Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palms, Passion, and Pitiful Excuses for Biblical Role Models

By investing so much into Lent, Easter Sunday becomes even more exciting. I am looking forward to Easter this year in a giddy way that kids look forward to Christmas. As that’s as it should be, isn’t it? NOTHING should be more exciting than the Resurrection. But we’re not there yet. There’s still Holy Week, and while excited probably isn’t the word to use for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, I’m still glad they’re here too. Each is a juicy bit of a great story; you can’t skip to chapter 36 of a novel; you have to go page by page and get lost in the symbols and nuance and long run-on sentences written by souls like me who replace periods with semi-colons when eager about something.

Palm Sunday today was a pre-celebration. After five weeks of (trying to) study Jesus’ actions and words and messages, there’s the excitement of something to celebrate. The king is recognized! He is here! Look, pretty palm leaves! And then the week quickly turns dark with the betrayal, the arrest, and the death sentence.

It all happens so fast on the liturgical calendar (we covered all of it in one service this morning) that some, including me, forget just why the tides turned so quickly. The overall story of the Passion is great (“the greatest story ever told”), but the side stories make it richer, and for me, much more realistic and human. So instead of Jesus (He gets three other days of focus this week), I want to look at three men who often get a bad rap, but are important to me.

Judas: I can’t deny that he’s the villain of the story. But he wasn’t that different from many of the other disciples. A lot of the stories about Jesus and the disciples are the followers acknowledging Jesus is Messiah, but still not really “getting it.” They keep getting surprised by Jesus: He talks to outcasts, He doesn’t rule like a king, He dies. They don’t really get it until the Resurrection, but bless them, they try. But Judas was legit disappointed Jesus wasn’t what he expected the Messiah to be. Judas didn’t hate Jesus; he hated Rome. And Jesus didn’t lead the rebellion against Rome that Judas wanted. Judas shouldn’t be so vilified that we fail to see ourselves in him. God can’t be exactly what we want Him to be.

Besides, and this isn’t an excuse for Judas’ betrayal but more of an observation, someone had to it. Someone had to set the events of the arrest into action, or else there wouldn’t have been a trial and a crucifixion and a resurrection. He had a role to play, even Jesus recognized it. Unfortunately, it was to be the worst friend in the history of the world. (And he did feel guilty afterword. Everyone forgets that part.)

Pilate: While I admit that Judas did wrong, I don’t understand why Pilate gets a bad rap. Even the Apostle’s Creed says “crucified by Pilate,” but really, he didn’t have a choice. He even tried to get out of it. He offered the people the chance to release Jesus, but they insisted He be crucified. Pilate asks what Jesus did wrong; he doesn’t understand why Jesus is even there. He is trying to please the Jewish population he rules over. Jesus is arrested for braking Jewish law, not Roman. Pilate sees no fault in Jesus (though he doesn’t recognize anything extraordinary). He literally washes his hands of the matter.

I have a soft spot for Pilate. He was just doing his job. Yes, he could have stopped the whole thing and didn’t. And maybe it’s a sign of weakness to allow it to happen while also refusing responsibility. But I believe Pilate. I like him. I feel like in his position I would have done the same, unfortunately. To him, Jesus was a Jewish problem. If the people wanted Him gone, Pilate didn’t have any incentive to argue.

And it’s important that it was the people that really sent Jesus to his death. Not “those Jewish people.” If Jesus had been born Chinese, it would have been “those Chinese people.” The point is that, as a whole, His own people called for his death. You can’t blame a small group of Jewish leaders or Pilate, because in the end, the people, the masses, the world had a chance to save Him but cried for blood instead.

Thomas: I’m skipping ahead in the story here. The Resurrection had happened, and most disciples “got it” by now. But there’s one in every group, isn’t there? Actually, there were quite a few; the Gospel of John is the only one that points Thomas out. The others say that many of the followers didn’t believe at first, proving that Thomas is unfairly singled out. In any case, it wasn’t that doubting Thomas didn’t want to believe; it was just a bit harder for him. I’m an INTJ, so I understand his doubt of the miraculous rumors. I think most agnostics could relate to Thomas too. Some of us just want some concrete proof. It makes believing so so much easier. I mean, you don’t want to be so gullible as to believe any old thing someone tells you. However, the truth is the truth, and one has to trust their faith is true, even when it’s not neatly wrapped up pragmatist logic.

The weak men of the Gospel are just so…human. I think they tried to do their best and just fell short. We can try to be like Christ, but most of the time, we wind up like Judas or Pilate or Thomas. And there is some comfort in knowing that even those who knew Christ in the flesh acted like that. The lesson is to learn from their weaknesses, to see them in us and strive to overcome: to remain loyal when things don’t go our way, to stand up when we see injustices, and to keep our minds open to those spiritual moments that defy oh-so-human logic.

[Pictures: Judas in "Jesus Christ, Superstar," which is as sympathetic of Judas as you could expect; "Pilate Washing His Hands" by Duccio di Buoninsegna (I have a soft spot for medieval art as much as I do Pilate); The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio]

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