My newsletter article this week:
For Western Christians Holy Week is upon us. It begins this Sunday with Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday celebrates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem followed by a week of drama that culminates in his betrayal, arrest, trial, execution, and resurrection on Easter Sunday. Even as a progressive Christian who doesn't take literally the details of the story, I look forward each year to retelling and re-imagining the Holy Week narrative.
Over the years my thinking about this week and the specifics of Jesus' last days has been in flux? Did he really ride a donkey into the city, replaying the story from the prophetic book Zechariah? Was he making a messianic claim? Did he provoke a "fight" in the Temple? Was he trying to get himself killed in the hopes that God would intervene? Was there really a Judas who betrayed him? Was there anyone there at the foot of the cross? Was there anyone to bury him after he died? Three days in the tomb is symbolic, but how long was it really before some of his followers began to proclaim his resurrection?
So many questions that I don't know the answer to. And so many different opinions and theories from the bible itself as well as biblical scholars and everyday Christians. I don't know what I believe about the details of Jesus' last days. But I do have a pretty good idea why he ended up on a cross. First let me say that I don't buy the traditional explanation. The traditional explanation is that his death was part of God's plan. To pay the price for our sin, or to be lifted up in glory fully revealed as the Son of God. There are actually more than a few biblical and theological explanations of how his death was a necessary part of God's plan for the world.
I don't think it was part of God's plan. I don't think his death was necessary, for him or for us. I do think it was almost inevitable and not at all surprising, given the times he lived in and the way the Romans had little tolerance for dissent of any kind and the way they made frequent use of crucifixion to punish trouble-makers and set a public example.
I also think there was something about Jesus himself that made his untimely death almost inevitable and not at all surprising. Christian theology says that Jesus was fully God and fully human. What I think this means is that Jesus was more fully human than most of us and therefore he looked more God-like in the eyes of some of those who saw him.
I don't think that Jesus was born divine. Or more precisely, I think we are all born divine. We are all born with the spark of the divine in us. I think that Jesus may well have been born gifted (or haunted) with a spiritual restlessness. I suspect that he became a serious spiritual seeker. He didn't suddenly emerge on the scene inspired at 30. He spent his young life "in the wilderness" metaphorically, learning to know himself and digging deeper into the spiritual traditions of his day. It seems almost certain that he also spent some time in the wilderness literally as a disciple of John the Baptist. This would have been part of his vision quest.
However it happened - and we really don't know any details of his young life - he emerged publicly on the scene as a deeply spiritual person, more fully human. In one sense, of course, you are either human or you are not. But when we grow spiritually and emotionally we become more fully human, we tap more deeply into our capacity to be spiritually awake, emotionally intelligent. It is always in there in all of us, but we don't all grow at the same rate. And to be honest some of us are so scarred and beaten down and cynical that we become less human as time goes on.
Jesus became more fully human. He likely knew himself deeply; he faced his demons. He knew his spiritual tradition more deeply, remembering always that he was always fully Jewish. He was full of compassion for the suffering of his people; he wanted them to be liberated from their bondage the way he was liberated. He had found a way of navigating his spiritually hungry, poverty-stricken, sometimes brutal world; it was a way that offered healing and hope. It was a spiritual path, and he began to share it with family, friends, and strangers.
What could be dangerous about that? How could that possibly get you killed? When the system is sick, there is nothing more dangerous than a healthy person. While some will be attracted to the "light" and want to learn and feed off of it's warmth, those who profit emotionally or financially or politically off of the way things are now will be threatened. They will want to fix or remove the "problem." By definition, any people occupied by a foreign power is a "sick" system.
The Bible says that even his own family thought he was crazy, at least for a time. As his traveling entourage moved from town to town he attracted curiosity, followers, and opposition. His open table and public acts of healing threatened the boundaries and rules of the cultural and religious establishment. His peaceful non-resistance to the violence of Roman rule threatened the political powers. If, as the scriptures tell us, his journeying took him to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover he was being watched carefully. It wouldn't have taken much provocation during the already highly charged Passover celebration (a celebration, after all, all about liberation from oppressive political rule) to get him arrested, quickly tried, and hung on a cross. If he engaged in a symbolic act of protest at the Temple as scripture reports, that would have been enough to seal his death warrant.
It might have been the end of the Jesus story, too. It wasn't, but that is a subject for another post. Let me end this one by reiterating that I believe the path that Jesus found for himself and shared with others was a path of healing and hope. It was both an inward journey that led to a deeper, more fully human person. And it was an outward journey that led to more fully human and just communities. It was personal and it was political. It was liberating and it was dangerous. It was then, and it is now.