The story of Jesus’s last week is one that is central to our faith, and yet much of it is left untold, or rather is told in scattered pieces during the year. This leaves us with only a partial picture.
Every Palm Sunday we hear how Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem surrounded by cheering crowds. And then we hear all about his passion five days later. The common reason for this is that not everyone can go to Good Friday services and so we have to shoehorn this information into Palm Sunday.
But what I discovered this year is that the story of what Jesus did while he was in Jerusalem is never told during Holy Week. I had thought that the services appointed for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday would do that. But they don’t. They use only John’s Gospel, which includes lots of teachings, but no action.
For a clear picture of action we can go to Mark’s Gospel. Jesus enters Jerusalem (evidently on a Sunday) with the cheering crowds. Then he gets off his colt and visits the Temple. Then he returns to Bethany for the night.
On Monday he returns to Jerusalem, cursing an unproductive fig tree along the way. He drives the money-changers from the Temple, saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and scribes start looking for a way to kill him, because they were afraid of the crowds that were surrounding him everywhere. Jesus and the disciples returned to Bethany in the evening.
The next day on their way to Jerusalem they see the fig tree has withered. In the Temple the chief priests and scribes accost Jesus. They ask him by what authority he is doing these things. He confounds them, as usual. And then he tells the parable of the vineyard, where the owner tries to get his share from the tenants and finally sends his son to collect. The tenants kill the owner’s son. Jesus says the owner will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
When the authorities heard this, they knew it was told against them and they wanted to arrest Jesus but they feared the crowd.
Then Jesus is accosted by some Pharisees and Herodians, who ask about paying taxes. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” Since by Jewish understanding everything belongs to God, this is clearly subversive, since Caesar actually owns nothing.
Then come the Sadducees with a question about marriage, involving one woman who ends up married to seven brothers.
Then comes a scribe who seems authentic in his questions about which commandment is most important. You may be noticing that all these stories are familiar, but did you know they happened during Holy Week?
These encounters are followed by a series of teachings: beware of the scribes and their hypocrisy, the story of the widow’s mite, predictions that the temple will be destroyed, and Jesus’s response to Peter, James, and John when they ask when these things will happen. By now they are on the Mount of Olives on their return trek to Bethany.
Meanwhile the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him, but not during the festival, because there might be a riot among the people.
The next day, Wednesday, Jesus has a meal with Simon the leper. In Mark, this is when a woman anoints Jesus with oil, but it is an unnamed woman and she anoints his head. This same day Judas Iscariot makes his deal with the chief priests.
On the first day of the Passover, Thursday, Jesus and the disciples make arrangements for their meal, what is now called the last supper. Here Jesus institutes communion and predicts Peter’s betrayal. After dinner they go to the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is arrested. And the rest you know.
Mark’s Gospel was the first one written and is the most narrative one, but Matthew and Luke are very similar. By the time we get to Luke, some of the details are missing, but the story of Holy Week is much the same.
However, when John wrote the last Gospel, all mention of the chief priests, the scribes, and the Sadducees are missing. The clear picture of the days of the week is missing. The timetable is different, so that the Last Supper is clearly not the celebration of Passover.
Also what Jesus does at that supper is wash the feet of the disciples. There is no institution of communion here. And after washing their feet Jesus teaches his disciples through over four chapters before leaving for Gethsemane.
Over the passage of time the conflict with the authorities has disappeared. And when we don’t hear the Holy Week stories in the context of Holy Week, we may miss it altogether.
When we do see this conflict with the authorities, as Mark, Matthew, and Luke present it, we see a Jesus who is deliberately making a whole series of statements and actions that confront the powers that be, both the Roman Empire and the Temple hierarchy.
It would be interesting to consider what we would believe about Jesus if Mark were the only Gospel we had, or what we would believe if John were the only Gospel we had? Did Jesus die because he spoke the truth to power, or did Jesus die because God required it? Why does the lectionary break up the action of Holy Week the way it does?
I have to assume that since the theology of John’s Gospel became pretty much the orthodox theology of the church, there was no reason to tell us of the conflicts with the authorities in Jerusalem. Still, I feel that we were short-changed.
Jesus, who has so often been portrayed as meek and mild, here shows incredible strength and courage, both in confronting the powers of his day and in accepting the consequences of his actions. This is a Jesus who turns the other cheek, but does so not out of fear, but out of courage and conviction.
This is a Jesus who teaches in the Temple, but doesn’t waste his breath defending himself at trial. This is a Jesus who challenges the power and might of Rome and its legions with nothing but truth and righteousness. And then he goes to his death, trusting in his followers to get it, to carry on, to spread the word in speech and action.
This is a Jesus worthy of praise and worship. This is a Jesus worth following. This is a Jesus worth emulating! AMEN