Today is Good Friday and the reading of the Passion from St. John’s Gospel enables us to reflect on both the historical and the theological reasons for Jesus’ death. Discussion has often focused almost exclusively on one or the other. Sometimes the political circumstances that led to Jesus’ death are discussed with little attention given to the underlying theology. Alternatively, an attempt is made to elucidate a theology of the atonement, without addressing the particular circumstances that led Jesus to be crucified. It may therefore be useful to reflect on both of these themes as the Passion narrative in St. John’s Gospel clearly does reflect on both the history and on the theology, rather than on one at the expense of the other.
What are the historical reasons for the crucifixion of Jesus? The titulus on the cross read in Hebrew, Greek and Latin “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Since the Jewish nation was at that time subject to the Roman Empire anyone who claimed to be “King of the Jews” was placing himself in opposition to the power of Rome and was therefore guilty of treason. Pilate agreed to crucify Jesus because, though he realised that Jesus was not an insurrectionist in the conventional sense (had he genuinely believed this he would have executed his followers as well), Jesus had not disavowed when interrogated a technically treasonable claim. The Jewish authorities pointed out to Pilate, “If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend, whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar” (John 19:12). Pilate therefore crucified Jesus in order to maintain his own position as a governor on good terms with the emperor.
But why did the Jewish authorities hand Jesus over to Pilate? They saw Jesus as a false prophet and blasphemer who was leading the people astray. Though they were allowed a considerable degree of autonomy under Roman rule they did not possess the power to execute him themselves (which was the prerogative of the Roman governor in Judea). Indeed, St. John’s Gospel preserves an account of a session of the Sanhedrin (before the account in the passion narrative which we heard today) in which it is agreed that Jesus must be removed to preserve the delicate balance of autonomy which the Jewish authorities currently enjoyed under Roman rule. “If we let him thus alone all men will believe on him and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:48). In the words of Caiaphas the high priest “It is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50). This statement not only provides the key to the situation from the perspective of the Jewish authorities, it also points to the sacrifice of the one for the many that explains Jesus’ death from the point of view of the theology of his death as an atoning sacrifice.
Having examined why Jesus died from the perspective of both the Roman and the Jewish authorities we must now consider why Jesus himself saw his death as the fulfilment of his vocation. After all, if he had behaved differently at both the Roman and the Jewish trial and clearly disavowed any messianic pretensions he would probably have been acquitted and released with a flogging. Instead, he chose not to resist and embraced death as part of his vocation.
“It is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and that that the whole nation perish not.” The Jewish nation had been born out of suffering in their redemption from slavery in Egypt. Part of the vocation of the Hebrew prophets who spoke truth to power was that they were subject to persecution. Many of the Psalms speak of the suffering righteous man. The Maccabean martyrs were seen as righteous sufferers for the sins of the nation who suffered rather than compromise with paganism. But, above all, there was the figure of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, who suffered in substitution for the sins of the nation, who bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors. In his non resistance at his trial and his praying for his persecutors Jesus took the weight of the evil of the situation upon himself and somehow subsumed it into good. He had taught the way of non violence, of turning the other cheek, and of going the second mile, of loving enemies and praying for persecutors, of self sacrifice, of overcoming evil with good, of power made perfect in weakness. He therefore died on behalf and in substitution for the sins of fallen humanity.
T. S. Eliot put it like this
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
Which shall not leave us, but prevents us everywhere
The dripping blood our only drink
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.