In the first of this series of talks, Tom situates the last week of Jesus’ life in the context of the whole of his life, including his deepening and maturing relationship with his Abba, Father during the first 30 years, and how that shaped the way he would fulfill his role as Messiah. There are also details of the geography of Jerusalem, (diagram included) as well as the social, political and religious factors that shaped Jesus’ ministry and the final week.
Before being with Jesus in his final week let us go back to his earlier years for the context of his finale.
For 90% of Jesus’ life he was anonymous, simply the son of Mary and of Joseph the carpenter. When he eventually came on the public scene people were surprised. He’d come from nowhere. What was happening during those thirty years? I may say it used to annoy me rather, that if he was able to do so much good in healing and teaching, why didn’t he get on with it earlier? But I’ve come to see that during that thirty years a deep process of growth and maturity was happening in him. He was living in the dialogue, (which in fact all of us are called to live in,) the dialogue between, hearing the word of God, reading the signs of the times he was living in, and then an intimate prayer life with his God, his Abba Father. The word of God as he would hear it in the synagogues was speaking to his reading the signs of the times of the actual social and religious conditions in Palestine at the time he was alive, - the relations between the wealthy and the poor, between the religious elites and the people struggling to have a religious life and so on. Of course, the way the word of God which he hears speaks to his reading of the signs of the times, mirrored back on the word itself. Reading the signs of the times draws out what the scriptures are about. That’s true for all of us if we cling on to what’s happening in our world and our lives in the light of our prayer life and worship. They are speaking to each other and revealing each other and both of them are caught up in a prayer life.
In Jesus’ case his intimacy with God his Abba, Father, are both being fed by, and then feeding back to, his understanding of what was going on in his life and his peoples’. The dialogue matures and struggles until it comes to a sort of focus point in his baptism, where the word is more or less given to him personally – (‘You are my beloved son’) – a deep personal experience for Him. That baptismal moment then poses the crucial question: what does that mean? Does he come forward as a triumphant messiah figure, a national hero sweeping all before him, which is what people expected, and therefore would be in part his own expectation? Or does he come as the suffering servant, the one who identifies with people, and eventually goes right down into the depths of suffering and death?
That was his excruciating agony time in the desert, the place where the Holy Spirit and the demons are struggling. Each of us somewhere in our lives has probably touched that. We know what it is to be in the place of demons and Holy Spirit. He emerges from that into the ministry he has decided is his calling.
Many Christians live with a cleaned up, pious idea of Jesus’ ministry, which would threaten nobody and has no political context. We need to think again. No one is rejected and crucified for preaching a privatised, beautiful spirituality which is just to do with personal commitment. If it has no context in the social order, if it isn’t laying bare the blatant injustice within the political order, then by and large, the powers that be love to have you around. There’s nothing that political powers like more than religious enthusiasts who invite people into a purely private spirituality because that keeps them safe, keeps them from being troublemakers and makes them lovely people. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was on about.
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In the synoptic Gospels you would think that Jesus never went to Jerusalem until the end story. But in the fourth gospel you would think he was in Jerusalem for all the main feasts. The three main feasts of the year were that of the Dedication, of Tabernacles and of Passover. And Jerusalem had become the largest pilgrimage centre in the Roman Empire. We are told that, during Passover, Jerusalem was like a town under siege. There could be up to a million pilgrims there, camping out in the hills around.
Among the inhabitants of Jerusalem was a young, ardent, hothead Pharisee student called Saul. But in all his later letters to the Christian churches, he never quotes Jesus verbatim – except once, with a quote not mentioned in the Gospels. It seems that one could be an inhabitant of Jerusalem and be unaware of what was going on among the motley crowd of pilgrims. Jesus’ engagement with the powers that be during the last week was possibly quite a small affair within all else that was going on. With hindsight of course, by the time the Gospels were written, and the significance of Jesus was clear, you’d think the whole of Jerusalem was involved in everything he did, but with a million pilgrims at the time, Jesus was quite a little side issue. We have to rethink a lot of how we picture that last week.
It’s important, when we come to understand the last week of Jesus’ life, that it was the climax of previous visits. If you get into the fourth gospel, you get a sense of how each of those visits had built up antagonism with the authorities, so that by the time it came to the Passover Jesus was laying himself bare to what actually happened. The authorities could not allow him to carry on the way he was.
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You won’t be surprised that when I was younger, I knew exactly where I would have been in the story and tut-tutted at all the bad behaviour of his disciples and his antagonists. Do you know that feeling? But the more I get to understand the story, all that naïve confidence has gone and I’m not quite sure now where I would have been in it. I seem to have sympathy for all the different characters. I don’t know what that says, whether I’m just getting old, or humble, or what it is.
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Capernaum is about eighty-five miles from Jerusalem, that’s sort of Windermere or Birmingham from Liverpool. The journey perhaps took a week and it had quite a solemn feel about it because this was it, the climax. During that week, Jesus’ language is becoming much more dour. It is time for decision. You’ve either got to stand by me or get off, there’s no humming or ha-ing anymore. Present the issues, if people accept them that’s it; if they don’t then move on. Present them somewhere else.
As you know, they came to Jericho which is down on the Jordan and there is then quite a long journey up through the hills. The fourth gospel tells us people in Jerusalem knew he was coming.
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Now there is one other thing I warn you, because I warn myself, about the way we use scripture in church. We tend to extract little passages from an ongoing narrative and this can build up the idea that events just happen. Until recently I had this picture of the last week as just one thing happening then another. But the more you get into the story, the more you realise that Jesus, although he is becoming the victim, is also always in charge. It’s the significance, for instance, of that remark when they tell him that Herod’s after you, and he says, ‘Go and tell that fox that I’ll do what I like for the next two days.’ In other words: I am making the decisions, not anybody else. During that last week Jesus is aware of what’s going on, he’s focused on making the decisions. So, when he gets to the outskirts of Jerusalem, it sounds as though he knows that if he enters too early it could be fatal. He’s timing things carefully. So when he gets to the well where the Mount of Olives is, he decides not to go into the city. He goes off to Bethany, to Martha and Mary’s house and he then pushes off ten miles north up to a little place called Ephraim, leaving instructions about that donkey, you remember? The more you get into it the more you realise he is master-minding the story all the way through. Jesus is both the totally free man and the victim at the same time. It is especially important in the fourth gospel that Jesus is the one who decides.
On what we now think of as Palm Sunday, six days before the finale day, and the day after the previous Sabbath, Jesus had decided to enter the city. But what sort of entry was it? There was in the scriptures the expectation that when the Messiah came, he would enter the city in a triumphal way. But the idea of entering on a donkey is really a tease version of that. Very often Jesus is doing the things that are expected of him but in an undermining way, because the one thing that, from the desert onwards, he was clear about, is that the Messiah is not going to be the triumphant one who solves all the problems. His closest followers were still expecting something like that, right through to the end. You remember those two going to Emmaus? They said to this hitch-hiker, ‘We expected him as Messiah to bring our nation together, to re-establish us as God’s people, and now the entire thing has ended by him being crucified.’ The people closest to him were still expecting the national Messiah. Maybe Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial came out of their disappointed expectations?
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I invite you now to look at the map.
You can see how the Temple Mount dominated the whole city. The original city that David had established, is the area marked 12. It’s quite a small area, and chosen because of the valleys surrounding it on three sides. It had expanded during the time of Herod the Great who died more or less at the time Jesus was born, but a lot of the enormous expansion work that started under Herod was still going on in Jesus’ lifetime. The Temple Mount has an outer court, called the Court of the Gentiles, where anyone, non-Jewish visitors, could go. (Do you remember when those two Greeks sent a message in to Jesus? They’d have been in the outer Court of the Gentiles sending a message in because they weren’t allowed as non-Jews into the inner part?)
Then there’s the inner court and then the area of the Temple building itself. Inside the Temple was the enormous, wonderful veil of the Temple, intricately woven in the four colours that represented all of creation and the understanding was that it was the veil where the whole of creation is present and behind which Yahweh, God, dwells in the darkness. For the Jewish faith that was the true pole of the earth, it was the centre of the whole world. If you get a feeling for that it gives profound meaning to a lot of phrases at the time of Jesus’ death. Remember ‘the veil of the Temple was rent in two’. How dramatic that was for a Jewish mind, quite horrifying. The only person that could go behind the veil was the High Priest, once a year.
We’re looking at the city from the south-west. Just north of the Temple area, marked 5 on the map, is the Antonia Fortress, where Pilate would go during the Jewish feasts. If there was going to be trouble in Jerusalem it was during the festivals. It’s a bit like Mecca today. People are very heightened during big feast days, and Pilate who normally dwelt over on the coast at Joppa, came into the city during the big feast days. The Antonia had a very beautiful courtyard inside, but Jews did not allow themselves inside.
You can picture the scene on the Friday morning with Pilate and Jesus. Jesus inside and the crowds mustering outside, and Pilate, poor man, going out to the crowd and then back in to talk to Jesus, then out again and back. In the fourth gospel it’s very dramatic. The Antonia palace was sited there specially so that it could keep an eye over the Temple, because, as I say, if trouble was going to happen it was going to be in the Temple on feast days.
If you now go down from the Antonia Fortress, number 10 is Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. It’s outside the city walls, just next to a main thoroughfare, the place where Jesus was crucified. The place was deliberately chosen as a public site, like Tyburn in London, because the point of crucifying criminals, as in London of beheading criminals, was not just for their punishment. It was to set a public example to other potential miscreants.
If you now go down to number 9 that was Herod’s palace where he dwelt. Then to the right of 9 and below 11, is the supposed site of the Last Supper, the Cenacle. That becomes crucial later on in our narrative.
Now running along the south of the city is a deep valley, and up the east side is an even deeper valley, between the Mount of Olives and the Temple. You get a feel for that in some of the gospel accounts. Ephraim, where he scarpered to before then coming back to make his entry, is off on the top left-hand corner, about ten miles away from Jerusalem. And Bethany, the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, is off to the top right-hand corner, about two miles away.
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One other thing to mention about the city. All through its history, water supplies were crucial and very precarious. They had to bring water in in such a way that even if the city was besieged, they still had water. There are some deep cisterns right down into the rock which are still there. The Pool of Siloam, for instance, which appears in the gospels. All those were to do with supplying water for the city.
The city, as you can see, was surrounded by a wall, to defend it against invaders. But walls that defend against invaders then become extremely useful for those who are going to besiege a city, and forty years after Jesus, when the great siege of Jerusalem happened, the Roman powers could surround the city and keep it under siege for months. So what was built as a defence then became a prison.
Just a little aside here. During the siege the Romans would allow coffins to be lowered out of the city but nobody else. So a very ardent Jewish rabbi got into a coffin and was lowered out of the city during that siege. He managed to escape over to the Mediterranean coast and became one of the founders of a vigorous Jewish renewal movement. Because they needed a form of Judaism that didn’t depend on the Temple or Temple worship, it was entirely focused on devotion to local synagogue worship in the towns and devotion to the Word of God and domestic virtue. It was that Jewish renewal movement that became the great persecutors of Christians towards the end of the century. And when, in the fourth gospel, you get that very unfortunate use of the words ‘the Jews’, what the author has in mind is not just the Jews of Jesus’ day, but the Jews who later in the century were having Christians killed and removed from their property and so on.