Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Where Would We Have Stood In The Crowd?

Placing Ourselves in the Passion Narratives

Christ Before Caiaphas, by Giovanni Battista Caracciolo (c. 1615)

I think there’s at least one thing that Christians of all kinds can agree upon. Whatever the faith tradition, whether one is a traditionalist, a conservative, centrist, moderate, liberal or post-modern, we all seem to agree that if Jesus came back to us today in the same way he came to us 2,000 years ago, it is a near certainty that he would be crucified all over again. The only catch is, we usually see someone else doing it. ”Surely not I, Lord…”

In the Passion narratives read during Holy Week, it is no accident that we are the ones who read the part of the angry crowd. We are the ones who read the part full of anger, not God.

In our model of atonement, if the meaning we are supposed to take out of The Cross is the reconciliation between God and Man, we might want to consider if it was us that needed to be reconciled to God, rather than God to us.

In his short book, A Crucified Christ in Holy Week: Essays on the Four Gospel Passion Narratives, Fr. Raymond Brown wrote:


Personification of different character types in the passion drama serves a religious goal. We readers or hearers are meant to participate by asking ourselves how we would have stood in relation to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. With which character in the narrative would I identify myself? The distribution of palm in church may too quickly assure me that I would have been among the crowd that hailed Jesus appreciatively. Is it not more likely that I might have been among the disciples who fled from danger, abandoning him? Or at moments in my life have I not played the role of Peter, denying Jesus, or even of Judas, betraying him? Have I not found myself like the Johannine Pilate, trying to avoid a decision between good and evil? Or like the Matthean Pilate, have I made a bad decision and then washed my hands so that the record could show that I was blameless?

Or, most likely of all, might I not have stood among the religious leaders who condemned Jesus? If this possibility seems remote, it is because many have understood too simply the motives of Jesus' opponents. True, Mark's account of the trial of Jesus conducted by the chief priests and the Jewish Sanhedrin portrays dishonest judges with minds already made up, even to the point of seeking false witness against Jesus. But we must recognize that apologetic motives colored the Gospels. Remember our official Catholic teaching (Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1964) that, in the course of apostolic preaching and of Gospel writing, the memory of what happened in Jesus' lifetime was affected by the life­situations of local Christian communities.

One coloring factor was the need to give a balanced portrayal of Jesus in a world governed by Roman law. Tacitus, the Roman historian, remembers Jesus with dis­dain as a criminal put to death by Pontius Pilate, the pro­curator of Judea. Christians could offset such a negative attitude by using Pilate as a spokesman for the innocence of Jesus. If one moves consecutively through the Gospel accounts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, Pilate is portrayed ever more insistently as a fair judge who recognized the guiltlessness of Jesus in regard to political issues. Roman hearers of the Gospels had Pilate's assurance that Jesus was not a criminal.

Another coloring factor was the bitter relationship be­tween early church and synagogue. The attitudes at­tributed to "all" the Jewish religious authorities (Matt 27:1) may have been those of only some. In the group of Jewish leaders who dealt with Jesus it would be astound­ing if there were not some venal "ecclesiastical" politicians who were getting rid of a possible danger to their own position. (The Annas highpriestly family of which Caiaphas was a member gets low marks in Jewish memory.) It would be equally amazing if the majority did not consist of sincerely religious men who thought they were serving God in ridding Israel of a troublemaker like Jesus (see John 16:2). In their view Jesus may have been a false prophet misleading people by his permissive attitudes toward the Sabbath and sinners. The Jewish mockery of Jesus after the Sanhedrin trial makes his status as a prophet the issue (Mark 14:65), and according to the law of Deuteronomy 13:1-5 the false prophet had to be put to death lest he seduce Israel from the true God.

I suggested above that in assigning ourselves a role in the passion story some of us might have been among the opponents of Jesus. That is because Gospel readers are often sincerely religious people who have a deep attach­ment to their tradition. Jesus was a challenge to religious traditionalists since he pointed to a human element in their holy traditions-an element too often identified with God's will (see Matt 15:6). If Jesus was treated harshly by the literal-minded religious people of his time who were Jews, it is quite likely that he would be treated harshly by similar religious people of our time, including Christians. Not Jewish background but religious mentality is the basic component in the reaction to Jesus.


crystal said...

I like that idea, Jeff - putting oneself in the Passion narrative. It's a lot like the third week of the Spiritual Exercises. Usually people think of themselves as disciples, so it's interesting to imagine oneself being one of the "bad guys" of the story. I'm trying to do this every night ... it's hard and I'm not doing much of a job of it.

Charles of New Haven said...

Where I go to school you never hear about Ray Brown without the prefix, "the great." Recently I was turned onto a great book on some of these atonement questions: S. Mark Heim's "Saved from Sacrifice" (Eerdmans, 2006) which is a valiant effort to let go of the model of satisfying the debt or pacifying the angry God, while still holding onto the language of sacrifice.

Liam said...

Great post, Jeff, and yes Friar Charles, Raymond Brown really is great.

I think the fact that we are given palms and then the role of the angry crowd is interesting -- it's one thing to support Jesus when everyone else is, it's different when everyone has turned against him.

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Come to think of it, that is a lot like the Spiritual Exercises, sin't it? I admire you for the way you've been keeping up with the Creighton Retreat. So far, I've been too lazy to follow the Spiritual Exercises diligenty.

Hi Friar & Liam,

Yes, Brown was great. I sure wish he was still alive. I'd love to hear his take on a lot of the things that have been written lately. Friar, I'm glad that you guys are looking at alternative ways of looking at the atonement. Have you seen the article on sacrifice by James Alison that Crystal has recommended? It's excellent.