though you wanted to do what was right and were sympathetic with Jesus, merely wanting to do what is right is not enough.

So, too, for us. We also often favor our career or our hide over doing what is right. And in so doing, we often blame others for what we have freely chosen. “I’m not responsible because my mother dropped me on my head when I was two.”

We are often willing to say, in effect,

“Look, Jesus, I love you. You get my Sundays, and my tithe, and I obey you (generally, anyway). But you have to understand that I have a career; I need to make money for my family. If I really stand up for what’s right, I might not make it in this world. You understand, don’t you? I know the company I work for is doing some things that are unjust. I know the world needs a clearer witness from me. I’ll do all that—after I retire. But for now, well, you know… Besides, it’s really my boss who’s to blame. It’s this old hell-bound, sin-soaked world that’s to blame, not me!”

We try to wash our hands of responsibility. We excuse our silence and inaction in the face of injustice and sin.

And all this is done out of fear. We forget “what the end shall be” and focus on the fearful present. We lack the vision that Jesus is trying to give us: that we will rise with Him. We stay blind to that and only see the threat of the here and now.

III. The Path that is Prescribed – By now you ought to know the path that is prescribed: see what the end shall be. In three days we rise! Why are we afraid? Jesus has already won the victory. It is true that we get there through the cross, but never forget what the end shall be! Today we read the Gospel of Friday, but wait till Sunday morning! I’ll rise!

We end where we began with this Gospel: This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;’ but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.

Yes, after He has been raised He goes before us into Galilee. And for us, Galilee is Heaven. Whatever our sorrows, if we are faithful we will see Jesus in the Galilee of Heaven. Never forget this vision. After three days, we will rise with Him and be reunited with Him in the Galilee of Heaven.

So take courage; see what the end shall be! The end for those who are faithful is total victory. We don’t need to drowse, destroy, deny, dodge, or deflect; we’ve already won. All we need to do is to hold out.

I have it on the best of authority that Mother Mary was singing the following gospel song with St. John for a brief time while at the foot of the cross, as they looked past that Friday to the Sunday that was coming:

It’s all right, it’s all right.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m up sometimes I’m down.
But Jesus he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Sometimes I’m almost on the ground.
My Jesus said he’ll fix it and it’s all right.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: See What the End Shall Be – Palm Sunday

Passiontide Chronology: Good Friday

Trial of Jesus, Duccio (1308-11)

Jesus was arrested late Thursday evening. The Scriptures recount,

They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, the elders and the teachers of the law came together (Mark 14:53).

According to Mark’s chronology there was a sham of a trial, based on false evidence and distortions of Jesus’ teachings.

Now the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were seeking testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but they did not find any. For many bore false witness against Jesus, but their testimony was inconsistent. Then some men stood up and testified falsely against Him: “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple, and in three days I will build another that is made without hands.’” But even their testimony was inconsistent. So the high priest stood up before them and questioned Jesus, “Have You no answer? What is it these men are testifying against You?” But Jesus remained silent and made no reply. Again the high priest questioned Him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus, “and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” At this, the high priest tore his clothes and declared, “Why do we need any more witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What is your verdict?” And they all condemned Him as deserving of death. Then some of them began to spit on Him. They blindfolded Him, struck Him with their fists, and said to Him, “Prophesy!” And the officers received Him with slaps in His face (Mark 14:53-65).

According to tradition, Jesus spent the rest of the night in the dungeon under the House of Caiaphas. It had doubled as a kind of cistern for holding rainwater.

The events of this early Friday morning are tightly packed. In the space of three or four hours, Jesus is sent to Pilate, then to Herod, then back to Pilate, questioned, condemned to die, and led out to be crucified by 9:00 AM.

The events begin around 6:00 AM:

Early in the morning, the chief priests, elders, scribes, and the whole Sanhedrin devised a plan. They bound Jesus, led Him away, and handed Him over to Pilate (Mark 15:1).

Christ Before Pilate, Munkácsy (1881)

Pilate is less than enthusiastic to be saddled with this interrogation, but fearing a riot if he does not, he enters into the fray. Pilate’s behavior is a portrait in vacillation. According to Luke, he first seeks to transfer the case to Herod, who is nearby in Jerusalem (See Luke 23:6-12). However, Jesus says not a word to Herod. So after making sport of Jesus, Herod sends Him right back to Pilate. In another attempt to placate the crowd and evade making a decision, Pilate presents to them what amounts to a fake Messiah, aptly named “Barabbas” (which means “son of the father”). Can Barabbas save the day? He cannot, for he is not the true “Son of the Father.” Only Jesus can deliver Pilate—or any of us, for that matter.

I will not be treating the whole trial before Pilate in today’s post. (I’ve written about it in more detail here: The Trial Before Pilate.) In the end, though Pilate concludes that Jesus is innocent of the charges, he hands Him over to be crucified. In so doing, he is likely trying to save his own career. He will not take a stand for Jesus. Rather, he sits upon the judgment seat, violates his own conscience, and condemns Jesus to death. It is about the third hour (9:00 AM).

There is some debate about the specific time of day in the various biblical accounts. Mark 15:25 says that Jesus is crucified at the third hour (9:00 AM). In John 19:14 the crucifixion is set at the sixth hour (Noon). Both Matthew 27:45 and Luke 23:44 hint at a time closer to noon in their reference to a darkness coming over the land from noon until 3:00 PM.

In considering these “issues” of the exact time of day, we ought to remember that the people of Jesus’ era did not have clocks and watches. They did not speak or think of time in the precise ways that we modern Westerners do. Time was spoken of in general ways; the mention of the third hour, or the sixth hour, or the ninth hour could include a broader swath of time relatively near that declared hour. It is a little bit like our terms “mid-morning” or “mid-afternoon,” which can refer to a period of several hours. Mark does not necessarily mean precisely at 9:00 AM nor does John mean precisely at noon.

There is a lot of overlap in references to the third hour, the sixth hour, and the ninth hour, softening the possible conflict between the accounts. The need to nail down the exact times of day of the various events says more about our modern obsession with time than it does about accounts that are close, even if not precise, descriptions of the events.

Comparing all the texts leads to a general time frame. Thus, it would seem that Jesus undergoes trials before Pilate and Herod in the early morning (somewhere between 6:00 and 9:00 AM). He is sentenced by Pilate to crucifixion somewhere in mid-morning. He is mocked and led out to be crucified in the late morning. Near noon, He is stripped of His outer garments and hung on the cross. From about noon through the early afternoon a darkness comes over the land and Jesus hangs on the cross. He dies in the midafternoon, at around 3:00 PM.

What of this darkness of some three hours? In Luke 23:44, we read, It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour (i.e., from noon until 3:00 PM).

Although this seems to describe a solar eclipse, it isn’t appropriate to insist that it was an eclipse (at least as we define the term today). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak to the darkness of that day using the Greek term σκότος (skotos), meaning simply “darkness.” Only Luke went on to state the reason for the darkness: the sun was darkened (Luke 23:45). He even used the Greek word ἐκλιπόντος (eklipontos), from which the word “eclipse” was derived. In Greek, however, the word eklipontos simply means “darkened,” whereas our word “eclipse” refers to a darkening as a result of the moon blocking the light of the sun. However, that is not necessarily (or even likely) what Luke meant here.

Crucifixion of Jesus, Cano

As a general rule, one should avoid applying a scientific explanation to a text when that may not have been the author’s intention. That there was darkness over the land from about noon until three is certainly attested to in the sacred texts, but the cause of that darkness is not definitively stated to be an eclipse, at least not as we use the term today. Perhaps God made use of other natural causes, such as very heavy clouds, to cause the light of the sun to dim. It is also possible that the darkness was of purely supernatural origin and was experienced only by some of those present.

Trying to explain the darkness in terms of the laws of science risks doing a disservice to the text by missing its deeper meaning: that the darkness of sin had reached its zenith. Whatever the physical mechanism of the darkness, its deepest cause was sin and evil.

Jesus said elsewhere, “This is the judgment: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (Jn 3:19). Referring to His passion, He also said, “Night is coming, when no one can work” (Jn 9:4). When Judas left the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John observed simply and profoundly, And it was night (Jn 13:30). Yes, a deep darkness had come upon the world.

It is simply not possible here to fully comment on all the details of the crucifixion. While they are historical incidents, they are also of deep spiritual significance. I leave the consideration of most of those details to other posts and to your reflection. Jesus speaks seven times while on the cross: He asks the Father to forgive us. He bestows mercy on the repentant thief. He gives us His mother and asks us to take her into the home of our hearts. He expresses his feelings of abandonment. He voices his thirst. He announces the completion of His mission. He commends His spirit to the Father and gives up His spirit.

The earth shakes. While earthquakes were common in the region, interpreting the quake merely in scientific terms misses its theological significance. Christ has rent the earth and descended to Sheol, there to preach to the dead. The veil in the Temple has been torn from top to bottom, giving us access to the Father. He has rent our hearts and laid bare our thoughts. This also prefigures the Last Judgment:

Death is struck, and nature quaking,
all creation is awaking,
to its judge and answer making
(from the Dies Irae).

It is three o’clock in the afternoon; a great silence is upon the earth. The Word of God has died in the flesh. He has gone among the dead to awaken them.

Trademarks of the True Messiah – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

In Sunday’s Gospel the Lord firmly sets before us the need for the cross, not as an end in itself, but as the way to glory. Let’s consider the Gospel in three stages.

I.  The Pattern that is Announced – The text says, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

The Lord announces not only the Cross but also the Resurrection. In effect, He announces the pattern of the Christian life, which we have come to call the “Paschal Mystery.”

The expression “Paschal Mystery” refers to the suffering, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus as a whole. The word “Paschal” is related to the Hebrew word for Passover, “Pesach.” Just as the shed blood of a lamb saved the people from the angel of death and signaled their deliverance, so does Jesus’ death, his Blood, save us from death and deliver us from slavery to sin.

So He is announcing a pattern: the Cross leads somewhere; it accomplishes something. It is not an end in itself; it has a purpose; it is part of a pattern.

St. Paul articulates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery in this way: We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (2 Cor 4:10). It is like an upward spiral in which the cross brings blessings we enjoy. We often circle back to the crosses God permits, but then there come even greater blessings and higher capacities. Cross, growth, cross, growth—so the pattern continues until we reach the end, dying with Christ so as to live with Him.

This is the pattern of our life. We are dying to our old self, to this world, to our sins; but rising to new life, rising to the Kingdom of God and becoming victorious over sin. The cross brings life; it is a prelude to growth. We die in order to live more richly. An old spiritual says of this repeated pattern that “every round goes higher, higher.”

Do you see the pattern that Jesus announces? Neither the Lord not the Church announces the cross so as to burden us. No, the cross is part of a pattern that, if accepted with faith, brings blessing, new life, and greater strength.

II.  The Prevention that is Attempted – The text says, Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Notice Peter’s exact wording: “No such thing shall ever happen to you.” We ought to ask, “What such thing?” Peter, in precluding that Jesus suffer and die, also implicitly blocks the rising and glorification of Jesus, for Christ cannot rise unless He dies.

Peter, of course, is not thinking this all the way through—but neither do we when we seek to avoid crosses for ourselves or to hinder others improperly from accepting their crosses. The cross brings glory and growth; we run the risk of depriving ourselves and others of these if we rush to eliminate all the demands and difficulties of life. We may do this through enabling behaviors or perhaps by spoiling our children.

We also hinder our own growth by refusing to accept the crosses of self-discipline, hard work, obedience, suffering, consequences, limits, and resistance of temptation. In rejecting the cross we also reject its fruits.

All of this serves to explain Jesus’ severe reaction to Peter’s words. He even goes so far as to call Peter, “Satan,” for it pertains to Satan to pretend to befriend us in protesting our crosses while really just wanting to thwart our blessings. Peter may not know what he is doing, but Satan does—he seeks to become an obstacle to Jesus’ work.

Jesus’ severe reaction is rooted in protecting our blessings.

III. The Prescription that is Awarding – Jesus goes on to teach further on the wisdom of and the need for the cross. The text says, Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”

The heart of Jesus’ teaching here is the deep paradox that in order to find our life we must lose it. More specifically, in order to gain Heaven, we must die to this world. That dying is a process more so than just an event at the end of our physical life here. Although we cling to life in this world, it is really not life at all. It is a mere spark compared to the fire of love that God offers; it is a single note compared to the great symphony God directs.

Jesus instructs us to be willing to exchange this tiny, dying life for that which is true life. The Lord says that whatever small blessings come from clinging to this life and this world are really no benefit at all.

Of course what the world’s cheap trinkets offer is immediate gratification and evasion of the cross. We may feel relief for a moment, but our growth is stunted and those cheap little trinkets slip through our fingers. We gain the world (cheap little trinket that it is) but lose our souls. It’s a total loss, or to use a modern expression, it’s a FAIL!

Jesus’ final words, however, remind us that the choice is ours. The day will come when He will respond to our choice. Either we accept true life and win or we choose the passing, dying life of this world and lose.

This song speaks of life as a kind of spiraling climb between cross and glory. As the spiritual says, “Every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the Cross.”

Addendum:

Hedonism – This is the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life. It comes from the Greek word hēdonē, meaning “pleasure” and is akin to the Greek hēdys, meaning “sweet.”

Of course pleasure is to be desired and to some degree sought, but it is not the only good in life. Indeed, some of our greatest goods and accomplishments require sacrifice: years of study and preparation for a career; the blood, sweat, and tears of raising children.

Hedonism seeks to avoid sacrifice and suffering at all costs. It is directly opposed to the theology of the Cross. St. Paul spoke in his day of the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Php 3:18–19). He also taught that the cross was an absurdity to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23).

Things have not changed, my friends. The world reacts with great indignation whenever the cross or suffering is even implied. So the world will cry out with bewildered exasperation and ask incredulously of the Church, are you saying that a woman who was raped must carry the child to term and cannot abort? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a “gay” person must live celibately and may never “marry” his or her same-sex lover? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a handicapped child in the womb must be “condemned” to live in the world and cannot be aborted and put out of his (more accurately our) “misery”? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a suffering person cannot be euthanized to avoid the pain? Yes, we are.

The shock expressed in these sorts of questions shows how deeply hedonism has infected the modern mind. The concept of the cross is not only absurd, it is downright “immoral” in the hedonist mentality, which sees pleasure as the only true human good. To the hedonist, a life without enough pleasure is a life not worth living, and anyone who would seek to set limits on the lawful (and sometime unlawful) pleasures of others is mean, hateful, absurd, obtuse, intolerant, and just plain evil.

When pleasure is life’s only goal or good, how dare you, or the Church, or anyone seek to set limits on it let alone suggest that the way of the cross is better or required! You must be banished, silenced, and destroyed.

Many faithful Catholics in the pews are deeply infected with the illusion of hedonism and thus take up the voice of bewilderment, anger, and scoffing whenever the Church points to the cross and insists on self-denial, sacrifice, and doing the right thing even when the cost is great. The head wagging in congregations is often visible if a priest dares to preach that abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, and contraception are wrong regardless of the cost, or if he speaks about the reality of the cross. The faithful who swim in the waters of a hedonistic culture are often shocked at anything that might limit the pleasure that others want to pursue.

Hedonism makes the central Christian mysteries of the cross and redemptive suffering seem like something from a distant planet or a parallel and strange universe. The opening word from Jesus’ mouth, “Repent,” seems strange to the hedonistic world, which has even reconstructed Jesus Himself to be someone who just wants us to be happy and content. The cry goes up, even among the faithful, doesn’t God want me to be happy? On this basis, all kinds of sinful behavior is supposed to be tolerated because insisting on the opposite is “hard” and because it seems “mean” to speak of the cross or of self-discipline in a hedonistic culture.

Bringing people back to the real Jesus and to the real message of the Gospel, which features the cross as the way to glory, takes a lot of work and a long conversation. We must be prepared to engage in that extended conversation with people.

Four Immediate Results of the Death of Jesus on the Cross, according to Matthew

041814

Bringing our consideration of certain texts from the Matthean Passion Narrative to an end, let’s conclude with the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ Death and see what it has to teach us. There are essentially four immediate results that are described of Jesus’ death, and while they are historical happenings, they also signal deeper spiritual truths. Let’s observe the text and consider the four results, each in turn.

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city, and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:50-53)

1. Return – At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

The significance of the rending, the tearing of the Temple Curtain, and the way in which it happened ought not to be underestimated. Consider that God had walked intimately with Adam in Eve in the garden in the cool of day (cf Gen 3:8). But after sin, Adam and Eve could no longer endure the presence of the God, and they had to dwell apart from the paradise that featured God’s awesome presence. Consider too, how terrifying theophanies (appearances of God to human beings) were after that time. For example, when God appeared on the top of Mt Sinai we read:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (Ex 20:18-19)

Had God changed? Was he different from when he walked with Adam and Eve in intimacy? No. But we had changed and could no longer endure the presence of God.

Throughout the Old Testament, a veil existed between God and Israel. There was the cloud that both revealed God’s presence and also concealed it. There was also the curtain in the sanctuary, beyond which the High Priest could only go once a year, and then with fear and trembling.

Sin had done this, had made God’s presence intolerable for mere human beings.

But now Jesus has cancelled our sin. Once again, we have access to God through Christ our Lord. His blood has cleansed us, and the ancient separation from the Father and from God’s presence is cancelled. But we will not encounter God in a merely earthly paradise; the God has now opened the way to heaven.

It is now for us to make the journey there, but the way is open, the veil is rent. This is a moment of apocalypse, or unveiling. Through this open veil the Father now says, “Come to me!”

2. Rendering of Judgment upon the World The earth shook, the rocks split

Now has judgment come on the earth; the world stands judged. Here “world” refers not merely to the created world, but also to the forces of this world, of this age, which are arrayed against the Lord and his kingdom; forces that do not acknowledge the sovereignty of God but rather insist that political, social, cultural, and economic forces are what must hold sway and have our loyalty.

This earthquake, which has significant historical corroboration, shows that the foundations of this rebellious world ultimately cannot stand before God. The foundations are struck; the powers of this world quake. Scripture says,

  1. People will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from the fearful presence of the LORD and the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to shake the earth. (Is 2:19).
  2. For thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. ‘I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD of hosts. (Haggai 2:6-7)
  3. In my zeal and fiery wrath, I declare that at that time there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel. (Ez 38:19)
  4. The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” (Psalm 2:2-6)
  5. In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. (Daniel 2:42)
  6. The LORD will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble. But the LORD will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel. (Joel 3:16)
  7. A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it. (Ez 21:27)

Yes, the world shakes; the world is judged. And, most important, as Jesus says, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. (John 12:31)

Therefore, dear reader, do not doubt that, no matter how powerful this world may seem in its pride and glory. It has already been shaken; it has already been judged. The world has been conquered and shaken to its very foundations. Do not put your trust or hope in any worldly reality; it has been judged, shaken, and cannot withstand the test of time. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (Heb 3:14)

3. Resurrection to New Life the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

“Death is struck and nature quaking. All creation is awaking, to its judge an answer making.” (from the Dies Irae). Yes, by dying Jesus has destroyed our death.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)

Note well that while the text says that many of the dead appeared in Jerusalem, this did not take place until after the Resurrection. Hence, we ought not to imagine ghosts or zombie-like corpses walking about at 3:00 PM on Good Friday. Rather, they appeared to some, on or after Resurrection Sunday. In this, they witness to the truth of Resurrection and the initial fulfillment of the text from Ezekiel:

Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people! I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life. (Ez 37:12-14)

Yes, on Good Friday Jesus awakens the dead, with the words, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you.” (Eph 5:14)

4. Realization of Who Jesus is – When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!

Jesus most clearly showed his identity as the Son of God through his obedience to the Father. In the Gospel of John, as he rose from the table of the Last Supper, Jesus said,

The prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. “Come now; let us go forth. (Jn 14:30-31).

Somehow, the centurion, in seeing Jesus die this way, recognizes in him the obedience of the Son of God who loves and obeys his Father.

Jesus has cancelled our disobedience by his obedience; he has cancelled our pride by his humility. Yet the weakness of God is more powerful than any worldly force. And thus too the centurion, who knew power and was trained to respect it, saw in the earthquake and other manifestations an indication of the Lord’s glory. The Lord’s way to that glory is not our way. But his glory and Sonship cannot remain forever hid! Scripture says,

See, he comes amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. Even So! Amen! (Rev 1:7)

Come Down from the Cross and We Will Believe. A Meditation on “Crucial”Decision by Jesus

041714One of the most remarkable aspects of the crucifixion of Jesus is the humble reserve he displayed. As God, he had the power to end his suffering and humiliation in an instant. He had already reminded Peter, Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matt26:52-54)

And now, as Jesus hung on the Cross, Satan and the crowds give him one final temptation: the call to come down from the Cross:

Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. (Matt 27:39-44)

The temptation is to pride and power, to anything but the Cross. They seem to taunt him by saying, “Since God is powerful, if you were God, you would have the power to come down and not be overpowered by your enemy.”

The temptation is very crafty and very worldly. To the worldly-minded, the demand makes sense. In effect, they are saying, “If it’s faith you want from me, you can have it if you’ll just come down from the cross. Then I’ll be impressed; then I’ll believe.” In effect, the tempters want to be saved on their own terms.

Why does Jesus stay on the Cross? For three reasons, at least:

1. Humility – Jesus is out to overcome Satan. In the world, we seek to overpower our foes. Does it work? No. Usually the cycle of violence just continues and in fact often gets worse. We think, “If I can just yell louder and outwit or outgun my opponent, I’ll win the day.” Yes, but there’s more to life than one day. The next day your opponent returns with louder and wittier arguments and bigger guns. And the cycle of violence goes on. It is an endless power struggle.

But as was once said, Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And I would add that here at the Cross, pride cannot drive out pride, only humility can do that.

And therefore, although the crowd and Satan try to coax Jesus into a power struggle, the Lord chooses the only weapon that is truly effective against pride: humility. Humility is like kryptonite to the Devil!

To our eyes, it seems that the Lord is defeated. But in his humility, the Lord is doing more damage to Satan than we could ever imagine. He stays on the Cross to defeat Satan’s pride by his own profound humility. Jesus does this despite Satan’s desperate attempts to engage his pride, and entice him into a power struggle.

2. Obedience – It was disobedience that got us into trouble in the first place. And it will be obedience that restores us. Adam said, “No.” Jesus, the New Adam, says “Yes.” It is not essentially the suffering of Jesus that saves us; rather, it is his obedience. And Jesus’ suffering is part of that obedience.

Jesus decides to obey his Father, no matter the cost. Isaiah says of Jesus, “He suffered because he willed it.” (Is 53:7)  St. Thomas says that if Jesus had suffered and gone to the cross, but not willed it, we would not be saved. Jesus himself said, “No one takes my life from me, I lay it down freely. (Jn 10:18)  Cassian says, “We are saved by the human decision of a divine person.”

Jesus went to the Cross and decided to stay on the Cross in obedience. And it is by his obedience, by his will to obey and to save us, that we are saved.

3. To save meOn a more personal level, we can also see (based on what has already been said), that Jesus decided to stay on the Cross to save me. If he had come down, I would not be saved; you would not be saved. We might have been impressed; we might have even had a kind of faith. But it would not be a saving faith.

Pure and simple, Jesus decided to stay on the Cross and to endure mockery, shame, pain, and death, in order to save a poor sinner like me. An old gospel song says,

When Jesus hung on Calvary, people came from miles to see
They said, If you be the Christ, come down and save your life
But Jesus, sweet Jesus, never answered them
For He knew that Satan was tempting
If He had come down from the cross, my soul would still be lost
If He had come down from the cross, my soul would still be lost

He would not come down from the cross just to save himself
He decided to die just to save me.

 

You Have to Decide About Jesus, one way or the other- A Meditation on the Trial Before Pilate

041614

In the Matthean Passion account, we come to the trial before Pilate. Pontius Pilate is a study in evasion and vacillation. Despite being a man of great political and worldly power, Pilate is indecisive, inwardly troubled, and quite incapable of doing what he knows is right. Despite the outward power he had, inwardly he was weak and morally compromised. And in his weakness, he does something very awful: he violates his own conscience and sentences an innocent man to death.

Let’s look at his story in five stages.

I. Attempted Avoidance – On a professional level, Pilate considered the whole matter brought before him to be a theological dispute among the Jews, and for this reason wanted nothing to do with it. Yet he could see a storm was brewing as the crowds grew larger and noisier. If there were a riot at Passover, his career as Governor of Palestine (not to mention future, even better posts) would be in jeopardy. Was there not some way out of this perilous matter of Jesus!?

On a personal level, Pilate is also troubled. His own wife, unnerved, tells him, Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (Matt 27:19). Yes, Pilate is anxious, unnerved, and seemingly quite avoidant of the whole matter. The last thing he wants to do is to have to make a decision one way or the other about Jesus.

But at the end of the day, every man, woman, and child on this planet is going to have to decide for or against Jesus. Pilate wants to avoid a decision, but ultimately, he cannot.

According to Luke’s Gospel, he seeks refuge in a jurisdictional solution:

On hearing [of Jesus’ actions in the north] Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. (Luke 26:6-7)

“Ah!” thinks Pilate. “Here is a way out. Herod can save me from having to take a stand on Jesus! Whatever the decision, I can evade responsibility.” But in the end, Herod merely sent him back to Pilate without rendering a guilty verdict. Surely this would satisfy the crowd! But it does not.

Pilate (this also means you) is going to have to decide about Jesus, one way or the other. No one else can make this decision for him. His attempt to avoid taking a stand on Jesus has failed.

II. Calls for Compromise – So it is now clear that a crucial moment is coming for Pilate. The text says,

Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”, “You have said so,” Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. (Matt 27: 11-14)

It is evident that Pilate wants Jesus to give him a way out. If only Jesus will speak in a manner that will reassure all present. If only Jesus will not so unsettle others with his divine claims. If only he would not stand out in such stark, black and white contrast; if only he would appreciate the need for a little more gray in this whole matter! Yes, if he will just compromise a little with his claims, all will be well!

But it will not be so for Pilate. Jesus remains silent to all the demands that he reassure others by diluting the truth or by compromising his message.

Many today are like Pilate, and seek to rework the true Jesus, to “tame” him, to paint a picture of him in soft focus and pastel colors. A “kinder, gentler” Jesus is trotted out by some, even by religious “leaders” in hopes of quieting the controversy and making it easier and more palatable for people to make a decision for Jesus.

But of course to decide for a fake Jesus is not the same as deciding for the real Jesus. A compromised, fake Jesus cannot save you; only the real one can. Watering Jesus down, diminishing his moral demands or his summons to absolute faith in him, setting aside his insistence on being the central priority of our life even to the point of martyrdom, modernizing him, or seeking to turn him into a harmless hippie – none of this will work. One day you are going to have to decide on the real Jesus. Compromise will not work.

III. Substitution Stunt – Avoiding and compromising hasn’t worked, so Pilate tries substitution. It’s the old bait and switch. Let’s find something or someone to replace the decision. So Pilate trots out Barabbas.

Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him…But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. (Matt 27:16-20)

Pilate thought that surely the crowd would not prefer the swindler and robber, Barabbas, to Jesus, who had been so popular earlier that very week. Pilate reasoned that it was only the leaders among the Jews who feared and hated Jesus, out of concern only for their own power. Yes, surely the crowds would favor Jesus from Galilee over Barabbas. Surely! This bait and switch, this substitution, would get Pilate off the hook so he wouldn’t have to decide about Jesus. Or so he thought.

But it will not work. The religious leaders have seeded the crowd. Barabbas is chosen. Pilate is still stuck with the Jesus question!

Here too, many of us try similar bait and switch tactics. Radically following Jesus is a bit too much for some. But how about buying off or deflecting the decision? Perhaps it amounts to writing a nice big check to charity, or engaging in some good work. Perhaps some religious ritual can buy some time or placate the Lord, who stands silently by waiting for an answer from me as to his Kingship in my life.

It is significant that the “substitute Jesus” that Pilate trots out for his bait and switch has the name “Jesus Barabbas” (a name that means “Jesus, Son of the Father”). Yes, the substitute that Pilate uses bears a name and title similar to the real Jesus. But he is NOT the real Jesus. And neither are our attempts at check writing or perfunctory religious observance (though having aspects of Christ) the real Jesus. Our substitution stunt, our bait and switch, cannot buy off the question, or avoid the decision we must make for or against the real Jesus. We too must ultimately face the “Jesus Question.”

IV. Refusing Responsibility – Exasperated, Pilate engages the crowd:

What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:23-25)

Pontius Pilate, the governor, the most powerful man in the region, the only one with the judicial faculty to hand a man over to death, stands before a crowd and claims that he is not responsible for what he does. He claims that, in violating his own conscience and handing over an innocent man to torture, he is innocent.

These are lies. Pilate cannot refuse to take responsibility for the decision he is making. He must be a man and own his choice. He has weighed the consequences. It will be either his career, or Jesus; it will be either his power and position, or Jesus; it will be either his eventual promotion, or Jesus. Having been weighed against career, power, and promotion, Jesus is dismissed by Pilate and handed over for torture and crucifixion.

But Pilate cannot avoid responsibility despite the theatrics of washing his hands. Jesus’ blood is on your hands too, Governor Pilate. Down through the centuries your responsibility resounds: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death, and was buried.”

Yes, Pilate had to decide about Jesus one way or the other. And so do you and I. No attempted avoidance, no calls for compromise, no substitution stunts, no refusal of responsibility will work. You must decide, I must decide, one way or another, for or against Jesus. There is no third way. And if you think you can sit on the fence, know this for sure: one day Satan will say, “Come with me,” for Satan owns the fence.

You are free to decide, but you are not free not to decide. Jesus stands before you and “compels” a choice. What is your answer?

Here is a movie account of the trial from The Passion of the Christ. Note that both Pilate and Jesus speak in Latin. I think this is the director’s way of saying that Jesus, as God, is speaking personally to Pilate, thus he uses Pilate’s mother tongue.