Today we enter Holy Week, the most significant time in the Christian calendar – the days we follow Jesus to the cross, to the tomb and then to the empty grave next Sunday, on Easter. I am old enough to remember stores being closed, a somber spirit, observances like fasting, worship and prayer being highlighted all week, and having a week of religious viewing with shows “Ben Hur,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and “King of Kings” shown on commercial television.
Those days are gone. How are we to mark the days of Holy Week? While secular life has encroached on religious sensibility, there is still a hunger to know who this Jesus was. There are tens of thousands of book and blogs out there debating who’s the real Jesus. It is estimated that there are over 1000 films, documentaries and shows made on the life of Jesus. From the farcical “Life of Brian,” to “Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter,” “Jesus Christ, Super Star,” to the over-the-top blood and gore “Passion of the Christ” by Mel Gibson – each one has an aspect of the story to tell, through the lens of movie producer. The most recent “Son of God” is most known for a controversy of a portrayal of the devil that seems to resemble former President Obama.
Each movie in its own way, even as John Stainer and other musicians put to music, try to tell us Jesus’ story. Who was he? A good man? A prophet? A charlatan? The messiah?
The story line of Satan tempting Jesus with visions of hate and holocaust may not be biblical, but it is certainly plausible. Isn’t that one of the biggest questions we entertain as we enter holy week? What did all this suffering accomplish? What difference has it made? Who is Jesus?
Some people reject Jesus and Christianity’s claims because of the following failures.
The messiah, in Jewish teaching is supposed to: build the Third Temple (Ezekiel 27:26-28). The messiah is supposed to gather all the Jews back to the Land of Israel (Is. 43:5-6). The messiah is supposed to usher in an era of world peace, end all hatred oppression, suffering and disease (Isaiah 2:4). The messiah is supposed to spread universal knowledge of the God of Israel, united the entire human race as one. (Zech. 14:9). Some say that for all that Jesus has done, he still falls short. Holy Week is a farce.
Perhaps we should consider this: as we enter into the pain of Holy Week, juxtaposed to the horrors of history and the inhumanity of humankind, we see another kind of messiah emerge. An understanding of Messiah that Jesus was indeed faithful to. An image that we are asked to consider and embrace.
Jesus, throughout his life eschews the path of a political messiah. In his first temptation in the wilderness, Jesus refuses to worship the devil in exchange for power over the earth. Jesus proclaims to Pilate that his kingdom is not of this earth – and that also speaks that the peace he offers us is not of this world. The teachings of Jesus are clear: the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of peace, justice service, and striving for the elimination of oppression suffering and disease. Jesus does give the mandate of spreading the good news to all the four corners of the earth. However, Jesus does not force his vision on humankind, even in his death and resurrection. We are free to choose to accept Him or not to accept him. Every day we are free to choose whether we will take the path of love. We are given a choice.
If anything, the belief that God will wave a magic wand and make human life different is contrary to how God acts in the world. In Jesus’ interactions with people, people have a choice on how to act. Will they act with love? Or out of selfish regard? Remember the rich man who did everything and wanted to know the way to eternal life? Jesus looked on him with love and said, go sell what you have and give to the poor.” The rich man walked away dejectedly. Jesus didn’t force him to give up his money; he didn’t call him back and tell him to do something different. Jesus left him with choice. In the parable of the prodigal son, the elder son refuses to join the feast when his younger brother returns.
The Father doesn’t force his older son, doesn’t bribe him. It’s his choice. If we look through the gospels, we seem many occasions where Jesus could have smoothed things over or compromised. But he didn’t. Jesus remembered true to who he was. He lived the divine law of life: Love requires that we have free will. Love that is not freely chosen is not love. God loves us too much to take free will away from our lives, even if it means at times we sin, make mistakes or suffer. Free will to choose is that important.
Dante in The Divine Comedy wrote: “ The greatest gift which God in his bounty bestowed in creating humans, and the most conformed to his own goodness, and that which he prizes the most, was the freedom of the will.”
As we travel with Jesus this Holy Week from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane to his Passion and death on the cross, we are reminded, every step of the way that although his dearest friends and disciples, his enemies and oppressors chose evil, fear and apathy --Jesus gives us an example of a steadfast free will that stays the course through all the pain he faced. We see this in his refusal to walk away. We see this in his refusal to abandon the principles of the Kingdom. We see this in his refusal to lash back at those who tortured him, who hated him, who disposed of him in the most egregious manner possible.
Holy week reminds us of the price of love and free will. The power of free will, laid at the disposal of love, does more than we can possibly imagine. We can’t conceive a world without the impact of Jesus, the Christ, whose will was at the disposal of love. While many have done horrors in his name, there are many who have done heroics, many unknown to us – as love often chooses – that have changed lives, even our world.
Author Jim Butcher reminds us: “God isn't about making good things happen to you, or bad things happen to you. He's all about you making choices--exercising the gift of free will. God wants you to have good things and a good life, but He won't gift wrap them for you. You have to choose the actions that lead you to that life.”
So that wonderful fantasy that God will one day, feed all the poor, send all the bad people to prison, heal all our wounds, make us all live in harmony and bliss just with a wink of an eye just isn’t true. But God does give us a heart, a will, a mind, a conscience to act in concert with the kingdom of God. That’s what Jesus shows us.
We have been given, not the messiah we want, but the messiah we need. The messiah who seeks to awaken in us the power of love, and to free our will from the tyranny of selfishness. This Holy Week, may we freely enter the story of Jesus, who emptied himself and took on the form of a slave to show us how true love, true freedom acts. May we act in concert with him and discover that once captive to holy love – we are truly free. Amen.