by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

Even when he was president, Jimmy Carter was known for conducting Sunday school classes in local Washington churches. A person who had attended one of the president’s sessions reported that at one of these he posed this question: what was the distinctive feature of Our Lord Jesus’s life on earth?

Naturally the responses varied: the Savior’s message of love, his miracles, his openness to all regardless of religion or social ranking etc. After listening to these answers, Carter surprised his listeners by saying that for him conflict was Jesus’s overriding experience during the three years of his public ministry. If we look at the Gospels with an eye to the many times Jesus was confronted principally by the religious leaders of his time, one can make the case for Carter’s opinion.

During these final days before Holy Week, the Church seems to reemphasize this point in its selection of the daily and Sunday readings from the New Testament. Almost without exception we hear of increasing opposition to the Lord because he is “violating the Sabbath,” “making himself equal to God,” “eating with sinners and prostitutes.” Jesus constantly denounces these criticisms, and finally in a most dramatic way with a series of scathing warnings to the Scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, as reported in Chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel.

The culmination of this aspect of Jesus’s life and ministry comes in the Gospel selected for this Sunday, the fifth in Lent. It is a detailed account of the Lord’s reactions to the death of his friend, Lazarus: weeping, consoling the man’s sisters, calling for faith in his being “the resurrection and the life”; and finally calling the dead man forth from the tomb.

In our churches, however, the proclamation of this Gospel story stops short. Actually, it goes on with a dramatic account of what happens next. John writes that “many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him; but some went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” The chief priests and the Pharisees then convened the Sanhedrin and said: “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.”

John continues: “One of them Caiaphas, who was high priest that year said to them: ‘You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that oner man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish’… so from that day on the planned to kill him.” (John 11:45-53)

This was clearly a political calculus on the part of a group of men terrified that their hold on socio-religious power was being threatened. Their decision was the same as that of every tyrant in history, including President Vladimir Putin today. Cornered, they lashed out. Significantly, as has been pointed out in liberation theology, such an evil determination was “the [inevitable] outcome of an incarnation situated in a world of sin.” (Christology at the Crossroads, Jon Sobrino, page 202). From that standpoint what we will celebrate once again this Holy Week is the great mystery of humanity’s redemption wrapped up in God’s human experience of light versus darkness.

As we come together for our “High Holy Days” the tendency might be to concentrate on the
glorious culmination of this “greatest story ever told.” Lent is finally coming to an end and we
are ready to sing the alleluias at the triumph of “Christ our light.” But as Jesus explained to the
two disciples on the road to Emmaus that fateful third day: “Was it not necessary that the
Messiah should suffer these things…?”

In salvation history, there is no Easter without Good Friday.

Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

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