Sometimes, when I read the words of Jesus, I long for the time when he was here on this earth. I long to hear him speak, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” Surely his was a better time, not ripped asunder by all the tears at us today. And yet, when I move past my selfish longings and read about the cast of characters surrounding Jesus, I see myself there, at times sitting at his feet, in my dreams sacrificing all for him but more realistically as part of the crowd, standing by, if not joining in the chant, at least not disputing the accusation, not risking it all to take a stand for him.
I scan the crowd and see in his innermost circle the zealot, Judas Iscariot, that might have grown impatient with his master’s call to love everyone—even neighbors, foreigners (for goodness sake!), Samaritans!—Judas heard all of this and felt his inner revulsion grow into rebellion and a desire to take matters into his own hands. He was a doer, a taker, a king maker. Let the cards fall where they may—he thought—I will take money and push him forward as the only viable candidate in a corrupt and miserable world. It’s either do or die.
And there is Pilate, caught in the middle, the go-between, passions high on either side, unwilling to take a stand for Truth, unwilling to do what is right because to do that he would have to close the door on a whole group of people who had power to make his life difficult. He ultimately chose power over purpose. He chose the here and now over eternity. He chose the easy way instead of the right way.
The Jews, the church people, the leaders of the synagogues, the keepers of tradition, stand front and center before Pilate but don’t want to go in, because of all things, it will keep them from eating the Passover. Their concern is a cardboard cutout character, a ridiculously worldly concern that cannot stand up in the place of a man’s life—a meal or a life? Which will it be? They chose the meal, the pleasure, the place at the table of this life, the position of temporal authority, the reward, they think, of their years of playing the game, of living by the rules, of denying their true selves and now, they can’t even remember who they really are, only that they can’t let this position slip away. This Jesus fellow threatens to rupture the womb of filth they have so carefully tended and replace it with true Life. They want no part of it. In the numbness of spirit that comes with rule following, with denying Truth, they close their spirit eyes and chose death over life, nailing their own coffins into place from the inside—pride the hammer and lack of love the individual nails.
At the center of it all is Jesus, the ultimate expression of a counter-cultural figure. He stands in direct opposition to just about everything that the people around him want to see. To the traditionalist, he says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not the man for the Sabbath;” to the revolutionary he says, “Love your enemies and turn the other cheek;” to the moderate he says, “I came not to bring peace but a sword.” Each one sees their personal, self-centered dream crumble in the face of a man who speaks only Truth.
Jesus stands alone at the crossroads of all this turmoil. In his crown of thorns and wearing his blood soaked purple sash, he stands at the confluence of rivers of conflict, at the apex of the storm. His followers deny him and leave or huddle fearfully in a corner, terrified to speak up, allowing Evil to triumph even as they feel Light extinguish inside their souls. But where Jesus is, Peace reigns. He continues to speak words of forgiveness, love and care; as the spikes smash his wrists he willfully extends his arms in a gesture of redemption and self-sacrifice, inviting us to do the same.
Jesus understands where we stand today, and the choices that we face. He is risen from the dead and reigns supreme, but he allows us to continue to live in a broken world, where the same passions persist. We see tradition butt up against revolution, we see government looking away as innocents are carted off, we see ourselves choosing a meal over a life, we look away with shame as our muteness indicts us. In each of the characters, we sadly recognize a part of ourselves.
Even today, Jesus looks at us and asks the question: “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” He asks us to chose him over all else, to leave our silence and speak out boldly, professing love to any who will listen. The scene at the praetorian repeats itself every day, even now. I look around and see myself alternately standing among the power brokers of the day, then among those that left him to slink away toward safety or huddled silently, standing by as the crowd shouts out, “Release Barabas!” I want to be the one that runs up to where Jesus is, and says, “I am with him. Take me too.”