Some of you may have read Viktor Frankl’s famous book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ written in 1946, about his experiences in Germany’s WWII concentration camps. Frankl writes of the importance of understanding our capacity to make choices about how we die, even when confronted with a gas chamber, stripped naked ready for death.
I was reminded of this book because of the way Jesus confronts and owns his choices about his death which we hear in the Palm Sunday Gospel, Matthew 21:1-11 and the Passion Sunday Gospel, Matthew 27:11-54. In both these readings we are transported from a triumphant entry into the city where the revolution is about to start, throwing off the detested Roman oppressor of the Israelites, to betrayal by the same supporters and onlookers a few days later, and a very public, cruel death. Two very different opportunities for Jesus to make decisions about his future and yet he chooses a third way most of us deny and misunderstand.
Both readings require a strong stomach to read. Each year I am reduced to tears as I narrate the story, confronting the horror of the injustice and inhumanity of decisions arising from human fear, laziness, greed and power.
Jesus insistently repeats a message his disciples have still not understood and those around him refuse to believe. His messianic story is so unlike anything anyone could imagine, they simply ignore it. Matthew reminds us Jesus is the Messiah who was oppressed and afflicted, (Isaiah 53:7) who brings peace, releases the prisoners and breaks the weapons of war (Zechariah 9:9-12).
We live in a world full of populist leaders and powerful dictators; questions about violence and resistance are real for many. Somewhere in the chaos between enthusiastic, loud support and total rejection surrounding Jesus, we find the actions of the religious leaders, the disciples, Judas and the people around Jesus shaped by fear and indifference.
However, Jesus deliberately, carefully chose his pathway between the two extremes and the obvious choices and kept faith with God to the exclusion of everything else. It led him inevitably to his death. He predicted his death throughout his ministry. People around Jesus did not want what he was promising, which would be at the expense of their own positions, security and power. They were fearful of the consequences.
Jesus becomes a beaten, shameful, failure. Jesus, Son of God, is betrayed, tortured and crucified. Matthew’s words are blunt. God is crucified and we have to examine our faith honestly. Jesus did not die abandoned by God as a sacrifice or payment to enable others to be forgiven. He did not die as a judgement on the world. God did not permit these evil events. Jesus was killed because people were frightened and they did not want to hear his message. Jesus was made an example of failure through state sanctioned murder in which everyone present and those who stood by, colluded.
I am reminded how we too believe contradictory things. Good people believe in capital punishment, the necessary torture of prisoners of war, as in Abu Graib for the greater good. Tacit supporters of torture and state-sponsored execution calculate the mistreatment of a few bad apples to save the lives of thousands. Good people accept illegal detention, torture, rape and inhumane treatment in our own refugee detention centres and prisons. Good people speak of God’s love and hear of God’s refusal, even on the cross, to retaliate, kill, or betray his enemies. Good people moved by the story of Christ’s killing, still carry guns and threaten others who are different.
William Sloane Coffin, Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 80s, preached on those who stood around the cross, watching and waiting. Luke’s gospel tells us:
‘When all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.’ (Luke 23:48)
Coffin said: ‘All it takes for evil to triumph in the world is for a lot of good people to go home beating their breasts.’
While many cannot see themselves in my more extreme examples, nonetheless by not actively opposing torture and abuse of detainees, or the treatment of refugees, of our Indigenous sisters and brothers, our LGBTQI community members, women and domestic violence, homelessness, living wages, sadly, our first consideration is rather, ‘how will this impact me?’ We have turned our backs on God, hanging on the cross like so much unwanted rubbish. We go home beating our breasts, shut our front doors and thank God we are not like them.
Theologian Miroslav Volf points out ‘There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.’
Why do we, as Christians sit idly by? We’ve heard the Sermon on the Mount, we’ve read the gospels, we know what Jesus asks of us when confronted with violence, hatred, discrimination, fear, and its not to respond in kind! Jesus clearly asked us to love our enemies, not to hate, fear, torture or execute them. Jesus also lived and worked with people on the margins, not in the centres of power. He was not interested in power, coercion or violence and nor should we be.
As Viktor Frankl’s story reminded us, Jesus was not a victim, but an instigator. From the moment he chose to be the suffering Messiah, to live his ministry revealing God’s message of love, to go to Jerusalem and to his dying breath, he is in charge. He intentionally refuses opportunities to change the outcome for his ministry and life.
In this story, we are reminded God’s power is made clear not in Jesus coming down from the cross or avoiding arrest and death, but in enduring it. Divine power is found in the midst of human vulnerability, not in transcending it. Deliverance is in and through the suffering Jesus endured on the cross, not in avoiding it. God’s deliverance is where most people assume it is absent, in the midst of the suffering. We have freedom through Christ to bear witness to love even in situations steeped in death and violence, knowing somehow Jesus Christ is present, and God’s love is forever stronger than death. Because of this, we are called as witnesses to Jesus and his suffering, to go into the world to places where suffering exists and to spread the good news: God is present, God loves us and death is conquered. The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels Matthew, Vol. 2 Chapters 14-28. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.