The Bible—Episode Five: We Remember Jesus’ Death

April 1, 2013

The fifth and last installment of The Bible aired last night, and in my experience it was a fitting end to Lent and Easter Sunday. The series strengthened as it progressed through the New Testament. Yes, there is plenty of condensation but not as much artistic license as we’re used to. The explanatory voiceovers are kept to a minimum, and the story is allowed to speak for itself. And a powerful story it is.

Episode Five opens with the countdown to Passover. The High Priest Caiaphas wants to see Jesus, convicted by the synagogue court as a fraud and a heretic, out of the picture entirely and immediately. But he continues the political dance: how can an execution be orchestrated right before Passover? What would the crowds do if given the chance: support Jesus or turn against him in a riot? He soon hatches a plan to convince Pilate that it is in the common interest of both Roman and Jew to kill Jesus.

The interaction between the High Priest and Pilate follows the gospel account of John 18–19 closely. The issue clearly is Jesus’ claim to be “king” (by Jesus’ definition, not the political one). Spiritual blindness prevents the Priest from recognizing truth when confronted with it. What is stuck in his head is that a mere human cannot make the claims Jesus has, and therefore, by definition, Jesus is a heretic. [We understand from a complete gospel vantage point that the only One who can make such a claim is Jesus, because he is the Son of God, Messiah, and savior of the world.] What John’s account and this television depiction emphasize is Jesus’ innocence. He is not lying. He is not speaking heresy. He is not violent.  He is, however, a threat to the political wellbeing of the Jewish elite simply by saying “my kingdom is of another world.” Caiaphas is wily enough to play that hand as a threat to Roman authority, and it is on this basis he finally secures Pilate’s involvement in the case.

Pilate, against the counsel of his wife, examines Jesus and his motives, and ultimately tells the Priest, “He is guilty of nothing more than being deluded.” Nevertheless, as a political expedient, he offers the Jews their Passover prerogative, to release one prisoner from jail. Pilate presents the choice, Barabbas—a notorious thief and murderer— and Jesus—who makes a claim to be a king. The viewer can feel Pilate’s fingers cross in hope that Jesus would be chosen for release; but no, the crowd with a little help from Caiaphas calls for Barabbas to receive the favor and incites the call for Jesus’ crucifixion.

From this point on, the story is bloody, outrageous, tender, and moving all at once. The Way of the Cross is depicted with a few Catholic flourishes to bring it alive (here is the justifiable artistic license). Jesus’ struggle to carry the cross, Mary’s attempt to give aid, his three falls, the ministrations of another women tradition names Veronica. Through all the street scenes along the Via Dolorosa, the figure of Satan lurks, impassive and heartless.

A prolonged scene of great tenderness takes some of the horror away—a much-needed relief—and that is Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry his cross. Simon takes the task seriously and one gets the feeling that his faith grows through the ordeal. He is not taking on the physical task alone; his help appears to be a compassionate ministry to come alongside an innocent man unjustly abused.

While Caiaphas dresses for the Passover ritual, the march to Golgotha continues. Jesus’ mother Mary is now beyond crying. At the top of the hill, her son is stripped and abused. And then, at a moment when he could have been completely passive or resistant, Jesus instead crawls to the cross and puts himself upon it, lying there on the ground. This one simple act illustrates the resolve and obedience with which Jesus embraces his mission, and a high point for me personally. Though the sacrificial victim, Jesus retains his sense of calling and continues to obey his heavenly Father and do what he came to do. At this point we cannot help but say, “Jesus was no victim. He chose this.”

The sign announcing “Jesus, King of the Jews” in Hebrews, Latin, and Greek is nailed to the top of the cross. And then Jesus himself is affixed to its members, and the cross is raised in order for gravity to do its work.

As clouds gather, Passover progresses, and the scene sobers, Jesus utters his seven last words. He suffers but watches the gathering storm. Upon the words, “It is finished,” the earth begins to tremble. Caiaphas is approaching the Holy of Holies, only to have the ground shake violently and the curtain come crashing down. Jesus, looking on in wonder and exhaustion, says, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” and a full-blown earthquake lurches everything into pandemonium.

The clouds pass, things quiet down. Jesus is dead. The Roman soldier spears Jesus’ side matter-of-factly. Nicodemus hastily approaches with a letter from Pontius Pilate authorizing the Jews to claim the body. Mary is given a moment to hold her son, and then a hasty burial is expedited, since it is the Sabbath.

Just one comment here, and tomorrow I will pick up with “the rest of the story.” Through the millennia, the question of who was responsible for Jesus’ death has been a hot one. Was it the Jews or the Romans who doomed the Savior? The editors of this movie version depict the Jewish pressure to have Jesus removed as a threat to political and religious stability. The Roman involvement as shown was more accommodating to Jewish interests than we have typically seen. The more politically correct choice lately has been to either blame the Romans or distribute the guilt across the board. Though some Christians through church history have blamed the Jews for Christ’s death, and resorted to violent anti-Semitism as a result, I believe the correct theological outcome of this debate is this: human agency to kill Jesus came first from the Jews, but with godless Roman complicity. To cast blame on one or the other of them is to miss the point of the story: Jesus Christ chose to obey his heavenly Father for the sake of all humanity, and after an unjust conviction (for he was innocent), to die as atonement for the sin of all people. It was the sin of all of us that put Jesus on the cross, and it was his power in weakness, obedience in abuse, and surrender to death that fulfilled God’s promise of forgiveness and reconciliation for us.



5 Responses to “The Bible—Episode Five: We Remember Jesus’ Death”

  1. I’ve felt for some time that all the efforts to determine “who was responsible for Jesus’ death” miss the point if they indict ANYONE other than the one who’s asking the question, or those who represent his own position. But “shift the blame to anyone else” is a really attractive exercise!

  2. yumiko nakagawa (shigi) Says:

    Hi, Mary ! this is Yumiko from Japan.
    It’s long long time to see you and your family.
    How’s going ? We are fine !
    It’s so difficult to read your blog !
    but, this is good to study English .
    I’ll try to do it !!
    Take care .
    Love. Yumiko.

  3. Steven N. Says:

    Your last section reminded me of some of the work those of us who took the exegesis exam this January did. The passage chosen for the exam was Romans 11:17-24 with Paul’s warning to be careful how we treat our Jewish siblings.

  4. Chas Jay Says:

    Mary, one of my favorite songs is The Day He Wore My Crown.that highlights the truth that you mentioned. As that song says “I am the one to blame and I caused all of His pain for He gave Himself the Day He Wore My Crown.

    He is Risen!!

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