No narrative has changed the world as deeply as the account of the Passion of Jesus we read today and that we will consider in this coming Holy Week. The themes we have been working on during Lent – ascesis, paradox, true values, consciousness – are embedded in the wholeness of the story and shine out in many of its smallest details. Some films begin with the claim that they are “..based on true events”. This story is not invented but it is also literature of the highest order. Let’s begin.
Two days before Passover, the central religious festival of the founding myth of his race, which claims God’s bias towards his chosen people. In Egypt (where we began Lent) the angel of death passed over the sons of Israel choosing their enemies instead. Of course, we already know that, in this story, Jesus will not have this privilege. From the first, he is seen as a victim of a corrupt and cruel power system. He is like K in Kafka’s ‘Trial’, like us in our paranoid nightmares of being targeted. Like and unlike. Like us in the ordeal, unlike us in his response.
Power brokers at the top level, when they work in solidarity, are unbeatable. They decide to eliminate him and we know he will be killed. Whatever the suspense in this story – and all stories require some – it is not about its outcome.
Scene change. Jesus was at a meal when a woman showed her feelings for him by anointing him with a jar of expensive ointment. She broke the jar and poured the fragrant contents over his head. (Christos means ‘anointed’). Some of the guests were angry – why waste the money rather than giving it to the poor? Jesus passionately defends the woman. This is another example of the gospel highlighting the superior wisdom of women. Maybe they are wiser not only because they are women: but because those who are excluded from power often see more deeply into the truth. The poor and powerless with whom Jesus identified are often closer to the Kingdom.
In protecting her, ‘Jesus says you have the poor with you always and you can be kind to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me.’ No politician would say this. But is he saying he is worth more than the poor? Or: that our option for the powerless derives not from socio-economic ideals but from the transcendent source of compassion. When you clothed the naked or gave food to the hungry, he says elsewhere, you did this ‘to me’. What may seem like a separation from human suffering is in fact an absolute identification with it. But it is expressed, not conceptually, but in the very particular way he defends this woman. Who is she?The whole of this story is universal because it is so authentically particular.
Scene change: Judas offers to betray Jesus to the chief priests for money. He will calculate the right moment to deliver him to them. The contrast with the mention of money in the previous scene about the ointment is stark. There money is incidental. Here it seems the controlling motive. We don’t know why Judas enacts this betrayal, which has made his name a universal byword for the worst of humanity. We never will understand it until we find the reason in ourselves.