PALM SUNDAY 2021
Is. 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Mk 14: 1-15:47
Who killed Jesus?
Today is Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday), a day that marks the beginning of Holy Week. Ordinarily, today, we walk into the church bearing palm branches or any branches in order to mark the entry of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, where the people put their linens and cut branches in order to welcome Jesus as he passed through their way. Today, also we read the gospel on the Passion of Jesus Christ, as presented to us by the evangelist Mark (since we are in Year B of the Liturgical year). From Mark’s version of the Passion of Jesus, I invite you, today, to reflect on our culpability in the cruel death of Jesus, on the cross.
- THE MINDSET OF THE KILLERS OF JESUS
When reflecting on the death of Jesus and who killed him, many names come to mind, among those we can easily point an accusing finger to. We may accuse the Pharisees and the Leaders of the Jews, the soldiers, Pilate, Judas, Peter who denied him, the angry crowd, etc. But a closer look at things may make us realize that it is not so easy to pinpoint just a single culprit.
During the Second World War, millions of people were killed. Among all these millions, were six million Jews exterminated by the Germans. History tells us that one man was put in charge of the extermination of these Jews. He was called Adolf Eichmann. Judging from his deeds, many people believed this man was not sane. He was mad!
However, after the war, when Eichmann was tracked down and arrested, he was found to be perfectly sane. He was a calm, well-balanced, conscientious man going about his administrative job. He was thoughtful and orderly, though somewhat unimaginative. He had a profound respect for the state system and for law and order. He was an obedient, loyal, and faithful official of a great state, the German State under Adolf Hitler. He served his leader and his government to the best of his ability. This is what frightens us about him. Had he been found to be insane, one could have understood how it could happen. But no; he was found to be perfectly sane. And as far as we know, he was not unduly troubled by guilt over the thousands of people he had exterminated, for he apparently slept well and had an excellent appetite.
It is truly frightening to think that perfectly sane people are capable of doing, not just evil, BUT VERY GREAT EVIL. After all, we look to the well-balanced to save the world from barbarism, madness, and destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that we may have more to fear from the SANE than from the INSANE.
This brings us to the men who put Christ to death. We have always tended to see these people as a uniquely evil bunch, who were acting from the most wicked motives possible. But this is a mistake. Even a quick glance at the evidence will show that they were not the worst of people on earth. The truth is: dark evil sleeps in all of us, human beings. This being so, we should not have any great problem in seeing ourselves as well capable of playing the roles of the men who put Christ to death.
- THOSE WHO TOOK PART IN KILLING JESUS
- a) The Chief Priests, the Scribes and the elders: These were the principal organizers of the killing of Jesus. They recruited and paid the crowd that falsely accused Jesus. They paid Judas the required sum for betraying Jesus. They masterminded the crafting of the accusations against Jesus. “Now the chief priest and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death” (Mk 14:55). Yet these same people saw themselves as doing a “Holy Job”.
Ordinarily these religious leaders were austere, religious people, who devoted all their energy to doing good and to studying of God’s Law. But they were absolutely convinced of their own rightness, and history shows that such men are capable of the most appalling evil. People have hidden behind the guise of FAITH IN GOD to do hideous things. Here are certain examples of Christian religious fanatics known to have posited notoriously barbaric acts in the history of the Church:
- The unconverted Saul (later called Paul) who ravaged the early Church (Acts 7:54-8:3); “But Saul was ravaging the Church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3).
- Church history talks about the Crusaders: These were organized Christians fighters in the Middle Ages, whose primary objectives were to stop the expansion of Muslim states, to reclaim for Christianity the Holy Land in the Middle East, and to recapture territories that had formerly been Christian. They killed without mercy.
- The Inquisitors: These people ran a court system set up by the Roman Catholic Church in the thirteenth century to try cases of heresy and other offenses against the church. Those who were convicted were handed over to the civil authorities for punishment, including execution. Many innocent people were tortured and put to death.
Are we any different from these people? Given the chance, would we not kill Jesus all over again?
- b) Pilate: He was thinking about his high office and the preservation of Law and order at a time of great unrest. He knew that Christ was innocent but he feared that trouble would ensue if he did not give the religious leaders what they wanted. He was also, of course thinking about his own job. “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified.” (Mk 15:15). Many people know what they are supposed to do, but how many do it? At times we all dilly-dally even when we clearly know what we should do. During any election, we all know what we must/should do to bring order and discipline which are very much lacking in our country. But who cares about changing things for the better? We think of our stomachs first, and we leave much undone. We sin by omission.
- c) Judas: This is the man who handed Jesus, his Master, to his killers. He had actually arranged a signal with the Chief Priests, and the elders “saying ‘The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him and lead him away securely.’ He came and immediately went over to him and said, “Rabbi.” And he kissed him. At this they laid hands on him and arrested him” (Mk 14:44-46).
However, most likely, here we are dealing with a disappointed and dissatisfied man. But even this character, so smeared and slandered down the ages, came to recognize and condemn the evil of what he had done. The killing of an innocent man was something he could not live with. Matthew’s gospel tell us: “Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned in betraying innocent blood’” (Mtt 27:3-4). Plenty of people today seem to have no such problem. Think of the abortionists, the terrorists, the killing squads, the condemnation to death of political enemies all over the world! We all betray our friends at times, and we often betray our ideals. We sometimes stand as false witnesses in court against innocent people, but that does not seem to disturb us. Judas, at least, had some remorse!
- d) Peter: Here, we have a man who, in spite of his overwhelming self-confidence: “Peter said to him, ‘Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you’” (Mtt 26:35), was simply weak and cowardly. He only “followed Jesus at a distance” (Mk 14 54), not having the courage to identify himself with his suffering Master. He ended up denying Jesus three solid times, at the accusation of simple bystanders! Any one of us would probably have denied Christ in the same circumstances. Peter at least shed tears over his denials. “Peter remembered the word that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.” He broke down and wept.” (Mk 14:72). We all aware of our own denials. We refuse to speak up for the unjustly accused. We turn our back to the truth when pressure is put on us. We prefer to lie or to remain silent. How many of us shed tears over our denials?
- e) The other disciples: These were ordinary people, with their human weaknesses: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Jesus had warned these disciples that they were not as strong as they thought they were. He predicted that they were going to turn away from Him “Tonight all of you will desert me. For the Scriptures say, ‘God will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” (Mtt 26:31). These men were confident of their love for Jesus. They were loyal and dedicated to their Master. Their intention was to remain loyal forever. What they did not realize was that their desire for self-preservation was stronger than their love for Jesus. When they had to choose between standing with Christ or preserving themselves, they chose to protect themselves. The closest friends of Jesus RAN AWAY and ABANDONED HIM at his hour of greatest need! They sinned gravely by omission.
This is a sad reminder of the human condition. We make great boasts of loyalty while things are going well. However, when things get difficult; when we meet opposition; when someone treats us unkindly; when there is cost to our faith that is greater than we can easily pay; we turn away, we run, we abandon that which we said was most important in our lives. In the times of conflict, we find out what REALLY is most important in our lives. We tend to forget Jesus and all that He taught us.
- f) The Soldiers: They were simply carrying out orders. Eichmann, the German soldier who was in charge of the extermination of Jews during WWII, made the same excuse. So these soldiers enjoyed the cruel game: “They clothed him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him. They began to salute him with, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and kept striking his head with a reed and spitting upon him. They knelt before him in homage.” (Mk 15:17-19) They treated Jesus brutally. Similarly, the German SS collected the gold fillings, the jewelry, and even the skin and hair of their victims. They also enjoyed doing painful acts. We too are rather good at blaming others for our sins. ‘I was only doing what I was told’, says the loyal employee, or the civil servant, or the Political Party adherent. We often refuse to accept responsibility for our cowardly acts and evasions.
- g) The crowd: It was a highly emotional occasion. They “gave false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. Some took the stand and testified falsely against him, alleging, ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another not made with hands.’” (Mk 14:56-57). The crowd simply got carried away. They did not really know what was happening. Do we not often take refuge in the crowd by saying to ourselves: “Everybody was doing it. I didn’t want to be the odd person out”? Often, we do not even protest at the burning of a thief, at the destruction of people’s property during protest marches, etc. We have every excuse for not standing up to the senseless killings going on in our country in the name of “fighting terrorism”. By our acts omission or commission, we are also shouting “Let him be crucified! Let him be crucified!” (Mtt 27:22-23) After all, we are only part of a crowd! (‘How quickly decent, nice people degenerate the moment their circumstances change. Their virtue suddenly vanishes, and there’s nothing left of their former selves’. –Dostoyevsky).
- OUR INDIVIDUAL CULPABILITY
Today, we begin the Holy Week, the greatest week in the Church’s calendar. Holy Week is not a week for throwing stones at the Chief priests and elder, at Judas, Pilate, and the others who were directly involved in the death of Christ. We too, have betrayed and condemned Jesus for similar reasons, and we are less excused than they because we know better what Jesus means to us. This week gives us an opportunity to look at our own commitment to TRUTH and to JUSTICE, especially in the face of current happenings in our country and in the world. We need to examine our loyalty to Christ and to his Gospel. But in doing this we must not lose sight of the central character in this sordid story, namely, Christ himself. We must look at the light he sheds on the whole dark scene.
Christ loved us to the point of dying for us. He will help us to confront and overcome the evil in ourselves, and then he will make us instruments of his truth, justice, peace, and love in our country and in the world. A sincere sacramental confession (or at this period of the Coronavirus crisis, an ACT OF PERFECT CONTRITION) would prepare us well for Easter! This is the favourable time! Let us examine ourselves and accompany Christ throughout his passion, during this Holy Week!