Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.
On this Good Friday, I hope to bring things down to earth to provide a contrary approach to what is often such a whitewashed and supernatural crucifixion. As if Jesus, this really good church-going soul was put to death by the rest of humanity — us grave sinners. He did nothing ‘wrong’. We just killed him because he was nice.
First of all, Jesus wasn’t really that ‘nice’ as in Ned-Flanders-nice. Jesus and Ned Flanders would NOT get along, I assure you. Jesus was a hellraiser (actually, a heaven-raiser would be a much better term, but the ferocious intensity behind what his work would match that of a hellraiser).
So here we have this heaven-raiser who was consoling sinners, healing lepers, hanging out with people deemed as prostitutes, and vociferously shaking his fist at the Roman dominance system.
The latter is what I’ll focus on here…
As the author and religious studies scholar Reza Aslan alludes to in his book, ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the forgiving account to Pontious Pilate trying to let Jesus off the hook may not have been super accurate. Instead, he portrays Pilate as a shrewd executioner who showed mercy on no one. Cases that came before Pilate meant case closed and all Pilate did was sign off on the executions. He didn’t deliberate over them.
(Excuse me, I forget where in the book this is from exactly, I just remember my wife reading that part of the book to me and I found it fascinating.)
Aslan claims that Jesus was processed just as harshly as any other defector to the Roman Empire.
As theologian Marcus Borg puts it…
Was Jesus guilty or innocent? Because language familiar to Christians speaks of Jesus as sinless, perfect, righteous, spotless, and without blemish, the question will seem surprising to some. But it is worth reflecting about.
As Mark tells the story, Jesus was not only executed by the method used to execute violent insurrectionists; he was physically executed between two insurrectionists. Was Jesus guilty of advocating violent revolution against the empire and its local collaborators? No.
As Mark tells the story, was Jesus guilty of claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed? Perhaps. Why perhaps and not a simple yes? Mark does not report that Jesus taught this, and his account of Jesus’s response to the high priest’s question about this is at least a bit ambiguous.
As Mark tells the story, was Jesus guilty of nonviolent resistance to imperial Roman oppression and local Jewish collaboration? Oh, yes. Mark’s story of Jesus’s final week is a sequence of public demonstrations against and confrontations with the domination system. And, as all know, it killed him.
I say Jesus — though absolutely nonviolent — was guilty in the eyes of the law. And leading up to that day, I don’t think Jesus saw himself as this lamb/dove-like nice guy who weeps on the way to the cross.
Jesus had some hell — I mean, heaven-raising — to do. He saw the injustice with the law and how it traced back through his scriptures of the Hebrew Bible. He knew that the law never healed anyone and he had a really good idea that someday he’d be killed for saying it so loudly.
I don’t believe he saw his role as ‘son of God’ (he never called himself this) following a perfectly laid out divine plan from his daddy in the clouds. Jesus of Nazareth was on a mission to extend the radical one-way grace of God to as many hurting souls as he possibly could. He was spreading a subversive and very public (albeit peaceful) rebellion against the violent dominance structure of his day.
I want to share with you the words of my dear friend and religious scholar, Joel Cruz:
Today in history:
An innocent man was publically tortured and executed — lynched — by police on trumped up charges brought on by both religious officials and politicians
Today in theology:
God has shown what side God is on. God identifies with and forever stands on the side of the victims of state and religious sponsored terrorism — whether they are shot in their backyards, separated from their children at the border, sexually abused by prison guards, or gay bashed in a church. And in exposing the evils of such violence God forever judges and condemns it.
In a few days we will celebrate the triumph of the Victim and look to the vindication of all victims everywhere. But for today, let us sit with the ambiguity — the God forever on the side of the poor and the recurring story of human violence perpetrated on others and on God’s creation.
Jesus was guilty-as-charged in the eyes of the law. But in his heart, he was the most innocent being ever. This is the substitution that took place. Strict adherence to the law leads to the death of the innocent. Only grace frees.
Jesus was the living, dying, and resurrecting example of this.