Walking away from Jerusalem
If Jesus really was YHWH’s Royal Liberator, he had failed. With the death of Jesus, the Kingdom of God was defeated. The Romans were still in power, the temple was still corrupt, the people were still oppressed. And for the supporters of Jesus, the devastation that followed was not only that the man in whom they had placed their hope had been killed.
YHWH’s own purposes had died with Jesus, and there could no longer be any hope of justice, no more Royal Liberators. What is more, rumours have spread that Jesus of Nazareth is not dead any more, and that his body had disappeared from his tomb.
And yet, to the cold observer – if there was such a thing in Jerusalem – there was an even greater mystery. The Passover was one of the three annual feasts in Jerusalem, when the city would swell with pilgrims who had come to celebrate how that nation had been delivered from the evil clutches of almighty Pharoah, all those centuries earlier.
The nationalistic spirit was everywhere… The mood for rebellion hung in the air. Crowds, including thousands of Jesus’ own supporters, had expected this Jesus to liberate them from Rome. The number of Roman troops in Jerusalem is unlikely to have numbered more than three thousand. Why didn’t they have a crack at toppling the Romans ? Why had their been no uprising?
Perhaps this is a miracle unreported by the Gospel accounts. That his followers, who certainly had access to weapons, did not storm the Roman garrison at such a highly charged time, re-enacting their liberation from Egypt with liberation from Rome, is more than puzzling. Pilatus, the Roman governor, was certainly anxious about the possibility.
Can you imagine the satisfaction that killing Pilate would bring ? To countless first century Palestinian Jews, Pilate was the face of evil, he was the devil incarnate. Can you imagine what his death would have meant ? With the death of this evil man, they might say, Justice has been done. Militarily, it looks to me as though the people there had the capability to do it.
And yet, so far as we know, it did not happen. Could it be, that something of the message of Jesus had sunk in? That violent rebellion was not the way to bring in the kingdom of God? The day after Passover, Jesus’ supporters simply left Jerusalem and returned to their homes. They just walked away.
Two of those supporters were heading north west, to a town where the last great Jewish Liberator, Judas Maccabaeus, had defeated Greek forces at a famous battle, Emmaus. As the two companions discussed all that had been taking place in Jerusalem, they were joined by a fellow traveller who seemed ignorant of these events. Jesus’ disappointed fans gave an account of everything to the stranger, climaxing with their utter desolation at the death of the Liberator.
The stranger criticises them for not seeing the obvious. According to him, it was inevitable that the Royal Liberator should suffer and die in order to achieve his purpose. To people awaiting liberation, it must have sounded like a strange logic, because if there's one thing bound to stop a liberator dead in his tracks, it would be the death of the liberator.
And before anything had happened. If Jesus had killed the Prefect but died in the process, led a successful rebellion but died at the end of it, then his self-sacrifice would have been sad, but at least it would have been effective. But Jesus died before anything had happened! It was the most disappointing anti-climax in Israel since Goliath was shot in the head at the outset of a celebrity death-match.
Somehow, the stranger was able to show from the Scriptures, that the Liberator's death was a necessary stage in the process of liberation. This was no easy task, given that it would require a radical rethink of their entire way of reading the sacred texts. And yet, in doing this, it made more sense of the events than their current worldview allowed. If YHWH really was the chairman of the universe, and Jesus really was his divinely appointed liberator, and the royal liberator had died... the story could not be over.
Perhaps this is the second great miracle in this passage that is unacknowledged by the Gospel accounts: that two religious people who knew their bibles back to front, could actually change their mind. The refusal to do this, after all, is what ultimately led the Jewish religious establishment to plot the death of Jesus. The refusal to engage seriously with anything that seriously questions your own treasured beliefs and worldview.
“Tell people something they already know,” says atheist George Monbiot, “and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new and they will hate you for it.” The fact that two of Jesus' supporters could have their minds changed over something as precious to them as the Holy Scriptures, is every bit as much a miracle as if rumours of the resurrection were true. No wonder the historical records tell us the experience gave them heartburn.
However, the stranger who caused all this did not remain a stranger. For whatever reason, Jesus' supporters did not recognise their companion until they stopped to eat, and he broke bread with them. At that point, the penny dropped. It was, after all, the day after Passover, where a meal is celebrated which includes the symbolic breaking of bread to speak of the Israelites' liberation from Egypt.
Jesus was back from the dead, and his task of bringing justice had not finished. This, of course, is not what anyone expected. Justice is coming, without the Romans being taken out… It’s more than a little topical, when you think about it.
Bin-Laden was to many Americans today, what Pilate was to many Jews of Jesus’ day. And the death of Bin-Laden will doubtless bring some form of closure to many people who are grieving the deaths of Al Quaida’s victims. Relief that the worst mass-murderer of this century is no longer a free man, is tremendous for any who feel solidarity with the families of his victims.
But whatever else it brings, there is a huge question mark over whether it brings justice. Especially since this was a carefully planned assasination. Other war criminals and mass murderers have been brought to trial.
It’s astonishing, listening to some legal and political experts bringing their views on this :
Bin Laden could not be brought to trial, because it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to prove his involvement in the New York Bombings ! …
And then, at trials, evidence is heard – and given the fact that Bin-Laden used to be an agent of U.S. Foreign Policy, can you imagine how embarrsing that would be.
And, of course, legal trials aren’t that important… look at the Nuremburg trials : there are so many nazi supporters in the world today, that the Nuremburg judgements have been limited in their effectiveness.
This is not my logic. These are arguments that intelligent people have produced to explain why justice is best served by not bringing Bin Laden to trial. And you wonder whether some people are too busy chasing justice, to recognise what it is any more.
Revenge and justice are not the same thing. This is one of the major points that Jesus has emphasised throughout the course of his entire ministry. Right up to the point where he entered Jerusalem, people were still expecting him to bring a military revolution – while they lined the streets and waved their palm brances and shouted ‘liberate us now’. And those people, were so busy chasing justice, they didn’t recognise what it is any more.
But for Jesus, seeking first God’s Kingdom and God’s justice, does not mean seeking the blood of another. It may feel like the most natural thing in the world. I have four children who prove this on a daily basis : if someone hurts you – there is a wrong that hangs in the air, an injustice that can and must be resolved by hurting them back. But the children are too busy chasing justice, to know what it is…
And the point of the cross, is that – yes, an injustice hangs in the world – but rather than seeking revenge, Jesus grabs it and holds it, and makes it his own. He was true Israel, incarnate – and he takes all the pain and injustice of the world onto himself. It lead him to say and do things that got him crucified. People at the cross nodded with satisfaction that justice had been done.
And yet, precisely at this point – the violence stopped. His disciples did not go gunning for revenge. And that is first miracle of this passage. The second was this – that his followers had the capacity to change their mind, to listen to a stranger, and to allow their worldview to be disrupted.
We live in an age where it’s a virtue for any educated person to pretend that they are open-minded. We all know how important it is to be perceived that way – nobody likes an intransigent bigot. But – when it comes to it, really – about the things we care about… do we have the capacity to change our minds ? To accept that we were wrong ? About something precious to us ? Or are too busy chasing justice.
About your view of Bin-laden ? About your reading of scripture ? About how a church should be run ? About how a church meeting should work ? Or a deacon’s meeting ? About who you are ? Or are we too busy chasing justice ? So busy that God himself is not going to stand in our way!
Of course, we can’t sit here and assess how ready we are to listen to others, how ready we are to welcome the stranger and allow their disruptive presence into our lives… we can’t be theoretical about our own capacity to be open-minded. Only in our relating to others that those questions are properly answered. In the down-to-earth interaction that we have with other people – and those other people are likely to know more than we do about just how open-minded we are.
And so the question the passage leaves for us is this : if Jesus were to come to us in the form of a stranger … to challenge, disrupt, undermine, - would we walk with him ? Or are we too busy pursuing justice… so busy that God himself could not get in our way?