According to the Christian calendar, Holy Week begins tomorrow. Having journeyed for several weeks through Lent, a season of personal introspection, we Christians turn our focus once again to the life of Jesus and all of the actions leading up to his execution. After all, Easter Sunday is a rather hollow, secular celebration with egg hunts and butterflies if one doesn’t appreciate all that comes before. Here are a few things I find helpful in understanding why Jesus was executed and how that came about.
• Throughout his few years traveling the countryside, Jesus’ reputation was growing as an agitator of the Jewish people, encouraging their resistance to Roman occupation and oppression. There were many such movements popping up, but most of these were led by zealots who sought the violent overthrow of Roman authority. Jesus was somewhat unique in that his teachings about the Kingdom of God did not call for any violence. Today we would characterize his methods as “nonviolent revolution.” Bringing this revolution into the city of Jerusalem at Passover, when Jews from all over had gathered at the Temple, made Jesus a conspicuous threat to Roman law and order, and to any Jewish leaders who had been choosing to collaborate with Rome.
• Those who loved Jesus and wanted to follow or learn more about his teachings formed a joyful crowd who greeted him at the entrance to Jerusalem on Sunday. The fact that this “king,” who challenged Roman authority, rode a lowly donkey into the city is important. Jesus was not trying in any way to emulate the glitz and glamour of institutional power. He was quite literally showing the people a different path and a distinctly different understanding of power.
• This crowd that had eagerly greeted Jesus on Sunday protected him all week, whenever he was in the city. He actually left the city each night to stay in Bethany, a safe haven nearby. He caused trouble at the Temple and offered many highly outspoken comments throughout the week, but authorities were reluctant to arrest him. According to scripture, a plot to arrest Jesus and have him executed for sedition could never get off the ground while Jesus was surrounded by this supportive crowd. We read that Judas struck a deal with some Roman collaborators to let them know when Jesus could be found without this huge entourage. Thus, late at night on Thursday, after a Passover meal in Bethany, Jesus went to pray in a garden just outside of Jerusalem. Here, he was arrested, under cover of darkness, without the knowledge or presence of this protective crowd of followers.
• Move now to Jesus finally being brought before Pilate, the Roman prefect at that time. Note that Pilate was not expecting to have to deal with Jesus. Scripture says it was Pilate’s practice to free one Jewish prisoner at Passover each year. Those waiting outside Pilate’s palace on Friday morning were not the same crowd who had followed and protected Jesus all week — those followers who may not have even realized yet that Jesus has been arrested. Rather, those waiting outside Pilate’s palace were expecting to see a zealot revolutionary freed by him. So when Pilate offers them a choice between a zealot and Jesus, they gladly choose Barbabas, a zealot.
Throughout Holy Week, we see the oppressive, institutional powers of the Roman world pitted against the alternative power that Jesus has taught and embodied. The king on the donkey taught God’s love and forgiveness, and a revolution without violence. Jesus is cruelly executed by Roman authority on Good Friday. It seems he has lost. But then comes Sunday...