Friday, April 5, 2013

Things Worth Living For, Things Worth Dying For

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            One way of thinking about Jesus' last week of life is to consider it a preordained and divinely orchestrated affair.  All involved from Jesus' disciples to the Roman governor are swept up in the divine plan to have Jesus die to appease a God who needs blood sacrifice in order to forgive humanity's transgressions.  Another way to consider that first Holy Week is to believe that Jesus, as well as everyone else involved, had choices to make.  If Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem rather than somewhere less risky that week, the outcome would have been different.  So, why did Jesus make the choices he did?
            The four Gospels that made it into the Bible agree on many things about Jesus' final week and disagree on others.  One of the things they agree about is that Jesus had repeatedly been warned that the religious and political authorities did not like what Jesus was teaching and if he continued to do so there would be dire consequences.  Jesus could have stayed in the countryside away from those who made themselves his enemies, but instead Jesus heads straight into the jaws of the beast.  He went to Jerusalem during the week of Passover when religious authorities would be most concerned about their own prestige and power.  Passover celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt.  The Roman Empire took a dim view of such tales of rebellion and liberation, so the Roman governor himself, Pontius Pilate, made an annual trip to Jerusalem during Passover to make sure this celebration of Jewish nationalism did not get out of hand.  If one wished to avoid conflict with the powers that be, one would not go to Jerusalem during Passover, yet Jesus did just that.
            Jesus did not slink into Jerusalem in disguise but rather made a show of it.  The Scottish New Testament scholar G.B. Caird wrote that Jesus' "triumphal entry" amounted to street theatre meant to be political protest.  Jesus' actions on that first Palm Sunday were purposefully provocative.  By riding in from the Mount of Olives on a donkey colt, Jesus took on the trappings of messianic expectations-symbols of the one who would restore Israel to its glory days of autonomy and nationhood.  The last time ancient Israel had been free from foreign occupation was the Maccabean Revolt a few centuries earlier.  Then Judas Macccabeus rode into Jerusalem as the people of the city came out to wave palm branches to welcome him, and then he immediately cleansed the temple from its desecration by foreign occupiers.  The day after Jesus rode into Jerusalem, according to some of the Gospels, Jesus goes to the temple and "cleanses" it by driving out those who have chosen to exploit temple pilgrims through currency exchange.  Each day, Jesus comes to the temple and makes public pronouncements that certainly were not received well by those who already counted Jesus as an adversary.  He declared God desired a different sort of realm where greatness was determined by acts of service rather than wealth and politics.  He announced that God's people included sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes and excluded the self-righteous and legalists.  Certainly Jesus knew how all this would end, why do it?
            If one chooses to view these events as a divinely predestined exercise meant to make Jesus a blood sacrifice to God, then the answer to the why of Jesus' actions hardly matters.  No one, not even Jesus, really has a choice in the matter.  Yet, if one wishes to believe that Jesus-along with everyone else-had a choice, then one possible answer may be that Jesus knew that his message of love and justice was so important that he would choose to face death in order to proclaim it.  By provoking the powers-that-be to arrest and kill him, Jesus forces them to reveal their true character for all too see.  The religious and political authorities do not serve a higher good; they only serve themselves.  By "keeping the peace" and getting rid of a troublemaker, they get to remain in control and power remains in the hands of a few not in the hands of the many.  Sometimes a message of truth is so important a person will die to proclaim it.
            Sister Joan Chittister writes, "Jesus demonstrates that things worth living for are also worth dying for."  Perhaps few of us are actually presented with a life or death choice, but all of us are presented with choices about what we will make sacrifices for.  Sometimes we sacrifice for things that matter (e.g. family, love, justice, etc.) and other times we sacrifice for things that do not (e.g. prestige, comfort, pride, lust, etc.).  Those of us who enjoy the blessings of middle class and higher America do not have to sacrifice very much, but if we wish to follow Jesus, then we are called to sacrifice for the sakes of others who do not share in our blessings. 
            I believe Jesus chose to head to Jerusalem that original Holy Week, chose to provoke those in religious and political authority and chose to face the consequences of his actions.  He did so to unmask the lie the powers of his day told about caring for the common good and he revealed their self-interested attempts at control.  He also made those choices to pose a question to those who would claim to follow him: what makes your life and the lives of others worth living and what will you sacrifice to make those things possible?

Grace and Peace,


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