5. The Death of Jesus

PART TWO: Interpreting Jesus’ Death

In considering Jesus as Savior, we face a tension between two seemingly incongruous aspects of the story.  On the one hand, as we saw in chapter four, Jesus taught and practiced a ministry of love.  He demonstrated through his actions and words the reality of mercy and compassion in God’s creation, proclaiming a message of peace.  He thereby placed his message squarely in the mainstream of Israel’s faith traditions.  And yet, on the other hand, Jesus died a criminal’s death.  The religious authorities and the political authorities joined to sentence him to crucifixion, the most painful and humiliating of executions.

I see three general options for deciding how to interpret the relationship of these two seemingly contradictory elements of the story.

(1) We may think within the logic of retribution and resolve the tension by minimizing the significance of the first element, Jesus’ living and teaching a message of love.  For salvation’s sake, only two points truly matter: (a) that Jesus lived a sinless life and (b) that Jesus’ died a sacrificial death.  Jesus’ crucifixion then becomes the means to achieve salvation.

A major problem with this approach is that it brings into play a notion of salvation foreign to Jesus’ own thought and foreign to the Old Testament salvation story.  We have not been prepared by the story up to now for this kind of innovation.  “The scriptures as a whole provide no ground for a portrait of an angry God needing to be appeased in atoning sacrifice.”[1]

Accepting the logic of retribution as central to God’s work of salvation, thereby making Jesus’ crucifixion a salvific act, undercuts the meaning of the Bible’s salvation story and negates Jesus’ own understanding of salvation.

(2) A second approach goes to the other extreme, arguing that all that actually matters is the truthfulness of Jesus’ message of love.  That he was crucified is tragic, even extraordinarily evil, but that event adds nothing to our understanding of salvation.  We best simply name the crucifixion as something terrible that should never have happened, to see it as the negation of meaning, and then to drop the subject.[2]

This approach would be closer to the thrust of the story of the Old Testament and Gospels.  However, the story of the killing of Jesus may have importance for our understanding of salvation even if we reject the idea that Jesus’ death as a sacrifice was necessary to change God’s disposition toward human beings.

To minimize the importance of Jesus’ crucifixion is to risk avoiding one of the deepest challenges people of faith face—how do we deal with violence and evil in the world?  Simply to name Jesus’ crucifixion as violent and then dismiss it as having no relevance for our soteriology may well leave us with a superficial view of salvation.

(3) So, a third approach, taken in this book, proposes that Jesus’ crucifixion is crucial for understanding biblical salvation, though not because it adds a needed element that makes salvation, for the first time, possible.  Rather, Jesus’ crucifixion illumines what is at stake in God’s efforts to bring healing to the world, what forces oppose these efforts, and how those forces may be overcome.

Jesus’ crucifixion illumines the irreducibly social dynamic in biblical salvation and the inextricable connection between Jesus’ way of living and our possibilities of finding healing.

The Death of Jesus

The story of Jesus’ death reminds us like nothing else that the healing that God offers is not simply spiritual nor individualistic nor easy.  The biblical story tells of salvation as a matter of trusting God’s always directly available mercy.  However, the simplicity of this story must not blind us to the difficulty of actually accepting, appropriating, and living in light of its message.

So we must consider the story of Jesus’ death as a crucial element for our agenda in this book.  This story helps us understand the violent dynamics of our world and helps us answer the question of how to respond to violence without adding to the violence.  This story helps us understand why the simple message of God’s love has not been readily embraced in our world.  And this story helps us understand how God works to overcome these problems.

The Powers and the Story of Jesus’ Death

In the chapters that follow we will look closely at the story of Jesus’ death. By doing so, we will by inference show how applying the logic of retribution to understanding Jesus’ death and our salvation actually leads to the opposite conclusion from what the story conveys.  The story actually tells us that the logic of retribution was an instrument of the fallen Powers, not God—and that Jesus’ followers should see in the story a direct refutation of that logic.

The story of Jesus’ death shows the extent that humanity resists God’s saving initiative.  More than providing a one-time drama centered on a unique work of redemption, the story reflects the on-going pattern of history.  We see this pattern in how Jesus’ life evokes resistance from the structures of human culture, leads to suffering, and ends in vindication.

The story of Jesus’ death tells of love in the “real world.”  We have not resolved the issue of salvation until we face the reality that God’s love is resisted.  We may accept the portrayal in the Bible of salvation as pure loving initiative from God; God requires nothing to be made willing to save.  Yet we know from the Bible and from human history that this loving initiative meets with resistance.  So we must go beyond simply establishing the centrality of love to learn more why this resistance happens and how to respond to it.

Jesus faced resistance from three general types of social structures:

(a) Cultural exclusivism centered around the legal system that regulated the culture’s sense of right and wrong and served as an identity marker (that is, the New Testament’s portrayal of the interpretation of Torah practiced by the Pharisees).

(b) Religious institutionalism centered around a sacred institution that served as the center of the culture and brooked no opposition to its monopoly on sacred power (that is, the temple in Jerusalem and the priests who supervised the temple’s operation and guarded its status).

(c) Political authoritarianism in the form of a nation-state that exercised its control through force and responded quickly and harshly to challenges to its political hegemony (that is, the government of the Roman Empire in Judea in the governorship of Pontius Pilate).

The law, temple, and empire may all be understood in terms of the Powers analysis developed by Walter Wink.[3] Drawing on the imagery of principalities and powers, most explicitly articulated in Pauline writings but implied and assumed throughout the Bible, Wink presents the Powers as the basic social structures of human life (e.g., language; cultural mores; laws; institutions such as governments, schools, and organized religion).

Like human beings, the Powers are created good and are necessary for human beings to function socially—actually, they inevitably arise among human beings.  An example would be the way language works.  Once we begin speaking with other human beings, language comes into existence.  There is no language without human beings; at the same time, language exists outside each particular person.  Each new person is born into a world shaped by language.  So, we are all shaped “from the outside,” as it were, by language that exists before we exist but would not exist without us.  Hence, we can say languages “exist” even if they are completely dependent upon the existence of human beings for their existence.  We may even speak of languages as “fallen” in the sense, for instance, that languages shape how their users see the world and may perpetuate stereotypes that we share as we learn language.

Other Powers, such as Law, Temple, and State may more clearly be seen as fallen.  These Powers link with specific structures that inevitably make up human social life—and are necessary for human social life.  Yet, these structures may become too important in human being’s eyes; they may become idols.  Biblically, the Powers are meant to serve God’s purposes by providing structure to social life—the Law provides guidance for practical living; the Temple provides a center for ordered religious life; the State makes sure material needs of people within it are met, that laws are applied fairly in a way that protects the vulnerable people in the nation.

However, the Powers as fallen tend not to be responsive to God’s loving initiative.  Throughout the Bible we see the Powers causing trouble for those who manifest God’s love.  It is as if the Powers in their rebellion want to be worshiped and to foster distorted and harmful inter-human dynamics that enhance their control over human beings.

Precisely in embodying God’s love the way he did, Jesus threatened the existing structures of power in his culture.  These structures provided substitute forms of meaning and security that exploited human fears and insecurities.  Jesus’ way lessened the importance of the Powers linked with the Law, the Temple, and the State.  They did not like that, to say the least.

In what sense does Jesus bring salvation from the dominance of the fallen Powers?  The Powers rely on belief.  As long as we believe in their ultimacy, trusting in them for security and meaning, the Powers rule.  Jesus challenges human beings to change our allegiance.  He asks us to trust in God’s love and not the sense of superiority over others that legalistic belief in the Law provides.  He asks us to end our trust in the assured access to God that Temple rituals (at a price) provide.  He asks us to end our trust in the sense of power over others that being on good terms with the Empire provides.  In these ways, trust in Jesus breaks the hold of the Powers.

Jesus himself models disillusionment with the claims of the Powers in his own life.  However, perhaps more profoundly, when we recognize that these Powers brutally murdered Jesus we will see that they do not possess the truth as they claim.  The more one knows of Jesus’ way and Jesus’ close connection with God, the more the treatment he received from the agents of Law, Temple, and Empire will foster disbelief in their claims.

The story of Jesus’ death highlights the bases for our rejection of the logic of retribution.  The Powers responded to Jesus retributively.  Jesus did violate the rules and values the Powers claimed to be true.  The penalty for one who violates those rules and values is punishment—in this case, death.  Jesus died according to the logic of retribution.  The Powers that killed Jesus, not God, were the ones following the logic of retribution.  That Jesus died as he did shows that the logic of retribution reflects a rejection of God’s will, not its fulfillment.

The Gospels understand Jesus’ death as the key event in the story.  My question is this: why is Jesus’ death so important to the story?

Does Jesus’ death overshadow his life and teaching, providing the true notion of salvation via a violent sacrifice, rendering peripheral his teaching concerning salvation summarized above in chapter four?  Or, does Jesus’ death actually confirm what we have already seen—that the basic message of salvation throughout is God’s unqualified mercy?  God’s mercy evokes resistance from the Powers, depend as they do upon fearfulness, selfishness, and violence.  This resistance, profound and deep, ultimately results in the Powers conspiring to put Jesus to death.  They seek retribution for his violation of cultural, religious, and political expectations for humanity subject to the Powers’ domination.

The murder of Jesus exposes the consequences of making the Powers into idols.  It reveals the logic of retribution as opposed to God.  Such a revelation frees those with eyes to see from trust in cultural boundary markers, religious institutions, and governmental structures.  Such freedom allows people to recognize and appropriate God’s mercy as indeed the central life-enhancing force in the universe.  The death of Jesus also how he models authentic faith in the true God.  Jesus shows courage and love to be sufficient resistance to the incredible violence and hostility of which the Powers are capable.  In the face of the worst imaginable torture and humiliation, Jesus remained faithful to the path of loving God and neighbor above all else.

The story concludes by vindicating Jesus’ way of life, his approach to the Powers.  God raises Jesus from the dead, emphasizing that the Powers acted in rebellion against God, not as agents of God.  Jesus’ death and resurrection stand in harmony with the Old Testament salvation story.  They clarify that earlier story, reinforce its truthfulness, and heighten disillusionment with the Powers that try to obscure that story.

The gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ death shares with the traditional retributively oriented view of atonement the recognition that retributive justice was responsible for Jesus’ death.  However, they draw diametrically opposed conclusions about the legitimacy of such justice.

For substitutionary atonement, God’s retributive justice must find an innocent and pure sacrifice in order to balance the scales of justice.  Such a sacrifice satisfies the needs of God’s holiness and makes salvation possible by meeting the requirements of retributive justice.  For the gospels’ portrayal, in contrast, the outworking of the misguided commitment to retributive justice leads the Powers of Law, Temple, and Empire to judge Jesus to be guilty and to punish him with crucifixion.  We do need to note that the guardians of the Law were not directly involved in the final events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion; however, from early on the gospels’ accounts portray them as desiring to destroy Jesus.

Contrary to the substitutionary view, the Gospels portray Jesus’ death as salvific because it (1) exposes the idolatry linked with these Powers, (2) reveals the inherently anti-God stance of the logic of retribution, and (3) profoundly underscores Jesus’ stance in responding to the Powers as the kind of persevering love that coheres with God’s character and will.

We will focus on these conflicts (over Law, Temple, and Empire) in chapters six through eight.  We will see that Jesus was not innocent.  He did violate the rules of the Powers-that-be.  The logic of retribution lead these Powers to take recourse against this “rebel;” Jesus’ execution was “just” according to the regulations of the Law, Temple, and Empire.  As William Herzog writes, “ In some sense, every charge against Jesus had some basis in reality.  He was not crucified by accident, nor was his crucifixion the result of a case of mistaken identity.”[4]

However, as the story makes clear, though not “officially” innocent, Jesus was good, godly and faithful.  Hence, Jesus’ fate surfaces the injustice of the Powers’ regulations.  Jesus’ fate also exposes the injustice of the logic of retribution.  Jesus’ death exposes retributive “justice” as unjust.  It does not express God’s will but expresses rebellion against God.

I will present Jesus’ death as “salvific,” but not as a God-willed outworking of the logic of retribution.  Instead, Jesus’ death saves in that: (1) it exposes the fallacy of the logic of retribution, (2) it exposes the direct link between this murderous logic and the institutions that exploit it, (3) it shows that the spiral of violence that is set loose and ever-deepened by this logic may be broken only by non-retaliation and mercy in the way Jesus embodied them, and (4) it sets the stage for God’s act of vindicating Jesus’ way of exposing the Powers and embodying domination-free life when God raises Jesus from the dead.

Setting the Stage: Birth Narratives

Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives foreshadow the coming conflicts.  We see in King Herod’s response to Jesus’ birth the reception Jesus will receive from people in power.  Herod tries to nip in the bud the career of what he feared would be a major threat.  Herod’s rationale might not have been that different from Pilate’s thirty years later (note that Pilate and Antipas, Herod’s son, became friends at the time of Jesus’ arrest, Luke 23:12).  They both clung feared possible threats so much that they willingly ordered horrendous acts of violence to stop those threats (see also Pilate “mixing the blood of Jewish insurgents with their sacrifices,” Luke 13:1).

Herod sets out to have all young children killed “in and around Bethlehem” (Matthew 2:16).  Herod, of course, did not live long enough to learn that his mass murder failed to prevent this new “king” from arising (Matthew 2:19).  His violence shows how political authoritarianism responds to perceived threats—and how the powerful perceived Jesus’ advent as a threat from the start.  So, Matthew right away prepares the reader for Jesus’ ultimate fate in Jerusalem.[5]

Luke does not tell of Herod.  In his story, the intimations of conflict to come actually arise from those on Jesus’ side.  Mary prophesies prior to Jesus’ birth that with her child “the Mighty One…has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones….He has…sent the rich away empty” (1:49-53).  Surely we are to understand that “the proud,” “the powerful,” and “the rich” will not accept this outcome willingly—and in fact will be quite hostile toward Jesus’ message.

Initial Tensions

In Jesus’ temptations at the beginning of his ministry, he rejects the various options Satan lays before him, and sets the stage for on-going conflicts.  Reading the temptations carefully, we see a close link between the Powers of social structures (“the kingdoms of the world,” Luke 4:5 and “the temple in Jerusalem,” Luke 4:9) and the spiritual forces of evil.  The conflicts Jesus faces have to do with both human structures and spiritual forces.  The two cannot be separated, as when Paul writes “none of the rulers of this age understood [that God’s wisdom was revealed in Jesus]; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8).[6]

Luke points to coming conflicts when he concludes after the temptations: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time” (4:13).

In Luke’s account, Jesus begins his public ministry when he speaks in his home congregation (4:16-30).  After asserting the presence of God’s kingdom (good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed), he hears affirmation.  “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (4:22).  However, Jesus senses antipathy, and he asserts right away that he expects not to be accepted in his hometown.  He then uses two provocative examples from the Bible of how God’s blessing came to Gentiles in the time of past prophets Elijah and Elisha, in part due to the hard hearts of the Hebrews.  His use of these stories changed the tenor of Jesus’ encounter completely.

“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage” (4:28).  Their rage leads them to seek to throw Jesus off a cliff to his death.  Jesus slips away, but we now know that his ministry may not have a happy ending.  “This confrontation between a prophet and his people is programmatic for the story that ensues.  Jesus will embody God’s gracious favor for the poor and sick and marginalized—for outsiders.  And in doing so, he will make enemies, setting in motion a spiral of conflict that will result in his death.”[7]

Luke then tells of Jesus’ mighty works, his establishing a community of disciples, and his authoritative teaching.  “Pharisees and teachers of the law” came “from every village in Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem” to observe what Jesus said and did (Luke 5:17).  In the presence of these observers, Jesus ministered to a paralyzed man and proclaimed that this man’s sins were forgiven due to his friends’ strong faith.  These acts offend those investigating Jesus.  “Who is this speaking blasphemies?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21).  The gauntlet is thrown down—and Jesus picks it up.  He proceeds, defiantly, to heal the man’s paralysis.

Jesus spoke of the need for change, using the image of “new wineskins” for the “new wine” he was representing, since the old were not adequate.  He implicitly critiques the existing structures—Pharisaic cultural exclusivism and temple-centered religious institutionalism.  Jesus did not deny that his message would elicit conflict.  The old patterns that engendered the blindness and oppression he sought to remedy would not yield to his reforms willingly.

Conflicts Intensify

Luke tells a story highlighting Jesus’ relationship with Pharisees (7:36-50).  Jesus does seek to connect with them and accepts an invitation to share a meal with one of the Pharisees.  The tone of this encounter is positive, not hostile.  In the course of the meal, “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” enters and, deeply moved, begins to wash Jesus’ feet.  Jesus’ host is offended, saying to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner” (7:39).

Of course, Jesus does indeed know who this woman is.  What confirms Jesus as a prophet is precisely his welcome of sinners such as this woman—as Torah had prescribed (see, e.g., Leviticus 19 with its special concern for vulnerable people).  Jesus uses the opportunity to make a point about love and forgiveness.  “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (7:47).

This story ends amicably, but nonetheless provides further evidence of the split between Jesus’ vision for the renewal of Israel (based on healing love toward vulnerable people in the community) and the Pharisees’ (based on clear demarcations between pure and impure people with the intent of strengthening the community’s adherence to the way of purity).

Mark’s Gospel introduces the conflict in chapter two.  Here, we see “a progression of hostility—from scribes ‘questioning in their hearts’ (2:6-7), to open queries of the disciples about Jesus’ behavior (2:16), to open confrontation with Jesus about his disciples’ behavior (2:18, 24), and finally to a collective attempt by the Pharisees to catch Jesus in a religious infraction (3:2).  The malevolence reaches its crescendo finally in 3:6: ‘Immediately the Pharisees went out and with the Herodians conspired against him, how they might destroy him.’”[8]

Luke adds a note bringing a new player to the slowly developing dynamic of hostility toward Jesus when he speaks of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, hearing of Jesus (9:7-9).  At this point, Herod is “perplexed”—later, Herod will join Pilate in Jerusalem to condemn Jesus to death (23:1-12).  Herod, who had John the Baptist executed, represents political authoritarianism.  Here, he seems to fear that Jesus, like John, will threaten his power.  Herod “tried to see him” (9:9).  When he does succeed in seeing Jesus (23:6-12), it is to play a role in Jesus’ execution.

Luke links Jesus’ success with his awareness of impending doom.  After Peter confesses Jesus as “Messiah”—the king, Jesus accepts the title, but then links his kingship with what his death.  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, and be killed” (9:22).  In light of this outcome, Jesus issues a challenge.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.  What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:23-25).

Jesus makes clear an inevitable, unavoidable link between following his way and conflict with the Powers that were so hostile to him.  He takes this for granted—not because he romanticizes suffering, seeing it as intrinsically redemptive.  Rather, the inevitability of conflict reflects the nature of the Powers.  They will not relinquish their domination without a fight.

Luke signals Jesus’ decisive change in focus: “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51).  Quite a bit happens in Luke’s story before Jesus arrives for his final week in Jerusalem (19:28).  Conflicts with the Pharisees continue.  But this turn toward Jerusalem reflects Jesus’ choice to take the initiative and move from the outskirts of Israelite culture toward the center.  Jerusalem, home of the temple and Roman occupational government, looms as the locus of Jesus’ mission to break the hold of the Powers.

In Luke, Jesus often refers to the developing conflict and to the opposition he faces.  He speaks of rejection to his followers: “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16).

Jesus strongly criticized the Pharisees: “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.  You fools!  Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also?  So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.  But woe to you Pharisees!  For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practices, without neglecting the others.  Woe to you Pharisees!  For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.  Woe to you!  For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it” (Luke 11:39-44).

From these words, we see that Jesus did not reject the external details of law observance that the Pharisees strove to uphold.  Those should not be neglected (11:42).  However, the heart of the law has to do with “justice and the love of God” (11:42).  Jesus affirms the prophets’ message, the core content of Torah as seen in Leviticus 19 and the story of the exodus.  The law means to foster love and justice in the community—the details are secondary, though necessary.

For Jesus, the law, properly understood, seeks love and justice for the entire community.  This emphasis focuses on those most likely to be treated unjustly.  “Many of the people Jesus healed came into one of the banned categories.  These healings, at the deepest level of understanding on the part of Jesus and his contemporaries, would be seen as part of his total ministry, specifically, part of that open welcome that  went with the inauguration of the kingdom —and, consequently, part of his subversive work, that was likely to get him into trouble.”[9]

When he focused on the vulnerable ones, Jesus exposed the problems of the Pharisees insofar as they focused more on the external details than on love and justice.  When they criticize him for welcoming so-called “sinners” and those labeled “unclean,” they reveal that their own priorities lay contrary to the actual priorities of God.  In exposing this contradiction—both by actions and strong verbal statements—Jesus evoked hostility.  “Jesus’ table fellowship with toll collectors and sinners was a profanation of the Pharisees’ version of the great tradition, and therefore, an offense to Moses.  Jesus reclined with the impure and unclean, without apology or hesitation.  He turned the meal into a different kind of community.”[10]

Jesus recognized the intensity of this hostility, and he suggested that the conflict emerging here and now in his life was in continuity with the history of Israel.  He joined “lawyers” (or, “scribes,” scholars of the law who were responsible for sustaining the written Torah) with Pharisees in his critique.

“Woe also to you lawyers!  For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not life a finger to ease them.  Woe to you!  For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed.  So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.  Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.  Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.  Woe to you lawyers!  For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:45-52).

Jesus, in keeping with his concern for genuine healing and his belief in Torah as a key element of that healing, has deep concerns about how these experts of the law turn it into a burden that is “hard to bear” (11:45).  They do nothing to help people bear that burden.  They turn what should be a source of healing into a source of hurt and brokenness.

Jesus links himself with the prophets of old who were killed by the lawyers’ ancestors in Israel (Luke 11:49).  In doing so, he again underscores the inevitable outcome of his ministries.  The problems he surfaces—here, the way the law becomes a burden instead of a balm—are deeply entrenched.  The only way to make clear how profound the problems are is to make clear without a doubt that the structures that purport to further Torah actually corrupt Torah.  This effort requires surfacing for all to see how these structures will turn with deadly violence against the true messenger of Torah.

“Jesus judges the Pharisees for being overscrupulous about tithing provisions while ignoring the greater demands of justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23).  Jesus implies that his reading of the Torah is compatible with the prophets, not opposed to them.  Any reading that truly fulfills the Torah must be congruent with the vision of the prophets.”[11]

Understandably, given the vehemence of Jesus’ critique, the lawyers and Pharisees “began to be very hostile toward him and to cross-examine him about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say” (Luke 11:53-54).  The die is cast.  Jesus faces deadly foes.

Even as the tensions mount between Jesus and religious leaders, his fame spreads and crowds gather by the thousands.  Jesus’ popularity, ambivalent as it is for him since he recognizes the mixed motives of many in the crowds, makes him ever more of a problem for the cultural, religious, and political Powers.  In this volatile time, having a charismatic prophet such as Jesus in their midst, drawing crowds, challenging the authority of the religious structures and their leaders, fostered great anxiety.

Jesus recognizes that his message of love and liberation, when presented with power in such a context of volatility, inevitably heightens stress.  The system is corrupt; the hold of the Powers must be broken.  And conflict will grow, because the Powers will not surrender.  He recognizes his own fate as the catalyst of such conflict—to be “baptized” into violent suffering.

Though the main focus in the story of Jesus’ ministry lays on conflicts with religious leaders, Luke for a second time alludes to problems political leaders also have with Jesus, serious enough to be life threatening.  “Some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you’” (Luke 13:31).  Jesus dismissed Herod with a scornful insult, “Go and tell that fox for me” that I must die in Jerusalem, not Galilee (13:31-33).

Jesus links his own fate with murdered prophets (Luke 11:33-34).  Like them, his speaking the word of confrontation, calling Israel back to the living Torah, will be met with deadly violence.  “The Pharisees, and perhaps Herod as well (Luke 13:31-33), wanted to destroy Jesus because he was invading dangerous territory and offering an alternative vision of its meaning.  [For example,] the Pharisees saw the possessed as dangerous deviants requiring social ostracism or cure because they were a threat to the social order; Jesus saw the possessed as God’s people in need of liberation from alien possession and redemption from evil control.”[12]

Luke’s story of Jesus’ journey from the time he “turns toward Jerusalem” (9:51) to when he arrives (19:28) concludes with a dark parable (19:11-27).  Those who invested what they had been given successfully received a reward and those who did not received punishment.  The parable challenges Jesus’ listeners to commit themselves to the true king, the one who stands in contrast to earthly kings characterized by injustice and oppression.  Though the true king (as reflected by Jesus’ life of healing and genuine justice) follows the law of love, refusing to commit to this king will lead to negative consequences.  Jesus does offer a genuine choice, and saying no to him leaves one to the fate of those who become like that in which they trust.

Jesus’ Final Days

The story moves toward its climax when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to great acclaim.  In Luke’s version, people “spread their cloaks on the road” (19:36), an act with royal significance (see 2 Kings 9:13).  The other gospels speak of “leafy branches” (Mark 11:8 and parallels)—an allusion to royal processions (1 Maccabees 13:51; 2 Maccabees 10:7).

The last week of Jesus’ life begins with this scene that identifies him as a kingly personage.  The question that remains to be answered is how his kingship will find expression.

Jesus grieves the fate of Jerusalem.  The city, whose name means “city of peace,” fails to “recognize on this day the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42).  The city and its powerful people are in thrall to the powers of religious institutionalism and political authoritarianism.  The violence at the heart of that thralldom will be fully exposed in the events to come.

The identity of Jesus’ opponents changes drastically once he arrives in Jerusalem.  The Pharisees mostly depart from the picture, replaced by the chief priests and Sadduccees.  The law and its application is replaced by the temple as the center of controversy.  Now, we no longer have only threats of violence toward Jesus; the threats are acted on.

Just as Jesus had challenged the Pharisees and their scribes head on, healing in their presence on the Sabbath, forgiving the sins of unclean people in their presence, here in Jerusalem Jesus also takes the challenge to the temple authorities.  “It is well-nigh certain that the high-priesthood was the moving agent on the Jewish side in the final proceedings against Jesus; and if one has to explain what disturbed that group about Jesus, something that could be interpreted as presenting a danger to the Temple/sanctuary would be the most plausible factor.”[13]

When he arrives in Jerusalem, Jesus heads straight to the temple.  Mark’s version focuses more on the conflict over the temple, so we will follow his account at this point.  Mark tells of Jesus confronting people in the temple who sold cultic items and who changed people’s money to allow them to buy the cultic items.  Jesus “overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (Mark 11:15-16).  This symbolic act, one of several, emphasizes Jesus’ challenge to the prevailing understanding of the temple as the heartbeat of Israel’s relationship with God.

He asserts that God intended the temple to be “a house of prayer for all the nations,” quoting Isaiah 56:7 and alluding to the original call of Abraham and Sarah to be a “light to the nations” (Genesis 12:3).  Instead, echoing the charge Jeremiah had levied versus the first temple (Jeremiah 7:1-11), Jesus charges that the temple had become “a den of robbers” (Mark 12:17).

Earlier, Jesus critiqued the problematic uses of the Law by the Pharisees, with the hope for reform.  With the temple, however, we get the clear sense that the corruption is fatal.  Jesus sided with Torah over-against the Pharisees’ use.  He does not side with the “true” use of Herod’s temple.  Unlike with the Law, Jesus seems to see the Temple as a dead end, not a structure that can be restored to an original, life-enhancing purpose.

Jesus’ cursing the fig tree sandwiches the temple scene, condemning the temple for being barren.  Israel trusts in a barren temple.  “When Jesus came to Jerusalem, he symbolically and prophetically enacted judgment upon it—a judgment which, both before and after, he announced verbally as well as in action.  The Temple, as the central symbol of the whole national life, was under divine threat, and, unless Israel repented, it would fall to the pagans.”[14]

After many allusions to Jesus’ opponents hostility toward him and noises about punishing him, at this point we move close to the time when they will actually carry out the threats.  “When the chief priests and the scribes heard [of Jesus driving out the merchants], they kept looking for a way to kill him.”  At this point, they hesitate, “because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (Mark 11:18).  But they ultimately do not find that problem insurmountable.

The next day, the temple leaders challenge Jesus.  “By what authority are you doing these things?  Who gave you this authority to do them?” (Mark 11:28).  Jesus does not give a straight answer, and the leaders equivocate, still aware (and fearful) of the crowds.

Jesus exacerbates the confrontation, telling a provocative parable.  He speaks of a vineyard (the temple) whose owner (God) leases it to tenants (the religious leaders).  When the owner sent a servant (the prophets) to collect the rent (hold the leaders accountable to Torah), the tenants beat the servant and sent him back empty-handed.  Another servant is sent—and murdered.  And again.  Finally, the owner sends his own son (Jesus), who tenants also murder.  At this point, the owner himself comes to destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.

“When [the leaders] realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd.  So they left him and went away” (Mark 12:1-12).

The debates continue, with strong hostility in the air.  Jesus takes one more shot at the temple.  “One of the disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and large buildings!’  Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left there upon another; all will be thrown down’” (Mark 13:1-2).

So, in cursing the fig tree, driving out the merchants, telling the parable of the vineyard, and predicting the actual physical destruction of the temple, Jesus sets himself firmly against the religious structures that dominated his culture.  In doing so at a time of such volatility, with the highly controversial Roman occupation forces seeking to maintain their dominance over Judea, Jesus seeks to expose the collaboration of religious institutionalism with political authoritarianism—and thereby to make it clear that both stand in opposition to Israel’s true God.

Jesus’ enemies, still concerned about the crowds, wait until the cover of darkness to strike.  “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival or there may be a riot among the people’” (Mark 14:1-2).  After Jesus shares a Passover meal with his disciples, he takes them to “a place called Gethsemane” for a time of prayer.  It is late, and Jesus’ friends fall asleep.  He awakens them; at that moment “a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” arrive and after a brief clash arrest Jesus (Mark 14:32-50).

Since the temple leaders ordered Jesus’ arrest, he was taken to them that same night.  “All the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled” (Mark 14:53).  These officials made up the temple’s governing council, the Sanhedrin.  At this point, they were ready to end Jesus’ life—he seemed like too much of a threat to their top-down order and the uneasy stability they had attained in relation to the Roman occupation leaders.

As Mark tells the story, this impromptu trial made little progress because the various witnesses that came forward to testify against Jesus did not agree with one another; hence, they did not provide the required proof to convict Jesus of the capital offense of blasphemy.  Jesus remained silent until finally the high priest challenged him directly: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”  Jesus finally speaks: “I am,” he admits, and then—once more—adds to the conflict here by quoting Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13-14: “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62).

This settles the Sanhedran’s case, in their mind.  “The high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘Why do we still need witnesses?  You have heard his blasphemy!  What is your decision?’  All of them condemned him as deserving death” (14:63-64).  The precise nature of the blasphemy here remains unclear.  However, we do know that if Jesus claims to be Messiah (i.e., king), the Romans will be very alarmed.  They would be sure to react harshly to any of some new political leader among the Judeans hostile to their occupation.

John’s Gospel voices this fear of a Roman reaction most clearly.  The chief priests, prior to arresting Jesus, met to discuss what kind of threat he posed.  They said, “What are we to do?  This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”  The chief priest, Caiaphas, then asserted “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed….From that day on they planned to put him to death” (John 11:45-53).

N.T. Wright summarizes the main bases for the conviction on the part of the religious leaders at the end of the “trial” that Jesus deserved his execution.  “He was sent to the Roman governor on a capital charge (1) because many (not least many Pharisees, but also, probably, the chief priests) saw him as ‘a false prophet, leading Israel astray’; (2) because, as one aspect of this, they saw his Temple-action as a blow against the central symbol not only of national life but also of Yahweh’s presence with his people; (3) because, though he was clearly not leading a real or organized military revolt, he saw himself as in some sense Messiah, and could thus become a focus of serious revolutionary activity; (4) because, as the pragmatic focus of these three points, they saw him as a dangerous political nuisance, whose actions might well call down the wrath of Rome upon Temple and nation alike; (5) because, at a crucial moment in the hearing, he not only (as far as they were concerned) pleaded guilty to the above charges, but also did so in such a way as to place himself, blasphemously, alongside the God of Israel.

“The leaders of the Jewish people were thus able to present Jesus to Pilate as a seditious trouble-maker; to their Jewish contemporaries as a false prophet and a blasphemer, leading Israel astray; and to themselves as a dangerous political nuisance.  On all counts, he had to die.”[15]

After Jesus’ night trial before the Sanhedrin, his captors take him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.  According to John’s version of the story, the Sanhedran did not have the authority to execute Jesus (John 18:31), but needed to turn him over to Pilate for the final decision to condemn and the actual execution.

Only Luke adds a brief encounter between Jesus and Herod Antipas, the ruler of Jesus’ home region of Galilee.  As Luke had noted earlier (9:9), Herod had wanted to see Jesus, “hoping to see him perform some sign” (23:8).  Herod ends up disappointed.  “He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer” (23:9).  So Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate.  “That same day, Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (23:12).  The Powers of political authoritarianism unite in putting an end to the life of this Nazarene prophet.

The various Gospels differ in how they present Jesus’ time with Pilate.  Only John gives detail to the obvious political agenda that this ruthless representative of the Roman Empire seems to have pursued.[16] John highlights the significance of Jesus’ messianic claims—that is, that he could be perceived to be claiming to be a king, in opposition to the emperor and in opposition to the Roman occupation of Judea.  “The charge against Jesus in the [Sanhedrin] trial is that he claimed to be King of the Jews.  Under Roman law that might seem to be sedition: those who are authors of sedition or move the people to upheaval are liable to crucifixion.”[17]

Pilate mostly, though, treats Jesus as a tool to manipulate the Jewish leaders and to transfer the crowd’s support for Jesus into support for Rome.  “Pilate’s intention is not to placate ‘the Jews’ but to humiliate them.”[18] He talks with Jesus, asks him if he is indeed the king of the Jews.  Jesus responds by trying to explain that his “kingship,” his messiahship, is not “from this world.”  By this, Jesus means that he is not a king like Caesar seeking to gain power through brute force.  “If my kingdom were from this world (that is, if my kingdom were of the worldly realm of power politics like Caesar’s), my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the [Jewish leaders, and, ultimately, the Romans]” (John 18:33-36).

When Pilate persists, “So you are a king?” (John 18:37), Jesus does not deny his identity but again tries to help Pilate see that he is concerned not about power politics, but about truth—the truth of God’s kingdom that rejects fighting for power with violence.  Pilate has no interest, though.  He acts bored with the conversation, asking, rhetorically, “What is truth?”  Without waiting for an answer (that is, without listening to Jesus’ voice [18:37]), he walks away to face the religious leaders.

What follows is a masterful piece of manipulation by Pilate.  He tells the religious leaders he sees no case against Jesus.  Noting the custom of the Romans releasing a political prisoner on Passover (John 18:39), he gives the Sanhedrin the choice, Jesus or Barabbas, a violent revolutionary.  The leaders are so wrought up in their anger towards Jesus that they call for Barabbas to be released, though he presented way more of a violent threat to society than Jesus.

Pilate then tortures and ridicules Jesus, placing a crown of thorns on his head to reflect his “ridiculous” claim to be king.  This agitates the religious leaders all the more.  “Crucify him!” the chief priests cry (John 19:6).  Pilate makes as if to release Jesus.  This elicits bitter protests from the leaders: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor.  Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor” (19:12).

Pilate is closer to getting what he wants.  The religious leaders, speaking as people on the top of the hierarchy of the Jewish people, move ever closer to a public affirmation of the current arrangement.  They argue for the inviolability of the emperor’s status.  They do not say Jesus should die because his claims to be God’s emissary violate Jewish law; they say Jesus should die because his claims threaten the emperor’s status.

Pilate takes one last step.  “Here is your king!” he cries as be brought Jesus before the crowd.  “Crucify him!” the crowd responds.  “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asks.  Now comes the denouement: “The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor’” (19:15).  We have no king but the emperor; this directly contrast with the Passover hymn that declares to God, “We have no king but you.”

Pilate gets what he wanted, a public confession from the chief priests of the emperor’s sovereignty.[19] Jesus served Pilate’s purpose.  Then, immediately Pilate ends his charade of trying to release Jesus and “hands him over to be crucified” (John 19:16).

The style of execution the Romans used for political criminals, crucifixion, gained notoriety both for the profound physical suffering it caused those executed and for its public nature.  Those Rome executed served as examples, communicating to all who watched them the folly and costliness of resisting Roman dominance.[20]

Regardless of Jesus’ own statement to Pilate that his kingdom differed from the worldly empires, Pilate had him executed as a political criminal, one convicted of an offense against the state.  “Crucifixion has a political and military purpose: to silence and deter rebels.  Jesus was one of those thousands of Jesus executed publicly on crosses, because what they represented had to be suppressed in order to safeguard law and order in the Roman state.”[21]

As a part of this execution, Jesus suffered a long stream of humiliations, from being mocked and tortured, to be being hung, naked, to die in broad daylight.  “Crucifixion was dreaded first and foremost because of its shameful character.  It was designed to be an instrument of contempt and public ridicule.  The victim died naked, in blood sweat, helpless to control body excretions.  The cross epitomizes human concepts of defilement and exclusion.”[22]

According to Mark, Jesus spent six hours on the cross from the time the nails were driven in until his death (15:25-34).  As extraordinarily brutal as that experience would have been, Jesus actually suffered a shorter time on the cross than many others.  Sometimes, crucifixions took days before death released the victim.  The message of Jesus’ crucifixion, though, would have been one of unsurpassing disgrace—for Jews, Greeks, and Romans alike.[23]

Mark tells of several women remaining nearby as Jesus died.  They watched Joseph of Arimathea, a dissenting member of the Sanhedrin opposed to Jesus’ condemnation (Luke 23:50-51) who had gained Pilate’s permission, retrieved Jesus’ body.  “Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of rock.  He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.  Mary Magalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid” (Mark 15:46-47).

We will pick up the story after this point in chapter nine below.  Before that, though, we will look more closely at the meaning of the story of Jesus’ death.  How is the story of Jesus’ death related to the Bible’s portrayal of salvation?  I believe that at the heart of the saving relevance of the story we find the story’s exposure of the Powers of cultural exclusivism, religious institiutionalism, and political authoritarianism as responsible for Jesus’ death.  They too easily become idols that claim trust that is due God alone.  As such, they become the very forces from which God’s saving work means to liberate human beings.

Jesus’ resurrection will prove to be much more than an appendix to the basic salvation story originating in the call of Abraham and Sarah.  The resurrection adds a profound message of vindication to the entire story.  Jesus’ ministry sought not to present some discontinuous message of salvation that supercedes the Old Testament salvation story.  From start to finish, Jesus’ message totally reinforced the original story.  His resurrection vindicates this message.

Jesus died, not to fulfill the logic of retribution’s need for some heretofore missing ultimate sacrifice that will finally satisfy the demands of God’s holiness.  Rather, Jesus died to illumine the ages old truth—God’s mercy seeks healing for all who trust in it.  This mercy perseveres even in the face of the profound violence of its enemies.


[1] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 51.

[2] See, e.g., the discussion by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

[3] See Wink’s trilogy, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984); Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986); and Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).

[4] William R. Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 240.

[5] John T. Carroll and Joel B. Green, The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 26.

[6] Wink, Naming, 45.

[7] Carroll and Green, Death, 63.

[8] Carroll and Green, Death, 26.

[9] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 192-193.

[10] Herzog, Jesus, 153.

[11] Herzog, Jesus, 168-169.

[12] Herzog, Jesus, 210.

[13] Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 458.

[14] Wright, Jesus, 417.

[15] Wright, Jesus, 551-552.

[16] David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988), 87.

[17] Brown, Death, 717.

[18] Rensberger, Johannine, 94.

[19] Rensberger, Johannine, 95.

[20] Green and Baker, Recovering, 26; Wright, Jesus, 543; Carroll and Green, Death, 169-170.

[21] James W. Douglass, The Nonviolent Coming of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 7.

[22] Green and Baker, Recovering, 163.

[23] Donald J. Goergen, The Death and Resurrection of Jesus (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1988), 34.

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