Imaginations of the Heart: Passing By
[For a pdf of this imagination, click here]
Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?
It’s funny, I just can’t get that quote out of my head. Jeremiah wrote it all those years ago as he wept over the ruins of Jerusalem. What could it possibly mean to me today? And yet I answer it: ‘No, it means nothing!’ as I pass by his cross on the hilltop. He is nothing to me and I am glad—I think—to see him there. But even so…
We of the high priest’s household had heard of this man from Galilee for some time but no-one took him seriously. After all, there were many others like him with their few followers wandering around criticising the Romans, criticising the party of the Sadducees, for that matter. But Caiaphas is a practical man—hard but fair and he certainly wasn’t going to get rattled by a peasant from Nazareth!
As for me, well I have no love of priests or Sadducees but they pay my wages and individually, most of them are pretty decent chaps doing their best for Israel in difficult times. After all, they’ve negotiated some concessions for us that very few other provinces have. We can even mint our own coins for use in the Temple.
Anyway, as I say, no-one was worried about this Jesus of Nazareth until he started playing politics. He arrived at Jerusalem a few days before Passover and rode in, still with his supporters, on a donkey! That caused consternation in the household I can tell you. “He’s proclaiming himself king!” “He’s trying to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah!” “If the Romans find out there’ll be trouble…”
I must admit that I didn’t know what they were talking about. My friend Zebedee was there when this Jesus arrived. He said it wasn’t more than 50 to 100 people—mostly kids—and it was a party atmosphere. He joined himself, just for the fun of it. There was nothing about being a king! But I asked one of the scribes and he said that the prophet Zechariah had written, ‘Rejoice, daughter of Jerusalem, see your king comes to save you, gentle and riding on a donkey.’ He said this Jesus was deliberately implying that he is our new king—and that the Romans won’t stand for that. (I don’t expect Herod would be too pleased either.)
It sounded like a lot of fuss about nothing as far as I could tell. Lots of weird things happen around Passover time and it wasn’t as if he had an army or anything. I thought they were all just a bit edgy because Pontius Pilate was due back any day and they didn’t want trouble. But then there was the business in the Temple…
It was his performance in the Temple which convinced me he was up to no good—that he was dangerous, in fact. I wasn’t there but I heard all about it. The priests were furious of course, and who could blame them? What happened was this—Jesus went to the Temple with his followers and he threw out the money changers, overturned their tables, scared away the animal sellers and generally created havoc in that holy place.
He quoted the prophet Jeremiah, asking if the house of God had become a den of robbers! The man is mad! And he is ignorant. He can quote the prophets but ignore the law. Surely he must know that Moses commanded unblemished sacrifice, surely he knows that Moses commanded the half-shekel to be paid. Does he not realise what a great achievement it was to get the Romans to allow us to have our coins for Temple use? Does this man want to overthrow all that Moses taught? And yet he has roused the crowds so that even the Temple guard dare not take action against him. Ignorant people are already saying that he is the anointed one, that he is the Messiah because only the Messiah would have the authority to supersede the role of the priesthood.
But that is just plain wrong. The Messiah will come from Bethlehem, David’s town, not Nazareth. The Messiah will bring the reign of God’s kingdom, will sit upon the throne of David, will bring all nations to grateful submission to the rule of the LORD. He will be of the line of David, beautiful, noble, a mighty warrior, a great and gracious priest. He will not be a dirty ragged northern peasant, a rabble rouser, a self-deluded demagogue.
As the days drew on things got no better. Scribes, priests, even Pharisees—all tried to bring him down in the eyes of the crowd but his clever rabble rousing answers just made things worse. They thought they’d get him over taxes but he slipped out of that and left them looking stupid. And he didn’t really answer the question.
So I went down myself to see. My masters had decided to confront him over his authority. They argued that if they could get him to claim God’s authority they would soon be able to force him to commit himself to something obviously blasphemous. Then, surely, the crowd would turn against him. So a group of them went down into the Temple precincts to confront him and I tagged along.
It was quite crowded in the outer courts—the great festival was approaching and the city was filling up with pilgrims. Jesus wasn’t hard to find, though. Sitting with a crowd of about fifty around him, men, women and children.
We stopped and listened for a bit. He must have seen us but he gave no sign, just carried on as if we weren’t there. I must admit he wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I thought he’d be shouting, full of passion and anger, a great orator working the crowd and getting them aroused. But he s almost the opposite. He sat very still and calm; his voice was gentle—sweet in a way, with something of a woman’s lilt to it—and he was speaking of the need to repent, to live differently so that God’s kingdom could be realised.
He spoke quietly. I had to strain a little to hear him and I found myself being drawn in, sucked in, caught in his net. He spoke with humour, poking fun at our everyday failings. Even when he had a go at the pretentiousness of some of the priests I had to laugh—he was so right! I wondered who he’d been talking to; I could have told him a few stories myself.
Then suddenly I saw a danger. There was steel beneath the silk. The man I thought I’d come to see was sitting right there in front of me. The passion was there alright but it was a deep bass note which permeated everything he said. He was a great orator, he was working the crowd, but not in the way I expected. His little jokes and stories drew me in and invited me to join him, to see the world from where he sat and to agree with him in his own special view of things. He was the most magnetic and attractive man I’d ever come across. In just those few brief minutes I found myself longing to hear, to stay longer, to find out everything I could about him. more
Then suddenly I flipped back to my senses. This was the most repulsive man I ever saw! And the most dangerous. I had expected a frontal assault on the hierarchy and the Imperial occupation. What I witnessed was more like a woodworm or a boring beetle undermining the foundations of all that the Temple is here to do. He was indeed a blasphemer, setting himself against the priesthood and the law. But oh so subtle, oh so sly—no wonder the people were taken in. I nearly was myself and I’ve worked in the high priest’s service for many years.
The priests had obviously had enough too. One of them stepped forward; “Rabbi, Teacher,” he said, and I’m sure Jesus heard the sarcasm in his voice, “Rabbi, what you say is very interesting. But we were wondering: who gave you the authority to speak in this way?” The crowds hushed. They could sense that something special was going on. More people started to drift close, also obviously aware that something was happening. Soon there must have been a hundred or so, all listening and waiting. The Temple guards just stood a little more uprightly, hands just inches from their swords. The tension was palpable. And still Jesus said nothing. Until…
“Let me just ask you a question,” he said, and his voice, stronger and more powerful now, cut into the silence like a well-honed blade, “John the Baptist? Was his baptism from heaven or from men?” Oh clever! Clever! He’s turned the tables on them with one simple question. This man truly is dangerous. (Though part of me can’t help but admire him for his wit, his courage and his calm self-assurance.) I looked at the priests and the teachers of the law but even I could see that they couldn’t win this one. At the mention of John the Baptist even more people were joining the crowd. There was now a real sense of menace in the situation.
If they say John’s baptism was from heaven, he will ask why they didn’t follow John, why they didn’t support him when he was arrested, why they didn’t protest when he was executed. This crowd could turn against us. So they didn’t want to pursue that line. But the other was even worse. To deny that John was sent by God would enrage the common people, most of whom revered John as a true prophet. So they answered, “We cannot answer your question.” You could feel the disappointment in the crowd. The tension dissipated and some started to drift away.
“In that case,” said Jesus, “I won’t answer your question either.” And he turned his head again to the group of people he’d been teaching. On the surface it seemed like a draw, that the status quo had been maintained. Each had asked a question, neither had answered. But the priests knew, even I knew, that Jesus had won again. They’d ended up looking stupid, he had kept the moral high ground.
And by doing that he was writing his own death warrant.
I don’t know exactly what it took to do the deal. A number of things came together, I guess: as the support of the crowds grew ever more raucous, so men of discretion became more concerned and more determined to do something about him. Indeed, even his own people were getting worried. The rumour in the Temple was that one of his closest followers had turned against him and was now prepared to work with us. And finally, and this was key I think, Pilate began to get worried. He could smell trouble and he wanted to put a stop to it.
So that was the agreement: we would try him for blasphemy, they would try him for treason. The hope was that the crowds would be confused and doubtful enough not to rise up in support of him. And it worked.
I agreed wholeheartedly, of course. The whole situation in Judea was fragile enough without anyone coming to make it worse. Of course I wanted the kingdom of God to come as much as the next man but you’ve got to be realistic. We have to live in the here and now, not spend our time in holy daydreams. This Jesus was clearly not God’s anointed one and no closer to the kingdom of God than you or me. He had to be neutralised for the sake of the nation.
They arrested him and brought him to Caiaphas’ house for the preliminary hearing. It was a bit of a shambles, actually. Everything had been done in such a hurry that the witnesses hadn’t got their stories straight and most of them were not the most believable characters anyway. They claimed he’s said he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, but even then they couldn't agree and everything was just getting silly.
And all the time he just stood there, silent but completely in command of himself. The guards had roughed him up a bit and he must have been in pain but he never showed. He seemed like the one still centre of calm in the midst of the chaos and mess of the hearing. I must admit I was impressed, despite my own feelings. Whatever else he was, he did have something about him.
I could see that Caiaphas was getting more and more frustrated. Finally he raised his hands for silence and spoke directly to Jesus: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the living God?” Well, that really hushed the room. There was a long silence and I thought that Jesus would no more answer this question than any of the others—he clearly wasn’t stupid and was hardly going to say yes, was he? It seemed to be a serious miscalculation by Caiaphas and I could see the whole thing unravelling.
“Yes, I am.” You could feel the gasp more than hear it. It was as if, for a moment, the air had been sucked out of the room and we all held our breath. He’s said it! Condemned himself out of his own mouth! It didn’t make sense. Why would he do such a thing? But he hadn’t finished. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Almighty and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The Daniel prophecy! He really was claiming to be the anointed one. This Northern peasant, with no lineage or position, really thought that he was David’s successor, the one to free the people and usher in God’s kingly rule. He must be mad. He must be stopped. He will be stopped. Caiaphas has all he needs now—and more. They bundled him off to Herod then and afterwards to Pilate.
His fate was sealed, had been sealed a long time ago I guess, and I should have been pleased. I mean, I was pleased but there was something about it all which left a rather nasty taste in my mouth. Somehow things didn’t feel quite right but I couldn’t have told you why. It was only later that I began to understand.
And now I stand here on Skull Rock with those words of Jeremiah whirling in my head: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” and I want to say, ‘No, it’s nothing to me. You brought this on yourself, Galilean. You were the one who tried to undermine the Temple and destabilise a really delicate political situation. You knew the risks and now you’re paying the price.’ And it’s all true. I know it is. That’s why we’re here, to see justice done. A whole gaggle of us have come up to see him hanging there. (‘Gaggle’? Why did I use that word? Is that what we are? An unruly flock of noisy geese? What on earth made me think of that?)
The priests and teachers of the law are in their element, shouting abuse at him, mocking him, berating him. But I am getting more and more detached from them. Not physically—though there is now a bit of a gap between me and them, now I come to notice it—but emotionally. They are enjoying their triumph; I just can’t seem to share in their joy. I look around. The sky is clear overhead, the sun high above us. From the city below the shouts of the street traders and shoppers come wafting up. It’s still festival time and the city is alive with people. I can even hear the clink, clink of the Roman patrols as they keep their watchful processions around the city.
But up here it is very still and quiet. No, that’s not right—it’s really noisy, with the jeers of the passers-by and the groans and cries of the men on the crosses. But there is a kind of stillness here, a tense sense of expectation. The calm before the storm, as they say. And actually, yes, on the horizon the clouds are building up. There’s going to be some serious weather here in a couple of hours.
And so, in this noisy stillness, I am looking again at Jesus. It’s such a cruel death, crucifixion, and he’s half dead already from the beatings they gave him. And they’ve nailed him too. The other two are just roped. So when he tries to push himself up to be able to breathe it hurts him even more. And for what? The other two were violent men, criminals, not nice people at all. But he wasn’t violent, except for the Temple tables, but no-one was hurt and everybody knew he was just making a point. No, he had a gentleness about him. Even if he was completely wrong about Israel and our leaders, did he deserve this? And suddenly it is something to me. I do care about what is happening to him and it doesn’t seem right.
I move closer to his cross and look up at him. He looks awful, the blood congealed around his wrists and feet, the marks of the beatings showing up vivid on his skin. He smells awful too: blood, piss and sweat mingling in a really pungent way. I am repelled and take a step back; I’ve never been this close to a dying man before. As I do he lifts his head and looks down at me, directly at me and he gives a little smile.
It is a smile with the eyes mainly. I guess his lips are too dry and cracked to do much smiling any more. But his eyes—they are still bright, intelligent, caring. They look down at me with tenderness and pity, as if our places were reversed and I were the one on the cross and he were standing here, pain-free, scot-free, and I feel his gentle benediction overwhelming me, releasing tensions I never knew I had. How can he be blessing me?
I stand there, soaking it up. My attention is focused only on him now. Everything else fades from sight and sound. It is just him and me in the whole universe. We are in a bubble of pure reality in the midst of a world of illusion. I have never connected with anyone like this before and I don’t want it to end, ever. I say his name: ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’ and I remember that it means ‘saviour’ and I am sad to my core. That’s what he wanted to do—to save us, not from the Romans or from the priests, but from ourselves. And of course we couldn’t let him do that!
I don’t know how long I stood there, transfixed. It was probably only a few moments though it seemed like an age. And then he dropped his head. The pain was too much, even for him. I could see it in his eyes. And I knew that it wouldn’t be long before the end came—and I was glad for him. A few more hours and his sufferings would be over.
I was glad for him but desolate for myself. I didn’t want another pointless death, especially his. He had something no-one else has ever had and now it’s gone. I can’t stand it any more and so I leave. But I find it hard to turn away, hard to turn my back on him—as if he were some kind of king! And so I find myself walking backwards away from him, my eyes still fixed on him, until I bump into someone and with a muttered apology turn and hurry away.
But he has changed me, this peasant agitator, this broken king. (‘King of the Jews’, Pilate called him; that really upset my masters!) I have encountered something, someone, who has touched my heart of stone and I am melting. It is so good, it is so scary, and I do not know what the future will bring. But I do know that the future will be very different because of those few timeless moments on a dusty hillside. And I am thankful.