The first reading at Mass today comes from the 20th chapter of the prophet Jeremiah, and contains these arresting words for Passiontide:
But the Lord is at my side, a mighty hero;
my opponents will stumble, mastered,
confounded by their failure;
everlasting, unforgettable disgrace will be theirs.
Next week will be Holy Week, and after all the excitement of the new Pope, and amidst all the worries of the world (such as the Cyprus crisis), perhaps we will be able to concentrate our minds on the Passion of the Lord. In so doing we may well think too of the Lord’s ‘opponents’ – those who conspired to bring about His death: Judas, Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, with a walk on part for Herod the tetrarch.
When I was a boy at school, these characters were the source of endless fascination to me and my fellow pupils, and we had endless class discussions, I seem to remember, about who was responsible for the death of Jesus. One of our RE masters was a devout Catholic of German-Jewish origin, and he maintained, correctly I think, that Pontius Pilate was not the sort of man to be bounced into making decisions against his will; in other words, the Romans were responsible for the death of Christ. I am sure that this is true, and that the gospel writers, in their care to present the story of the Passion to a predominantly Roman audience had to tread carefully; hence they gave the Procurator a pass, and shifted the blame onto the Jerusalem mob. I do not for a moment mean that they twisted facts or even invented them, but rather that they recounted them in the light of the most favourable (from the Roman point of view) interpretation. But in the end Pilate had to be to blame, as he was the man ultimately in charge.
Which brings us to Judas. What was his motivation? None of the explanations advanced in the gospels seem sufficient, given the seriousness of the betrayal. Perhaps Judas himself did not know. Human motivation is very hard to fathom. As for the chief priests, the usual explanation is envy. But one thing is certain: in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, everlasting, unforgettable disgrace is theirs. Their names are now bywords for shameful behaviour.
Whatever their reasons, one thing is clear: someone was to blame, and the crucifixion of Jesus, from a purely human point of view, was not some accident, but something that was willed by people, and deliberately so. This fact offends many. I remember being made aware of this when watching a discussion programme on television in the wake of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. The fact that someone could be blamed, anyone at all, for the death of Christ, was deeply offensive to the right-thinking panel. Clearly they had all imbibed the politically correct and anti-Christian idea that there is no such thing as moral evil, and there is, consequently, no need for redemption. In the immortal words of Polly Toynbee: “Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?”
When we follow Christ the Man of Sorrows round Jerusalem this coming week, retracing the path of suffering He took for our redemption, we shall perhaps be most struck by His love for us all – those of us who want Him to redeem us, as well as those who are indifferent to His love. As for the question of blame, first of all we should blame the sins of the world for the Passion of Christ, while remembering of course that Jesus freely laid down his life for us, so that truly no one is to blame, as He acted of His own accord. But our sins are blameworthy, that cannot be escaped – as were the sins of Judas, those of Caiaphas, and I think more than any other, those of Pontius Pilate, the one charged with the administration of Roman law, the man with responsibility for the inhabitants of Judaea, who nevertheless washed his hands of One of them.
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