As we continue to observe Holy Week I have been thinking about those who were angry enough with Jesus that they decided to kill him. In recent years this discussion has centered on “the Empire” that squashed Jesus as a potential insurrectionist. For many years people spoke of the Jewish people as those solely to blame ignoring the role of the Romans in Jesus’ death. I think this subject is more complex. Indeed, the Roman elite would have sought to put down any man who could appear to be bringing hope of liberation to a subjugated people. Likewise, the Jewish elite may have seen him as a threat to the little stability they enjoyed. Rome was not a harsh master to the obedient. The priesthood seemed to benefit from the support of the State. Jesus challenged this pseudo-peacefulness.
What are we to make of the depiction of crowds of people chanting for Jesus to die? I don’t know. It may be that some who wanted him to die by the end of the week had been chanting “Hosanna” a few days prior. Others may not have liked Jesus for various reasons. Maybe they were suspicious of any messianic candidate? Others may have been convinced by the rhetoric of the elite–it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish. It is better to suffer under Rome that to be destroyed by their armies.
What we do not find is a Jesus who merely spoke words of comfort. Jesus must have done more than heal the sick. He must have had a message that was more complex than a blissful afterlife. Jesus said and did the type of things that upset enough people that eventually they would find a way to put him on a Roman cross as a form of capital punishment.
For some it could have been the idea that Jesus was a “sinner” who violated the Law by doing things inappropriate for a Sabbath or by spending time with people who deserved judgment. If some Jews foresaw Israel’s God bringing deliverance as soon as Israel showed they could be faithful to their side of the covenant then Jesus would have been the type of person who prevented deliverance as a gluttonous drunkard who kept bad company.
For others his message of “the Gospel” and “the Kingdom” was not good news at all for those who liked the current Kingdom. Jesus is remembered as someone who did not establish his Kingdom “from” the world as the world establishes kingdoms, but he did speak of the Kingdom of God and that language is a threat to everyone from Herodians to the Caesars. Jesus was remembered as identifying with the “Son of Man”, a figure from the Book of Daniel who received rule over the world. Even if Jesus did not use the sword he spoke as if God might do it for him and all the poor, oppressed, and ignored that followed him.
There were many reasons to kill Jesus for many people.
There is a wonderful song by U2 called “Jesus Christ” that contained some of the following verses:
Well Jesus was a man
Who traveled through the land
A hard working man and brave
Well he said to the rich ‘Give your money to the poor’
For they layed Jesus Christ in his grave
Well he went to the preacher
He went to the law
And told them all the same
He said sell all your jewelery and give it to the poor
For they layed Jesus Christ in his grave
And [hard] working people
They followed him around
They sung and shouted gay
Well the cops and the soldiers
They nailed him in the head
And they layed Jesus Christ in his grave
Well this song was written in New York City
A rich man, preacher and slave
Well if Jesus was to preach what he preached in Galilee
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave
I appreciate the final, “modern” verse about Jesus being in New York City. I think it is true that if Jesus were alive today he would be wire-tapped like the FBI did to Martin Luther King Jr. He would have mocked by those who found his ways too socialist. He may have been found near the Occupy Wall Street group, but as soon as he shared his views on human sexuality and respect for the unborn he may have received a cold shoulder. Politicians would say he is trying to engage in “class warfare” and that his support of other marginalized people was creating an unnecessary “us-against-them” that undermined our shared identity as “Americans” (an argument that sounds good to the ears of the comfortable). Even some Christians would be offended by how quickly he gave attention to the here and now giving a footnote to the “sweet bye-and-bye.”
It may be that Jesus could have survived, but he would have been isolated and threatened. He would have been mocked on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and sterilized by NPR. That is if he would have been acknowledged at all. I think U2 makes a good point though when they say, “Well if Jesus was to preach what he preached in Galilee they would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.” The message of Jesus challenges us all. It angers us all at various points. None of us can claim that Jesus represents us. At the end of the day the challenge of Jesus remains what do we do with him, especially when his sermons and deeds stab us in the heart.