We are about to celebrate Palm Sunday, during which we read the Passion of Our Lord Jesus according to Luke. As we enter into our yearly memorial of the final week of Jesus’s earthly life, we will meditate today on the meanings of Jesus’s suffering and death.
One of the many approaches to understanding the Passion is to focus on the different protagonists. Through them, we can look at ourselves and read our own story within the Passion. They are like a mirror in which we can see a reflection of our inner selves, with all the charms and horrors.
I will focus on three of these historical figures, choosing the most unsympathetic figures, those directly responsible for the death of Jesus. During our meditation we will ask ourselves the following questions: Why was it that our Lord underwent all these barbaric sufferings? Who is ultimately responsible for his death? What is my reaction after witnessing the Passion?
Pilate: He is a figure with whom one could sympathise. At the beginning he showed a strong sense of responsibility. He recognised Jesus’s innocence and tried to set him free. But when the crowd threatened to denounce him to Caesar if he released the socalled King of Jews, he stepped back and ordered Jesus to be scourged and crucified. He preferred his personal interest over his duty as the highest representative of Roman justice.
This brings to my mind a true story from the life of King Baudouin of Belgium (19511993). In 1990, his parliament approved a bill legalising abortion. Since according to the state constitution the legislation could not become law without the consent of the monarch, the king was under great pressure to sign. He sent this note to his prime minister: “This proposed law presents me with a serious issue of conscience. In signing this proposed law... I conclude that I would unavoidably be assuming a certain amount of co-responsibility. This I cannot do.” On the one hand, the law could not come into effect without the king’s approval, which he refused. On the other, he did not have the legal power to oppose the promulgation of a law approved by people’s representatives. How to break this intractable deadlock? A curious legal solution was found. On April 3 1990, at the king’s own request, the government declared him incompetent. In practice he ceased to be king. The following day, the law was approved. Immediately thereafter, the king was re-established in his functions. Despite what happened, he was beloved by his citizens and respected for his ethical principles. Any leader, sensing the conflict between his conscience and his immediate interests, needs to ask for courage and follow his ethical principles, even if he has to suffer.
Caiaphas: He was responsible for the death of Christ, whom he had sought to discredit and marginalise. During the trial he pressured Pilate to crucify Jesus, resorting even to lies and calumnies. The main accusation he brought forward was Jesus’s claim to be a king, which, Caiaphas claimed, could put the empire at risk. This was not true. Jesus had forcefully rejected this title, which the crowds had sought to foist upon him after the multiplication of the bread; moreover, in telling his followers to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” he affirmed the legitimacy of paying taxes to the empire.
At this point, we should state clearly that Caiaphas’s responsibility in this matter was personal and cannot legitimately be made collective, assigning his guilt to all Jews. Despite the cry taken up by some at Jesus’s trial – “his blood be on us and on our children” – as a group, the Jews of Judea of the Holy Land and the Diaspora had nothing to do with these actions by the head of the Sanhedrin. Caiaphas was cynical. In him we see a representation of those political and religious leaders of all times for whom the end justifies means. Machiavellianism should not be considered synonymous with cleverness but rather of perversion and evil. It was this unprincipled philosophy that led to the taking of Jesus’s life.
Judas: Did he really prefer those 30 silver coins to Jesus? This dark figure has found some defenders in modern times. For them, Judas was anti-Roman. He followed Jesus, thinking he was a political liberator. But frustrated by his preaching a spiritual and eschatological kingdom, he turned against him. Why? Through precipitating this crisis, the theory goes, Judas wanted to force Jesus’s hand, obliging him to reveal his messianic mission and power. He supposed that, if condemned to death, Jesus would have reacted, putting into play his extraordinary authority over the world around him. A third theory goes that Judas was merely a tool in God’s hands. As Jesus had to suffer in order to save humanity, it was necessary that someone hand him over to his enemies so that the plan of God be carried out. The last two theories are opposed to what John wrote in his Gospel: Judas was a traitor and a thief. He had gone to the chief priests and discussed with them the price of his betrayal.
Who is responsible for Jesus’s death? Humanly speaking, the figures we have looked at were fully responsible for an ugly crime against an innocent victim. At the same time, his death was a blessing to humanity.
Yet we should remember that there is a big difference between a mere crime and the death of Jesus. Jesus went to his death freely. He could have used his divine might to defend himself. Was not he able to command to the legions of angels to come to his rescue? As he had healed all kinds of diseases, would he not be able to destroy his enemies with one word? Yes. Yet, instead, he accepted death willingly and endowed it with a new spiritual significance. The night before he was betrayed, he took bread, gave it to his disciples and said: “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” After supper, he took the cup and said: “This is the cup of my blood... which will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.” The ultimate cause of Christ’s Passion was not the machinations of Caiaphas, the betrayal of Judas or the cowardice of Pilate. It was His obedience to the Father and his love for us sinners. Sin entered the world through the disobedience of Adam. In the drama that we will rehearse together this week it is the second Adam, Christ himself, who brings salvation.
After hearing the Passion narrative, we may feel downcast and depressed. This should not happen. We have two reasons for feeling consoled: Jesus died because he loved me. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Pope John Paul II once wrote: “ Listen to the crucified one, listen to him speaking to your heart. Listen to him as he says to you, “You are worth so much to me.” God wanted to confirm that the sacrifice of His son had been accepted and that humanity was reconciled forever. We have only to accept God’s forgiveness and to start a new life. How do we know that God accepted this sacrifice and offered us reconciliation? We need a convincing sign. It came on the third day. Jesus’s tomb was found empty. He rose from the dead and we rose with him to a new life.
Mgr William Shomali is the chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem