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

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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.

“For Worldly Sorrow Brings Death.” A Meditation on the Sad End of Judas and What Might Have Been.

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As we continue to ponder some of the texts of the Matthean Passion Narrative, we turn to the difficult case of Judas. To many modern readers, Judas is something of a sympathetic character. Some of this is due to our (rather flawed) moral reasoning, reasoning that places exaggerated emphasis on subjective issues (such as intentions, feelings, etc.) and almost no emphasis on the objective morality of the act itself. Granted, both elements are important, but our modern emphasis creates a rather skewed tendency to evade personal responsibility and to overlook the objective harm of sin.

But, to be fair, the biblical text itself also evokes some sympathy for Judas, who deeply regretted what he had done and even went so far as to return the money. The text says,

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matt 27:3-5)

It is clear that Judas is sorrowful for his sin and this is surely one component of what we call contrition. He even returns the money, a further sign of his sorrow, and wishes to be free of any profit from his sin.

And yet we are also faced with the fact that he went and hanged himself, which, while further indicating his sorrow, remains objectively an act of despair. Instead of turning to Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end the pain of his guilt rather than facing the Lord, admitting his sin, and humbly seeking mercy from the Lord and His Body, the Church.

In this, Judas acts quite differently from Peter, who at first ran off in sorrow after denying the Lord, but did not turn in on himself. Rather, in spite of his humiliation, Peter remained rooted in the early community of the Church, and found healing with the Lord in an honest conversation at the lakeside (cf John 21). None of this could have been easy for Peter. Surely, a part of him wanted to run off and hide his guilt and shame from the Lord and from others. But unlike Judas, he stayed in communion with the early Church and let the Lord find him.

St. Paul speaks of two kinds of sorrow for sin, and what he writes is instructive for us here when we ponder Judas and his fate:

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Cor 7:8-11)

And thus Godly sorrow draws us to repentance and back to the Lord. The Greek word here translated as “repentance” is μετάνοιαν (metanoian) meaning, more richly, “to come to a change of mind,” or “to change one’s thinking.” And this change “leads” us to salvation.

But what is salvation? It is not just to have a certain legal status; it is to be in a saving and transformative relationship with the Lord. And Godly sorrow leaves no regret because of this healing, merciful, and joyful relationship to which it restores us.

In this way, we can see how Judas’ sorrow was lacking in two important fruits. First, it did not lead him back to salvation, that is, back to Jesus. Second, it did not remove regret. Judas remained devastated and was not willing to seek to return to a relationship with Jesus. Why was this? It is hard to say. Perhaps he would have been too humiliated to face Jesus or the community. Whatever regret he had, he was not willing to share it humbly. And thus, instead of turning to the Lord, he turned in on himself and sought to end his pain on his own terms rather than those of the Lord or his Body, the Church.

St. Paul says simply and bluntly of worldly sorrow: it produces death. It is known by its fruits: separation, isolation, inwardness, and finally death – both spiritual and physical.

So yes, Judas had sorrow for what he had done. But it was the wrong kind of sorrow, the worst kind of sorrow.

What became of Judas in terms of salvation? To many of us, despite a reflection like this, we retain the hope that perhaps he could ultimately have been saved. Was he? Here too we cannot certainly say. But Jesus himself gives us a rather sad clue when he says of Judas,

The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” (Mk 14:21)

It is difficult for us to imagine Jesus saying this about a man who is ultimately saved and makes it heaven. So while we’re not sure, it certainly doesn’t look too good for Judas!

Our sympathy for Judas has understandable roots. But in the end, his fatal flaw (and the difference between him and Peter) was that Judas repented unto himself, not unto the Lord. When you walk, sometimes you fall; but if you fall, make sure you fall on Jesus!

A final postscript to the sad story of Judas is to ponder what might have been. Can you imagine the glory of the moment, had Judas come to Jesus in sorrow and received mercy and forgiveness? Imagine beautiful churches all over the world named “St. Judas Parish,” “St Judas – Patron of Sinners,” “St Judas Refuge of Criminals,” “The Parish of St Judas the Reconciled.” Imagine the novenas and prayers of similar titles: “Novena to St. Judas, Patron of Lost Souls,”  “A Prayer to St Judas for a Worthy Confession.” Parishes might even have dedicated their “Lost and Found” department to St. Judas!

But none of this was to be, “for worldly sorrow brings death.” Save us O Lord from final despair!

What Does Jesus Mean When He Says He is Coming on the Clouds?

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Continuing to look at some of the text from the Passion according to St. Matthew, we come to the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas the high priest.

Having heard false and conflicting testimony from various witnesses, Caiaphas turns to Jesus, and here is where we pick up the text:

The high priest rose and addressed him, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Christ the son of God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “You have said so. But I tell you: from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Let’s look this text in three stages.

I. Obedience to Lawful Authority – Jesus has remained silent in the trial thus far. But at a critical moment in the trial, Caiaphas puts Jesus under oath. Caiaphas, as high priest, has the authority to do this. And on account of this, Jesus will in fact make an answer. In so doing, he demonstrates obedience to lawful authority.

Nowhere does Scripture counsel disrespect or disobedience to lawful authority. Jesus accepts the lawful authority of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Earlier he had counseled his disciples, The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Matt 23:2-3)

Likewise, he would later say to Pilate You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above (Jn 19:11). And while he reminds Pilate that he will answer for his use of authority, he does acknowledge that Pilate has authority, and has it from God.

St. Paul would counsel and remind the early ChristiansEvery person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Rom 13:1-3)

None of these counsels and commands are to be taken to mean that those in authority were good or even just men. We have the authorities we deserve, and that God permits, and unless they command us to do something objectively evil, Scripture teaches that we are to obey lawful authority and show proper respect. If even Jesus can stand before the likes of Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate and accept their authority, then certainly we can do so.

Accepting the authority of those over us does not mean that we never air our differences or express our concerns. Jesus plainly did this, as did Paul and others. But at the end of the day, even less-than-perfect authorities are to be obeyed when they legitimately command us.

Thus as we shall now see, Jesus, having been put under oath, will answer the high priest.

II. Oath – Jesus is put under oath and ordered to answer whether or not he is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus answers, “You say so.”

This answer may at first seem to us to be evasive and mildly disrespectful. But as we shall see, Jesus seeks to distinguish what he means by the term Messiah, or Christ, from what Caiaphas means. For many used the word “Messiah” in a way that Jesus was not comfortable with. Many understood the Messiah as a political figure or a military leader. But Jesus spoke of himself as a suffering Messiah, one who would bear the sins of the people, and having suffered and died, would rise on the third day.

The Messiah was to be a king, but not a king of this world. He was to wage war, but not against the Romans or some other enemy of flesh and blood, rather against Satan and the forces of darkness.

Thus, when Jesus is told to declare whether or not he is the Messiah, his expression “You say so” could also be rendered, “Those are your words.” Or more extensively,

“Yes I am a Messiah, but not in the way you understand. I am the Christ, the Messiah, but I have not come to wage war; I am not here to dislodge the Romans or to act in a way that you fear will bring Roman crackdown. No, I have come to suffer and die for the sins of the people. I’ve come to fulfill Scripture which says of the Messiah: He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed….the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is 53:5-6)

I have come to reconcile man to God and reopen the gates of heaven. Am I the Messiah, the Christ? You say so. And you’re right. But you and I do not mean ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ in any way remotely similar.”

As for confirming whether or not he is the Son of the living God, here too Jesus prefers different terminology, terminology that to our ears seems a lesser title than “Son of God.” Instead, Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man.”

Though to modern ears, “Son of Man” seems a lower title than “Son of God,” biblically this is not really the case. In the Scriptures, the title “Son of God,” or “Sons of God,” could refer to the Angels, but it could also refer to human beings, who are made in the image and likeness of God. For if God is their creator, He is in essence a Father to them, and they are his sons.

Of course, Jesus often did refer to himself as God’s Son in a unique sense, declaring that he and his Father were one (Jn 10:30), that to see Him was to see the Father (Jn 14:9). And he would often speak equivocally of himself and the Father, for example saying, My Father is working until now, and I am working (Jn 5:17).

And thus, to believers in Jesus, Jesus was in fact the Son of God in a unique, perfect, and sublime way. But for a typical Jew of the first century, hearing Jesus call himself the Son the living God, would have been ambiguous – even shocking.

Thus, Jesus does not simply answer back to the high priest, “Yes I am the Son of the living God,” but he goes on to call himself the Son of Man. In so doing, he taps into a passage from the Book of Daniel that speaks of the Messiah in high and divine terms. And to Jewish ears, the title “Son of Man,” while rarely used, was a far more exalted title for Jesus to claim of himself than the title “Son of the living God.”

Here is the passage from the book of Daniel to which Jesus refers:

As I (Daniel) looked, “thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened...In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. Daniel (7: 9-14)

And thus we see that Jesus claims for himself a high and exalted title wherein he is the great eschatological King, the one who shall rule over all the nations, and his kingdom shall never be taken away. And as Son of Man, he rules from heaven.

The title so shocks the high priest, that he rends his own garments and declares that Jesus has blasphemed by equating himself to God. And that leads us to the third point.

III. Omnipotence Since we have already read the text from Daniel, it is clear to us that Jesus is speaking of the glory of his reign, and his great omnipotence. They will one day see him seated at the right hand of God in heaven, and also coming on the clouds of heaven, whether they like it not. For this is who he is, the Lord and King of glory, and of his kingdom there shall be no end. And he shall come on the clouds in judgment on the nations; he will judge the world by fire.

But what does it mean to say that he will come on the clouds? Too many of us moderns think of this only in literal terms. Such a literal interpretation is surely not impossible for God. In fact, the Lord Jesus may very well be seen on the last day coming in the clouds.

But we ought not simply reduce it to this. For Jesus was also speaking to the men of his day about something that they also would see and experience. Thus we ought not simply see his reference to coming on the clouds as some early form of airline travel or a kind literalistic insistence that they would one day be able to look up in the sky and see him just to the right of a large cumulonimbus cloud.

The ancient Jews used expressions in their day just as we do today. And while these expressions express truth, they often use images, similes, metaphors, and allegories, which in and of themselves need not always be taken literally. For example, we moderns often speak of being “star struck.” But of course we don’t literally mean that stars struck us. Rather we mean that we are struck by something that awed us in the way that looking up and seeing the stars at night might do. Sometimes we also speak of something coming from “out of the blue.” We do not mean literally that it came out of some blue section of the sky and hit us over the head. Instead, we mean that whatever it was, it came to us as if out of nowhere. More recently, we speak of storing our information “in the cloud.” But of course we don’t mean that our data is literally in the condensate zones of upward turbulence that we call clouds. We are using a metaphor to describe our data being “up above us” somewhere and accessible and able to be seen in many places “below.”

And thus, when Jesus speaks of coming on the clouds, we need not interpret this in a merely crude and literalistic way.

To the ancient Jews, the clouds were an image of glory, an image of heaven, and were also an image of God’s judgment. As an image of glory, the clouds both revealed and hid God’s glory. In the Exodus, God led them in the pillar of cloud by day, which appeared as a column of fire by night. This cloud revealed God’s presence yet also hid it. In the desert, the presence of God was indicated by the Shekinah, the glory-cloud that the descended on the tent of meeting. It both revealed God’s glory and presence, and yet also hid it from the people could not withstand God’s glory in all of its fullness.

So on one level, Jesus, in saying that the men of his day would see him as the Son of Man coming on the clouds, is saying that they would see him in all of his glory. He is saying that they would see and experience his powerful Kingdom breaking into this world, whether they liked it or not. The Temple and an exclusive Israel was going away. The fulfillment of ancient Israel, the Church, God’s Kingdom, was breaking in. The Temple, the symbol of ancient Israel, was going to be swept away.

In another sense, the clouds also show forth God’s judgment. Throughout the Scriptures, the clouds are often a symbol of God’s judgment come down on Israel, or on other nations. The clouds symbolize God visiting judgment on the people and the nation. Here are a few examples:

  1. Zeph 1:15 Near is the great day of the LORD, Near and coming very quickly; Listen, the day of the LORD! … That day will be a day of wrath– a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness..
  2. Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the LORD is coming; Surely it is near, A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness. …. There has never been anything like it, Nor will there be again after it To the years of many generations. (Joel 2:1-4)
  3. For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near– a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations….Dark will be the day at Tahpanhes when I break the yoke of Egypt; there her proud strength will come to an end. She will be covered with clouds, and her villages will go into captivity. (Ex 30:3, 18)
  4. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. (Ex 34:12)

And thus, in saying that he was coming on the clouds, Jesus was saying that they would experience his judgment on the nation for having rejected His saving love. In a sermon called the Mount Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21), Jesus had already tearfully lamented the great destruction that was coming upon Jerusalem for lack of belief. And exactly forty years after his death, the great destruction he predicted came to pass. Jerusalem and the temple were utterly destroyed in 70 A.D. The temple was never again to be rebuilt. The Lord did indeed come in a great cloud in judgment upon ancient Israel!

So much in such a short few lines! As you can see, the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas was dramatic and has much to teach us.

A Prescription for Life Given By Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

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In past years on the blog, I have generally published the schedule of the Lord’s final week according to the Scriptures (on the Monday of Holy Week). Since I have done this in years past, I presume most of you have seen it by now. If you haven’t, you can read it here: A Chronology of Jesus’ Holy Week

For this year, I thought I might look at some of the moments in the Passion Narrative (this year from St. Matthew) and highlight them.

The first moment occurs in the Garden of Gethsemane and presents a very good stance for Holy Week, indeed for the whole of our life. Jesus was at prayer, and returning to his disciples found them asleep. He says to Peter and the others (and to us),

Watch and pray so that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak. (Matt 26:41)

Let’s examine the saying, and explore what it has to say for us, and to us.

I. Problem – Jesus comes to his disciples and finds them sleeping. Note that these are the leaders of the Church, and this is the most crucial moment in all of human history. A great showdown between light and darkness, between good and evil, between Satan and the Lord, is about to unfold, is unfolding! But the disciples, the first leaders of the Church, are sleeping.

It is a disgraceful reality that is too often still the case, even today. And lest you think that this is simply a way of bashing popes, bishops, priests and deacons, let it be clear that the leaders of the Church include parents in families and elders in communities as well.

Regarding the clergy, too often while our people are undergoing severe trials and exposure to terrible sin and error, we remain sleepy and quiet. Well does the Scripture describe many of us clergy when it says, Israel’s watchman are blind, the lack knowledge; they are mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. (Is 56:10)

But many parents too, the leaders of the domestic church, are also woefully out of touch with the struggles of their children. They have little idea what their children are actually watching or listening to; they seem to have other priorities than to monitor their children carefully and teach them with clarity.

Yes, for all of us Church leaders, at the parish level and at the domestic level, we too easily doze off, and dream away, seemingly unaware of the great cosmic battle that is going on all around us, claiming our people and our children.

Or perhaps we do have some sense of the awful battle, but know little about what to do. Overwhelmed and stressed out, we medicate ourselves. Perhaps like the disciples we drink some wine and doze off in the garden while the critical battle unfolds around us. We are overwhelmed, so we tune out; we veer off to diversions, watch fantasies on television, or lose ourselves in virtual Internet relationships while our real relationships languish. Reality is too painful, so we medicate ourselves, and go off to sleep, a spiritual sleep, a moral sleep, even a physical sleep.

Only the pure mercy of God can save us. If the Church or the world were depending on human leaders, we’d be doomed. If the Church were solely dependent on human beings to keep her together, she would’ve lasted 20 minutes, max! Yes, only the pure mercy of God can see us through. Without Jesus awake and sober in the garden, we’re surely lost.

Yes, a serious problem is described here: while the cosmic battle between good and evil unfolds all around us, too many of us are asleep. And while God’s mercy can help close the gap, we must be willing to do what Jesus commands, what he now prescribes.

II. Prescription – Jesus says, Watch and pray! That is to say, “Wake up; come to your right mind; be sober!” To be sober is to have a clear mind, a mind that is aware of what is going on, and that can clearly identify the signs of the times. The sober mind is able to identify the tactics of the enemy, the drives of sin, and know their moves. The sober mind is also in touch with the remedies of Grace and how to apply them prudently. We simply have got to watch and pray!

In particular, our prayer needs to be rooted in the Scriptures and the revealed truth of Jesus Christ. There’s just too much stinking thinking in our world today to think that our mind is going to be anything but polluted if we don’t cleanse it every day with the Word of God.

Our minds are like a sponge. Put a sponge in muddy water and, don’t kid yourself, the sponge is going to come out muddy. How then is the muddy sponge to be cleansed? It is plunged into clean water and rung out; it is plunged back into the clean water and rung out again, and again, and again. Thus our minds, like sponges muddied by the polluted, confusing, and erroneous thinking of the world, must be cleansed daily by being plunged into the clear, clean water of God’s Holy Word.

It is a sobering fact that if you and I are not praying daily and being deeply rooted in God’s Word, it is very unlikely that we will make it.

The Lord’s prescription is bluntly simple: wake up, and keep watch by praying! We somehow find time for everything else. It’s time to wake up and keep our eyes focused on the Lord, to watch him, to listen to him, and to be deeply rooted in the relationship of prayer and obedience to his Word. Otherwise, a terrible peril is upon us which the Lord next describes.

III. Peril – We are told to watch and pray lest we undergo the test, lest we give way to temptation. The Greek word for temptation here is πειρασμόν (peirasmon) and almost sounds like the English word “peril.”

Now don’t let temptation become something abstract. Temptation is the work of Satan to drag you to Hell. Are you clear on that? If you’re not watching and praying, you’re defenseless; you’re an easy target; you’re low hanging fruit; you’re probably not going to make it. If you do not pray, Jesus warns that you will give way to temptation, that is, that Satan will be able to drag you off to Hell, and probably others along with you.

If you don’t even care enough about yourself to pray, at least get right for the sake of others who are probably depending on you in some way for teaching and example! No priest goes to Hell alone; he takes others with him. And no parents go to Hell alone; they take others with them.

It’s time to wake up and recognize the peril. You will give way to temptation if you’re not even going to watch and pray. Satan can and will drive you to Hell. This peril is real. If you don’t think so, talk to Jesus. He said it, I didn’t.

IV. Prevailing priority Jesus goes on to say, The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.

Sadly, most of us interpret this saying as an excuse, as if Jesus were permitting us to say, “Well, deep in my heart I really want to do what’s right, but I’m really not able to do it because of my weak flesh. So it’s really not my fault. I should get credit for having good intentions in my heart.”

This is not only an incorrect interpretation of what Jesus says here; it is a sinful interpretation. Jesus is not saying that our flesh excuses us. He’s saying that our spirit is willing, that our Spirit by his grace has the capacity to prevail over the weakness of the flesh!

We are going to have to battle against our flesh; that is true; that much is clear. But our spirit, the part of us that is open to God, has the capacity to prevail, if we will permit God’s Holy Spirit to strengthen our human spirit.

In other words, our spirit is to be our number one priority, over and against our flesh. And having this priority, we open our spirit to God’s Holy Spirit, and we will be strengthened. We will prevail over temptation; we will be victorious over Satan’s attempts to drag us to Hell.

Therefore, there should be no excuses here. Jesus says that although the flesh is weak, and we will battle against it until the day we die, our spirit can “will” to overpower the drives of our flesh; our spirit can and must have a priority that will empower us to prevail over the flesh, and any incursions of the evil one.

We must make a decision; our spirit must be willing to watch and pray. We cannot allow the emphasis to fall on the weakness of the flesh. The emphasis must always fall on the prevailing power and priority of the human spirit to be graced by God’s Holy Spirit to win the victory.

Not a bad prescription for life and for Holy Week too!

:Watch and pray that you not enter into temptation. The indeed spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. (Matt 2:41)

  • γρηγορεῖτε καὶ προσεύχεσθε, ἵνα μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς πειρασμόν  τὸ μὲν πνεῦμα πρόθυμον, ἡ δὲ σὰρξ ἀσθενής. (Matt 2:41)
  • grēgoreite kai proseuchesthe hina mē eiselthēte eis peirasmon to men pneuma prothymon hē de sarx asthenēs (Matt 2:41)

Fr. Francis Martin has been a great teacher of mine. He here comments on the text of Mat 26:41.

See What the End Shall Be – A Homily for Palm Sunday

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The Passion, which we read in today’s liturgy, is too long to comment on in detail. We are only able to take a portion and examine it.

It may be of some value to examine the “middle range” of problems and personalities involved. The usual villains such as the Temple leaders, Judas, and the recruited crowd that shouted “Crucify him!” are fairly obvious in displaying their sinfulness and are unambiguously wicked. But there are others who participate in the Passion accounts whose sinfulness, struggles, and neglect are more subtle, yet still real. It is perhaps in these figures that we can learn a great deal about ourselves who, like them, may not overtly shout, “Crucify,” but who are often not as unambiguously holy and heroic as the persecutors are unambiguously wicked and bold.

As these behaviors are noted, we must understand that WE do these things. For the Passion accounts are not merely portraits of people long gone, they are portraits of you and me. We do these things.

So, let’s look at this middle range group in three stages.

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 reminded of these facts since Jesus has said them before on a few occasions. For example:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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 20:19)

Thus, we see that the Lord has consistently tried to teach and to 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 in rising to new life. But though he has told them over and over, they still do not understand or see. Thus, he predicts that their faith in him will be shaken.

Their perception is partial. They will see only the negative and forget that he has promised to rise. Since they cannot see beyond the apparent defeat of the moment, they will retreat into fear and not accompany him boldly and confidently to his Passion and glorification (for his Passion IS his lifting up, his glorification). Instead, they will flee. He has shown the “what the end shall be,” but they can neither see it nor accept it. Thus, fear overwhelms them and draws them back into a sinful fear and disassociation from Jesus. Only a few, Mary his Mother, John, Mary Magdalene, and a few other women would see him through to the end.

But as for the rest, they see only what is gory and awful, and miss what is glorious and awesome. Their perception is quite partial and their blindness comes, paradoxically, 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 hearing. For the Lord has often told us that if we trust, our struggles will end in glory and new life. But, blind and forgetful, we give way to our fears and fail to walk boldly the way of Christ’s Passion. We draw back, disassociate ourselves from Jesus, and exhibit some of the same tendencies and problems we will now observe in the people of that day.

So let’s examine some of the problems that emerge from the “partial perception” and forgetful fear of many of the disciples and others.

II. The Problems Presented – There are at least five problems that emerge. They are unhealthy and sinful patterns that spring from the fear generated in not trusting Jesus’ vision and refusing to see it. We can consider them one by one. 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. But there’s no need to take everything here personally.

A. They Become Drowsy One of the common human techniques for dealing with stress and the hardships of life is to just go numb and drowsy. We can just doze off into a sort of moral sleep. Being vigilant to threats 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 noting or really even caring about critically important matters. We anesthetize ourselves with things like creature comforts, meaningless distractions, alcohol, or drugs. We go into a kind of moral sleep and we begin to lack a prayerful vigilance. Prayer and spirituality pose too many uncomfortable questions. So we just tune out and daydream about meaningless things like what a certain Hollywood star is doing, or what the latest sports stats are.

In the Passion accounts, Peter, James, and John are personally asked by the Lord to pray with him. But they doze. Perhaps it is the wine. Surely it is the flesh (for the Lord speaks of it). But unwilling or unable to deal with the stress that the Lord is clearly under, they just tune out, go numb, and drowse away. Grave evil is at the very door, but they sleep on. 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. So they just tune out, much as we tune out at 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). For drowsiness is a significant and 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 because we might be lazy, but also because we fear. And one strategy is to try to not notice, to go numb, to tune out. But, despite the sleepiness of the disciples, the wicked are still awake, and 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, for the Lord has told us that we have already won, if we just trust him. But the disciples have forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days. And so, often, have we. So they, and we, just give way to stress and tune out.

B. They Seek to Destroy It is said in the text that when Peter finally does come awake, 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 goes on to heal Malchus who, tradition says, later became a follower.

We too, in our fear can often lash out and even seek to destroy our opponents. We usually act in this way because of fear. But if we are already certain of our victory, as the Lord has promised, why do we fear and 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 too often, we lash out aggressively and seek to win a debate. In so doing, we may lose a soul. The Lord healed Malchus and saw in him a future disciple. The Lord saw what the end would be. Peter did not, and in fear, 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 to a confuse world with clarity. But above all, we are called to love those whom we address. There is little place for fear in our conversation with the world. The truth will out; the truth will prevail. We may not win every encounter. But we do not have to; all we have to do is plant seeds. God will water them and others may well harvest them. But in Christ, we have already won. And this confidence should give us a serenity.

But Peter has forgotten Jesus’ promise to rise after three days. And so, often, have we. So Peter and we just give way to fear and lash out, driven by the need to win, when in fact we have already won.

C. They Deny Peter, confronted with the fearful prospect of being condemned along with Jesus, denies that he knows him or is one of his followers. He disassociates himself from Christ. We too, confronted with the possibility of far lesser things like ridicule, will often deny a connection with the Lord or with the Church.

Someone might say of one of the more controversial passages of scripture (such as commands to tithe, prohibitions on divorces, fornication, and homosexual activity, etc.), “Oh, you don’t really believe that, do you?” And it’s too easy to give way to fear and to either say “No” or to qualify our belief. Why suffer ridicule, endure further questioning, or experience the unpleasantry of debate? So we just disassociate, 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. (Mat 16:21). But too easily we ARE ashamed. And so, like Peter, we engage in some form of denial. Peter was afraid because he had forgotten to “see what the end shall be.” He had forgotten that Jesus would rise after three days. So too do we often forget that. So we lack confidence and give way to fear, and we deny in order to avoid suffering with Jesus.

D. They Dodge – Simply put, 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 own denials, had followed the Lord, “at a distance” (Mk 14:54) but that as soon as trouble arose, he scrammed.

And we too can run. Sometimes it’s because of persecution by the world. But sometimes it’s just our own self-generated fear that following the Lord is too hard, and involves too many sacrifices that we are just not willing to make. Maybe it will endanger our money since the Lord insists that we tithe and be generous to the poor. Maybe it will endanger our playboy lifestyle since the Lord insists on chastity and respect. Maybe we are doing something we have no business doing, something that is unjust, excessive, or sinful. But, rather than face our fears, whether from within or without, we just high tail it out.

The disciples forgot that Jesus had shown them “what the end shall be.” In three days, he would win the victory. But, this forgotten, their fears emerged and they ran. We too, must see “what the end shall be” in order to resist and confront our many fears.

E. They Deflect Now in this case our example is Pontius Pilate, not one of the disciples. But the fact is that Pilate was summoned to faith, just like anyone else. “Are you a King?” he asked Jesus. And Jesus responds by putting Pilate on trial: “Are you saying this on your own, or have others been telling you about me?” The fact is, Pilate has a choice to make. Either he will accept what Jesus is saying as true, or he will give way to fear and commit a terrible sin of injustice. Now the texts all make it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. But, because he feared the crowds, he handed Jesus over.

Now note, 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 16:21). 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 will favor our career or our hide over what is right. And in so doing we will often blame others for what we freely choose. “I am not responsible, my mother dropped me on my head when I was two” …etc.

In effect, we are often willing to say, “Look Jesus, I love you. You get my Sundays, and my tithe and, generally I obey you. But you have to understand, 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 is doing some things that are unjust; I know the world needs a clearer witness from me, and I’ll do all that – after I retire. But for now, well, you know… It’s really my boss who’s to blame. It’s this old hell bound sin-soaked world that’s to blame, not me!” And we wash our hands, and we excuse our silence and inaction in the face of injustice and sin.

And all this is done in fear. We forget “what the end shall be” and get focused on the fearful present. We lack the vision Jesus is trying to give us that in three days we will rise with him. We stay blind to that and only see the threat of now.

III. The Path that is Prescribed – OK, 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; 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 Galilee.

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, and deflect. We’ve already won. All we need to do is hold out.

An old Gospel song says, “I promised the Lord that I would hold out! He said he’s gonna meet me in Galilee!” So hold out; Galilee is not far; in three days we will rise with him!

This Homily was recorded in mp3 format here: Palm Sunday Sermon


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Is He Your King? The Trial Before Pilate

GOOD FRIDAY – All through the night Jesus has been locked in the dungeon of the high priest’s house. Early this morning he was bought before a Pilate who transferred his case to Herod. Herod sent him back to Pilate who, sometime in the mid-morning, bowed to the pressure of the Temple leadership and the crowds, and condemned Jesus to a horrible death by crucifixion. In the late morning Jesus was taken by the soldiers through the city and up the hillside of Golgotha. By noon he is nailed to the cross where he hangs in agony for some three hours. He dies around three in the afternoon. He is taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb hastily before sundown. Today is a day of prayer, fasting and abstinence. Whenever possible, Christians are urged to keep today free of work, of social engagements, of entertainment, and to devote themselves to communal prayer and worship. At noon many parishes gather for stations of the cross for recollections of the seven last words of Jesus. Many parishes also offer stations of the cross at 3pm the hour of Jesus death. In the evening, we gather quietly in our parish Churches to enter into time of prayer as we reflect on Jesus death on the cross. We also pray for the needs of the world. To acknowledge the power of the cross in our lives today, we one by one come forward to venerate the cross with a kiss. Our hunger from this day of fasting is satisfied with Holy Communion distributed at the end of this liturgy. Consider too how the apostles might have gathered that night together in fear and prayer reflecting on all that happened.

The following videos depicts Jesus and Pilate. The First is from The Passion of the Christ. What is remarkable about this clip is that when Pilate addresses Jesus in Aramaic, Jesus answers him in Latin. This is not a biblical fact, but a technique that the producer, Mel Gibson (pray for him) uses. It is something that startles Pilate and the bystanders, for it was unlikely that a Galilean would know enough Latin to hold a conversation, let alone about philosophy and theology! But it would seem to be Gibson’s (pray for him) way of illustrating that this conversation is personal, between Pilate and Jesus, for Jesus uses Pilate’s mother-tongue. Jesus speaks to Pilate in a very personal and serious way: Who do YOU think I am and what will YOU do about it?

The Second clip is from the movie The Gospel of John. It follows the Gospel of John exactly. Notice how Jesus turns the tables on Pilate. Although Jesus is on trial, he ends up putting Pilate on trial! Notice too how many times Pilate goes in and out of Praetorium (Governor’s Palace). At least four times! He is vacillating. He knows Jesus is innocent of the charges. But in the end, out of fear, he suppresses his conscience and hands Jesus over. Pilate had wanted to avoid committing to Jesus one way or the other. But he, like you and me had to make a decision. You might say he goes from vacillation to assassination!

Notice particularly the question Pilate wrestles with over Jesus’ Kingship. He asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” But Jesus will not answer. This is a question Pilate must answer. It is a question you and I must answer. And so Jesus says, “Are you saying this on your own or have others been saying this to you?” In other words am I a King because you say so or are you just saying what others say? Only Pilate can answer if Jesus is a king. Only you and I can answer for ourselves. Is he your King?


When a Curse Becomes a Blessing – Only God Can Do That

Here in Holy Week we ponder the events that led to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Among the things to ponder is a dramatic moment in the trial before Pilate when the people who were present  utter a curse upon themselves. We read of it in Matthew’s Gospel:

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!” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:24-25).

Now of course the people did not intend or think of it as a curse since they were convinced of their righteousness in the matter. Nevertheless, a curse of this sort becomes operative if they do in fact act unrighteously, which they do. Hence we have here a self-imposed curse.

Some care is necessary not to associate this curse merely with the Jewish people. In the past some have used this passage to assert that the Jewish people have suffered rightly for what “they” did to Christ. But of course the Jewish people were divided over Christ. Many followed Jesus and accepted him as Messiah. All the first converts were Jews. Other Jews rejected Jesus. So, which group speaks for “the Jews” and which has the power to bring a curse upon the Jewish people? It seems untenable that a small group of Jews would be able to cause all Jews to be thus cursed.

A better and more personal understanding of the text is that the group represents not the Jewish people per se, but the whole of humanity. For, truth be told, we have all crucified Christ. It is something WE did, not merely some vague group of others called “they.” And this self imposed curse: His blood be on us and on our children!, is something we have all somehow said, we are collectively guilty of the blood of Christ.

So we are cursed! Or are we? Consider the following passage written by the Pope in his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth (Vol 2)

When in Matthew’s account the “whole people” say: “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:25), the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. . . God put [Jesus] forward as an expiation by his blood” (Rom 3:23, 25). Just as Caiaphas’ words about the need for Jesus’ death have to be read in an entirely new light from the perspective of faith, the same applies to Matthew’s reference to blood: read in the light of faith, it means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning. (Jesus of Nazareth P. 187 )

So the intended curse becomes a blessing! As the people (i.e., we) say His Blood be upon us and on our children one can almost hear God say:

You don’t know how right you are! For unless my Son’s blood be upon you, you have no hope. Only if his blood be upon you and your children will you ever be healed and saved. You mean these words for a curse, but I mean them for a blessing! Yes! His blood be upon you! Amen, so be it.

And thus God writes straight with crooked lines. He makes a way out of no way and when we curse, he returns a blessing instead.

This of course is not the only time that God has so acted to bring blessings out of things where curses are really deserved.

1. The most obvious parallel is the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. Joseph’s brothers acted wickedly in staging his death and selling him into slavery. But that very act led to their salvation from famine. For having been sold downstream Joseph end up in Pharaoh’s household and becomes Prime Minister of Egypt. Interpreting Pharaoh’s dream to mean a coming famine after a time of plenty he orders surplus food  to be stored. This saves not only Egypt, but also surrounding lands, to include Canaan. Joseph’s brothers and their families are saved by the very man they sold downstream. Realizing this they fell at his feet prepared to become his slaves. But Joseph said to them regarding their wicked act: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Gen 50:20). And so Joseph was a type (or prefigurement) of Christ. God can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way.

2. Another example from scripture illustrates how, although we may mean one thing by our words, God means another. It is in John Gospel where the High Priest declares that Jesus must die. Note in this passage how he says one thing, but God means another:

But some of them went to the Pharisees, and told them the things that Jesus had done.  The chief priests therefore, and the Pharisees, gathered a council, and said: What do we, for this man does  many miracles? If we let him alone, all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and take away our place and nation.  But one of them, named Caiphas, being the high priest that year, said to them: You know nothing.  Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.  And this he spoke not of himself: but being the high priest of that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation.  And not only for the nation, but to gather together in one the children of God, that were dispersed. (John 11:46-52)

Yes, indeed, when Caiphas spoke of it being better for Jesus to die than the whole nation perish, he meant it as a death sentence on Jesus, but God meant it for salvation. That Jesus should die rather than all of us be lost, never a truer word was spoken! Caiphas meant it for ill but God meant it for good. Yet again, God writes straight with crooked lines, he makes a way out of no way.

So consider well the curse that turned out to be a blessing: His blood be on us and on our children! Never a truer word was spoken. And by it we are saved.

This song says, What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the Blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus