This past week I took my students on an historical journey of the Passion and death of Christ. Religious phrases like “Jesus died for our sins” at times suggest that Jesus himself came in pursuit of the cross and that the cross was nothing less than a preordained action demanded by God onto Jesus and as such the political and social systems of his time merely cooperated in a divine project. This theological perspective has one great flaw; it is not rooted in the Passion narratives of the Bible. At no point does Jesus stroll into the Sanhedrin or the Roman governor’s palace and declare that he is ready to receive this tragic remedy for the expiation of our sins. Instead the narratives tell us about three actors within this drama.
First we have Jesus, He most certainly did have a mandate and when he came into Jerusalem he did have a movement. His mission was to bring the radical message of God’s indiscriminate and egalitarian love to all of humanity. Jesus taught this under the theological concept of the Kingdom of God. In doing this Jesus’ ministry included providing the people of God the basic services and healing that they needed as well as demonstrating radical acts of forgiveness that transcended all social norms. While this ministry had a positive reception in the poorer places of Galilee the fact was that in Jerusalem, the center of social and political power, this was going to be received very differently. Knowing the tradition of the Prophets Jesus warned his disciples that such an encounter between the radical love of God and the social powers that be will end in tragedy.
Now the fact is that Jesus could have come into Jerusalem and quietly offered a gentle version of his message and provided for the basic needs of the people quietly without stirring up a hornets nest. However the Gospels indicate that Jesus was compelled by his divine mission to articulate a political agenda that challenged social and religious corruption from the perspective of God’s love and expectation for his people. God’s justice demanded that the Temple serve the spiritual and social needs of the people. In that way the Temple would be a representation of God’s seat on earth. However the Temple, the center of power for the Chief Priest (who was appointed by the Roman governor) and the Sanhedrin, was instead serving the power base of Jerusalem corrupt religious leaders and their Roman overseers. Because of this Jesus demonstrated against the corruption of the Temple and in protest he spoke against the authority of the Temple declaring its eventual demise. It was this public demonstration that earned Jesus the cross from the second actors of this drama, the political and religious authority.
So it was, in a manner consistent with history of the prophets, that the social powers of Jerusalem declared Jesus a criminal and executed him on the cross. The cross then becomes society’s response to Jesus message of God’s great love for all humanity and the social justice that flows from such an indiscriminate and egalitarian love. But God is by no means silent. It is at this point that God breaks into human history and demonstrates his authority in response to an unjust society. God, the third actor in this drama, is the one that raises Jesus from the dead and the disciples (who were at this point confused and afraid over what took place) witness God’s vindication of his suffering servant. The Cross, a tool of social oppression and injustice, is now turned into a symbol of God great love for Jesus and for us all.
This is the political drama that is played out in what we call Holy Week. This then becomes our message of hope as we continue to preach the message of God’s great justice and love for each and every one of us. This love has demands and Jesus demonstrated to us what those demand are. We are to heal, in body and spirit, the wounded and marginalized members of our community. We must place priority on those who suffer in our society and offer a radical message of love and forgiveness for all who are ready to repent from the sins of self-absorption, unjust competition, and the idolatry of greed. But when our own social structures are at fault for going against this indiscriminate and egalitarian love for all humanity then like Jesus we must apply the politics of the Kingdom of God and challenge social structures as well. Society no doubt will respond as they have in the past, with jeers, ridicule and persecution, but our Christian faith tells us that God does stands on our side and will vindicate his prophets of justice and peace.