Jesus committed a crime of passion.
From the perspective of sin and moral accountability, he was blameless. But the divine movement that Jesus brought to earth subverted the powers and principalities holding the world in their oppressive grip. He was a threat, and so they called him a criminal.
Customarily, we think of Jesus’ suffering when we hear the phrase “the passion of Christ.” His torture and death do bear deep significance.
And yet, we will misconstrue the message of his agony if we fail to acknowledge the passion—the life-focusing desire—that emboldened him to endure public mockery, merciless flogging, and an execution designed to prolong pain and to maximize humiliation.
Jesus’ passion was to make the Kingdom of God as real on earth as it is in heaven. And for the Empires of the world, pursuing the Kingdom with uncompromising zeal is a capitol offense.
For the Romans and for their Judean collaborators, Jesus was guilty of a crime of passion.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a direct challenge to the domination system
of his day. From one side of the city, Jesus rode into town on a donkey.
Hundreds of poor farmers and laborers from the countrysides had followed day after day on his trek to Jerusalem. Now they cast their cloaks on the ground and waved palm fronds as Jesus made his way through the city gate.
On the opposite side of the city, another procession marched into Jerusalem. At its head was Pontius Pilate. In his train came cavalry and heavily armed and armored men of war.
As commentators have pointed out,
it was standard practice for soldiers stationed at a nearby garrison to descend upon Jerusalem at the time of high holy days. Rome deployed her soldiers to reinforce her control over every aspect of daily life and to maintain strict order.
In other words, Rome sent her soldiers to squelch any social unrest. No threat to Roman rule would be tolerated. And Passover was always a potentially volatile time. The Passover commemorates the liberation of the people from Pharaoh’s domination system. An earlier iteration of the Empire meme that Rome now embodied.
Jesus’ ragged, palm-strewn procession was the Kingdom of God in the flesh. Those ordinary, road-weary people were the Jesus movement. And we now join them in that movement. The Jesus movement is the Spirit animating and guiding human hearts and hands and feet.
In the Jesus movement, compassion pulses in every breast. The greatness of a soul is measured by the humility of service, and all souls are infinitely valuable.
There is no longer first or last, insider or outsider. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free. There is no longer male or female, gay or straight, black or white. In the Jesus movement, we are all one in the one Christ.
A procession like this can only be heading to one destination: the cross. That’s how Empires, how domination systems, deal with subversives.
Remember the words of Jesus’ then pregnant mother Mary:
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:51-53; BCP, p. 92)
For the forces of Empire, these are words of rebellion. And rebellion must be crushed.
Rome, like the domination systems before it—like Egypt and Assyria, like Babylon and Persia—ordered human relationships to benefit the few at the expense of the many. A few elites exercised political control and left the many voiceless and powerless. A few grew ever wealthier by exploiting and increasingly impoverishing the many.
Ironically, the governing powers rationalized their oppression and exploitation with theological smoke and mirrors. The shape of the social matrix was God’s will. In Rome, Caesar was a son of god, the ruler who brought the Roman Peace, the Pax Romana. They rejected God’s will for humanity and justified themselves with distorted theology.
No wonder Luke contrasts Jesus with Caesar Augustus in the birth narrative. Jesus is the true Lord. The Prince of Peace. The Son of God. Caesar, and all the systems that Caesar symbolizes, are a destructive fraud.
Jesus and his followers are on a collision course with the sinful forces of Empire. And in one form or another, domination systems are business as usual on planet earth. The Jesus movement—the Kingdom of God—is always a threat to dehumanizing, sinful imperial forces.
Jesus died for his passion because of the sin of the world. Empires will always confront the Jesus movement with violence and terror. The Jesus movement always leads to the cross.
If we simply stopped at the cross, Jesus and his followers would be losers. Well-intentioned and even admirable losers. But losers nonetheless. Dreamers of a better world—a world that foreshadows the eternity we will know through Jesus Christ—but only that. Pitiably unrealistic dreamers.
But the meaning of the cross does not derive from the suffering that Jesus endured there. On the contrary, God’s response to that suffering gives the cross its significance.
On the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. He vindicated Jesus’ suffering. The resurrection demonstrates that in God’s hands even the most harrowing agony, the harshest humiliation, can be turned to new life. To wholeness and health and joy eternal.
We are the Jesus movement. The Church. The healing, liberating work of Jesus continues in us this very day. Wherever children go hungry, minorities go oppressed, women suffer abuse, wages are stolen, and the sick are deprived of medical care, the power of the Spirit’s love moves us.
Jesus told us the truth. When we love like he loved, when we pursue the Kingdom with all our heart and soul and might, we are on a collision course with powerful forces of sin.
When we commit a crime of passion, we take up our cross. But what keeps us moving forward is Jesus. The risen Jesus. We see in him that every crime of passion is vindicated by God. The way of the cross leads to resurrection.