I am giving the talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter on Fridays in April. This is the transcript of first one looking forward to Palm Sunday this coming Sunday.
This Sunday, in the Church’s calendar, it is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter. It is the most important week in the Church’s year. Palm Sunday is so named because on it the Church remembers how Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on the first day of the week and how the crowds who gathered greeted him by waving palm branches and proclaiming him their King. At the end of the week, however, he was dead, crucified by the Romans. Why? Why was he killed?
At first sight it is an easy enough question to answer. The Romans were a ruthless occupying power who allowed no challenge to their rule. Jesus riding into Jerusalem and people proclaiming him King was not something they were likely to take lightly. Particularly as this was Passover when Jerusalem was full of pilgrims remembering how Israel had been led out of slavery into freedom in the Promised Land. Tensions were always high. No mystery then as to why the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate would want him killed.
Except he didn’t!
Not only was it not the Romans who had Jesus arrested in the first place, it only took Pilate a few moments questioning Jesus for him to realize that Jesus was no threat to Roman control and had no desire to be a King. At least, not in any way that would pose a threat of any kind to him or Rome. Pilate decided simply to have Jesus beaten, just to show who was boss, and then released.
No, those who had arrested Jesus were the local Jerusalem authorities. And they had handed him over to Rome only because they didn’t have the authority to kill him themselves. They could punish him, but not kill him. For that they needed the Romans, even though they hated the Romans as the occupying power. So what made them so determined to have Jesus killed?
Here is where it all gets very difficult and the answers often given simply do not make sense. For example, one answer you will hear this Easter is that Jesus had spent the past three years teaching people to make love the most important thing in their life. He had welcomed those who were outcasts and seen as sinners to be his friends. He had been inclusive of all regardless of their sex, past, social status, or background. He taught, it is said, that love is more important than religious rules and rituals. The religious people, so the argument continues, couldn’t bear this and valued keeping their religious practices more than loving people. And so, they had him killed.
This really will not do.
It is true that Jesus and the religious leaders and teachers of his day did not agree with each other and that they were very critical of him and he of them. They argued with each other and even argued violently at times. Religious figures like Jesus who help and heal people may provoke anger and jealousy, but to suggest that the Jewish authorities got into bed with the Romans simply because of religious arguments and because Jesus was too loving really is not very convincing.
It is even, it has to be said, somewhat antisemitic based as it often is on the mistaken belief that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was shallow and superficial and its leaders so deluded and despotic that they feared an uneducated carpenter from Galilee who criticized them for not being nice.
Christians follow a crucified Christ. The Cross is the universal symbol of Christianity. It is central to the faith we believe in and which we proclaim. But it is not enough this Easter to tell people they need to believe in and follow a crucified Christ, we need to explain to them why he was crucified in the first place. And to do that we need to show what it was about Jesus and his teaching that made otherwise good people want to murder him.
It is not sufficient, in other words, to know that Jesus was crucified, we need to know why he was crucifiable. Responding that he was simply too good is simply not good enough.
Jesus deserves better of those of us who are his followers than that this Easter.