In his book "Being transfigured" Chris E. W. Green writes:
No matter what we’ve heard, the passion is not The Greatest Story Ever Told, not the Last Battle between Good and Evil. It’s the unfolding of everyday petty jealousies; religious fervor and political savvy; predictable crowd dynamics and all-too-familiar fear of the police; common cruelty; common cowardice; confusion and uncertainty; and, most of all, stupidity. St. Paul says that if the rulers of this world had known what they were doing, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8).
Jesus’ arrest, trials, and execution—remember, those are the terms the authorities want us to use—happened naturally, not supernaturally. It’s easy to overlook the fact that almost nothing is said about evil or the diabolic in the passion narratives...
[After Jesus’ baptism, Matthew bears witness to Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. He doesn’t succumb to the pressure. He goes on to heal infirmities, open eyes, release the bound] ...but once he has reached the city, he falls into the hands of powerful men—their agendas, their ambitions, their fear of the mob. And everyone else, including those who love him best, find themselves at a loss about what to do to save him. Just so, the Gospel confronts us with a terrifying truth: Jesus’ life ended as it did, not because the powers of evil overcame him, still less because God forced it to happen for the sake of accomplishing a predetermined “plan,” but because ordinary human beings, including the faithful ones, could not imagine an alternative to the injustice they found themselves enacting.
We need to feel the weight of this truth
We need to feel the weight of this truth. People condemned Jesus, and required his death, or failed even to try to save him from his sufferings, not because they despised him, but because they were so afraid of their own death or the end of their way of life that they could not see what was happening to him as anything but unavoidable. A few, perhaps, gloated in Jesus’ sufferings. Some, no doubt, wanted to see the end of his ministry. But most, I’m sure, admired him, or at least regarded him with respect. Why, then, do they accept his death without protest?
It’s not hard to imagine what the ordinary folk in the city and the outlying towns must have said to one another after they heard the news. I can see them shaking their heads in disbelief: “It’s too bad, really. I’m no fan of Pilate or Herod or Caiaphas, as you know. But at the end of the day, what else were they going to do?” “It’s not right. It’s not right. But he did push it too far, didn’t he?” “We should’ve said something, done something. But what?”
Not everyone cried, “Crucify him!” But did anyone cry, “Do not crucify him”? Judas was paid to betray him. But no one tried to buy his release. Not everyone forsook him. Not everyone that passed by him on the cross mocked him. But did anyone cry out to God for his deliverance?
No doubt, some in the circles of power, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, did not agree to Jesus’s condemnation. But even they seem to have been more or less resigned to Jesus’ fate. And those outside the circles of power, including his disciples and his family, surely felt something of that same helplessness. Peter was not the only disciple to deny him. That helplessness, that reluctance to resist injustices, that sense of inevitability of evil that we hear whispering through the story and its silences is the “slavery aspect” of sin, exposed by the miseries and mysteries of God’s passion. (Being Transfigured, 125-129)
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After Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he comes to the Mount of Olives on his way to Bethany “The House of the Poor”, where his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus abide. Walking past a hillside of tombs, he reaches the crest of a ridge near an olive grove. From this vantage you can turn east and see an unobstructed view of the Temple Mount.
His disciples ask him how the fig tree Jesus cursed, withered at once. Jesus responds, “if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” - Matthew 21:18-22
We should pause here. A way-point on the arduous journey of Holy Week, as we travel further to abide with the ‘poor ones’ and Jesus.
Something Chris Green makes abundantly clear is the ordinariness of everything occurring this week. Up till now, Jesus has demonstrated that nothing happens to him, Jesus happens to all things. As he enters the Holy City of Peace, Jerusalem, it is anything but. There is a disquiet just under the surface, a “whispering through the story and its silences”. It is not some maleficent demon, possessing its inhabitants. It’s our own inability to recognize the King of Glory, the powerlessness we feel to the grinding wheels of injustice, the sense that this is all inevitable, what am I to do???
Abortion, Gun violence, racism…some may feel more strongly about one or the other, but they are all examples of the institutional weight of mountain-sized forces crushing millions. We watch cable news with a mix of outrage and apathy at the lack of actionable transformation of society.
This April 19th is the 30th anniversary of the final siege, of the 51 day stand-off between Branch Davidians and the ATF.
A voice is heard in a command tent “enough is enough, we’ve got to do something for those kids in the compound. Send in the tanks with non-lethal tear gas”. Another voice raised from David Koresh himself, behind locked doors, “you all can leave if you want but you won’t receive any blessing from me. I am listening to God”…and then 76 are killed on April 19th, including 28 children. Ordinary people inside and outside the compound that day, couldn't imagine another way forward. The authorities were there for the safety of the people inside the compund and the surrounding community. On the outside, while some observed some of the children that were released in earlier negotiations, they said things like "these kids don't look abused, I've seen abused children, they don't play like this. These kids are loved".
And yet, “…ordinary human beings, including the faithful ones, could not imagine an alternative to the injustice they found themselves enacting.”
Please hear at least what I’m meaning to say. I’m not advocating for the U.S. government nor the Branch Davidians. I am seeing myself in the commentary on the stalemate…feeling powerless to all that is before us. Why were the followers of Koresh stockpiling guns and living as separatists…”I mean they were asking for it, right?” Why was the government flying choppers and sending tanks to a religious sect before sending social services, or simply knocking on the door and saying “Hey, what are y’all doing here? …and why so many guns???”.
I think Jesus reveals the power of sin in our natural moral intuitions. Not just with the harm we do, but the good we intend.
This is Holy Week
I don’t believe this story is laid before us
to foster a sense of hopelessness or inevitability
Jesus atop the Mount of Olives turns to his disciples and engages them in reflection. Standing on one mountain while looking over the valley at another. The Temple. His disciples ask how the fruitless fig tree withered so fast and he tells them, “if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:18-22)
I’ve heard many a religious teacher opine on mustard seed faith for self-serving power. “If you JUST believe…you will have what you need: health, a happy marriage, a nice car and obedient children” But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about….at all. I think he’s inviting us to imagine an alternative reality. A new creation. Where the very people of God, who were incorporated into God’s own body, could be a source of healing instead of harm. Where the blind see and children are welcomed rather than sacrificed as some sort of spiritual offering. Where the people of God aren't serving themselves or their own sense of moral rectitude, but rather serve their neighbor. The Mountain, this large immovable object that grabs hold of our vision…is the Temple.
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. (John 2:19-21)
Christ is not only revealing to us the ways in which we have erred, he is redeeming our flesh that we might become truly human. Whatever Christ assumes, he heals. Whatever he takes on, he transforms...be it our the tabernacle of our flesh or the stone of the Temple. As the apostle Paul writes, “that God may be all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28c)
God does not simply show us a better way, so we can DO better, and TRY harder. God is causing the blind to see, he’s healing our imaginations to see that another world is possible AND he is leading us there, whilst accompanying us along the way toward the “house of the poor”. Where we become who we are created to be in relationship to God and our neighbor. Living stones in a tabernacle of God's very Spirit.