The Gospel for today, which recounts the passion and death of Jesus, includes elements of intrigue, betrayal and murder. A careful reading shows that the victim was not ignorant of the plots devised against him. Even before the horrendous onslaught began, Jesus announced, “My appointed time draws near.” He told his disciples, with whom he was at table, “He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me is the one who will betray me.” He foretold their cowardice: “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken.” And to Peter’s declaration of loyalty, he replied, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”
If Jesus knew what was ahead of him, why did he not take steps to avoid it? The reading from Paul offers an answer to this question: “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” A phrase in the Gospel has Jesus himself affirm this sentiment: “Not as I will, but as you will.” Such statements have led some to maintain that Jesus was less a victim of fickle or sinful human beings than of the very God he called Father. Is this in any way correct?
What was God’s will, to which Jesus was obedient? Was it really his suffering and death? Or was his suffering and death the price that he was willing to pay in order to accomplish God’s will? In order to answer this, we might have to examine the reasons for the intrigue, betrayal and murder.
Why was Judas Iscariot willing to betray Jesus? Why were the chief priests eager to capture him? And why did the disciples desert him in his hour of need? The last question is probably the easiest to answer. When the disciples realized that open association with Jesus would place them in danger, they fled out of fear. This same fear prompted Peter’s denial. Such fear is not uncommon. Most of us take great pains to protect ourselves. We are slow to jeopardize our personal security.
Judas’s actions are not difficult to understand. Some scholars contend that the name Iscariot suggests that Judas originally belonged to the dagger-wielding group of assassins know as Sicarii. They were a Zealot party intent on overthrowing the Roman occupiers. If this is true, Jesus’ messianic promise of a new society would have initially resonated with Judas’s own hopes. But they would have been dashed when he realized that this new society would be born of peaceful and nonpolitical means. If Judas thought that Jesus had betrayed him, he would not hesitate to betray Jesus.
Judas’s disappointment in Jesus apparently fit well with the attitudes of the chief priests. They were the respected religious leaders of their day, the interpreters of the tradition for the people. They were the ones presumably able to discern God’s will. This upstart from Galilee had no right to proclaim a message that challenged theirs, particularly if this message threatened the nation’s, and their own, relationship with Rome. He would have to be stopped.
Thus Jesus faced the antagonism of the religious establishment that had compromised itself for political gain, the wrath of an idealist who felt betrayed and the disloyalty of followers who feared for their lives. And all of this stemmed from the fact that he insisted on being true to what he believed was God’s will in his regard. Throughout his ministry, Jesus presented himself as the Messiah of God, the one who would inaugurate the reign of God. His followers, including Judas, as well as the chief priests were all longing for the appearance of this messiah. But Jesus did not meet their expectations, so they regarded him as a fraud. His claims were considered blasphemy and a threat to the peace of Rome. He had to be silenced.
Jesus accepted the destiny of Messiah, as ordained for him by God. Furthermore, he fulfilled that destiny in a manner that shocked and disturbed many people. In a very real sense, Jesus was a victim of conscience, standing for truth regardless of the price it would exact from him.
Today we join Jesus as he proceeds to his destiny with all the dignity that comes from integrity. Rather than concentrate on the horror of the physical agony, we might do well to examine ourselves from the perspective of those responsible for the intrigue, betrayal and murder. Are we willing to follow a messiah who may not fit our expectations? One who exhorts to self-emptying rather than self-fulfillment, obedience rather than willfulness, openness to new insights rather than stubborn adherence to outdated concepts? Are we willing to stand up for truth regardless of the price it might require? Are we really willing to take up our cross and follow him?