“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 2:5) is reverberating through my head as I approach this year’s Holy Week. Now, I realize that I am treading on thin ice here, but my reflections for this week are nothing but my limited attempts to imagine what might have been going on in Jesus’ head as the days passed. Before anyone takes too analytic a lens to my meanderings, please note that I am NOT saying this is what actually happened or that I am drawing from any historic or analytic sources. And as far as consistency goes with scripture, well, we are talking about the Passion narratives — four very different tales about the same event used by four different “evangelists” to communicate four very different messages. I am contemplating mainly on Mark’s version (from the Greek rather than any modern English translation), though I cannot escape the influence of the other three canonical gospels as well as that offered by the gnostic Gospel of Peter. I am also influenced by a year’s study of and investigation into first century Middle Eastern culture. So I am going to use my blog to think out loud and conjecture. Please hear what I write as “I wonder…” or “What if…?” rather than “I think…” or “I believe…”
First, I note that not all gospels agree on the number of days in the week leading to the crucifixion, but Palm Monday or Palm Tuesday simply lack the elegance and symmetry of Palm Sunday, so I am willing to stick with the Sunday to Sunday scenario. However, my impression is that Jesus very carefully contrived and calculated the events of the week. My first conjecture is that Jesus planned to create an undeniable and unavoidable confrontation that could only result in one of two outcomes (and, because of the threat to Rome — only one outcome was actually possible): the Roman empire and Jewish power base would acknowledge him as Jewish Messiah or Jesus would die. If Jesus approached this week with the knowledge of his imminent destruction, I cannot conceive of the emotional tempest with which he wrestled all week. This calculated strategy is not the same as John’s version, which makes Jesus all-knowing and above it all, simply fulfilling that which God intended from the foundation of the world. No, in Mark we have evidence that Jesus was trying to create a crisis. What evidence? One of the most important elements of challenging institutional power is that you must draw significant attention to yourself — make yourself too obvious to ignore or dismiss. Many of the gospels indicate that Jesus made very careful arrangements prior to his “triumphal entry.” If he went to all the trouble to arrange for a colt and have branches cut and at the ready, it isn’t a far stretch to believe that it was arranged that a specific time and a specific road into the city would “stage” a mock royal parade. What better way to draw attention to oneself than to ride into town with cheers and blessings usually reserved for the power positions of church and state? In an occupied society very nervous about public gatherings and displays of fealty to anyone outside the Roman empire, this is nothing less than a slap in the face and a challenge to do something about it.
For the modern church, Holy Week is all about religion, but in the scriptures, this is a week of political challenge, cultural insult, disrespect, and treasonous and seditious behavior on the part of Jesus. He systematically insults Roman military and political power, Jewish cultural and religious authority, and the integrity of the entire social class system. However, simply insulting the powers that be rarely results in action. Call a bigwig and name or offer an obscene gesture and they will likely turn away in contempt; but, touch their stuff and they will bring down the wrath of the Law in all its fury. Jesus ends the first day in Jerusalem going to the temple. In the evening, things are winding down. Few people are present. Few merchants are trading. Caesar’s money changers are closed for the evening. Nothing much to note, other than all the booths and tables are erected, turning the Father’s temple into a den or robbers. All that is lacking is an audience. Better to wait.
In the morning, when the temple courtyard full and active and bustling — when people cannot turn around without bumping into each other, and the din of buyers and sellers drowns out common conversation — Jesus reappears, and now it is the right time. Did Jesus merely lose his temper and erupt in an act of righteous violence or was this a carefully designed strategic move to bring confrontation to a head? Try this experiment: go outside a bank and begin ranting about the thieves and robbers who work at Wall Street and in the banking industry. Use a bullhorn, set up posters, handcuff yourself to the railing outside. Chances are, you will be viewed as a curiosity and eventually be told to move along by an officer of the law. Now, get yourself a weapon (a whip of chords??) and go into the bank and run behind the counter and start throwing the money into the air and upset the tills and threaten the tellers and break things, doing as much damage as you can. When the Law arrives, compare how they treat you now with how they treated you when you were out on the sidewalk. Notice any difference? The “crimes” against Judaism Jesus committed were irritating; the effrontery to Roman order was annoying; but the audacity of touching Caesar’s money was a very different matter. In twenty-four hours, Jesus went from being a thorn in the side of sporadic Jewish authorities to being an enemy of the Roman empire. What Jesus did in the temple was an insult to Judaism, but to Rome is was a capital crime. At the very least, Jesus would lose his hands (after all, it was a first offense), but any further disruption would result in a death sentence.
So, Jesus accomplished the first phase of a very important plan — to force those in power to take action. For the plan to work, Jesus had to make sure that no one — including his disciples and friends — would do anything to rescue him or avert the confrontation that had to come in order for him to become a martyr to his cause and God’s plan. The next steps would require that Jesus attack the Jewish religious leadership, the legal leadership, and the scholarly leadership, and to make sure his followers were demoralized and confused enough not to mess things up. Far fetched? Reread Mark and Matthew, and see if you can’t find a good translation of Peter’s gospel. Jesus was a smart guy — he knew what he was doing. This whole week didn’t happen TO him, it happened because he made it happen in a very orderly, concise and elegant way. God’s plan? Jesus’ plan? Doesn’t much matter — but the evidence does suggest it was planned and not accidental — which is why it was so easy for the later gospel writers to look back and see an inevitable and obvious progression from triumphal entry to cross to grave to glory. More tomorrow.