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Saturday of the fifth week of Lent - Risking everything

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Readings: Ezekiel 37:21-28; Jeremiah 31: 10-13; John 11: 45-56

The Judaism of Jesus’ day was characterized by a yearning for restoration, a yearning for the fulfillment of promises made by God through prophets such as Ezekiel during the Babylonian exile. As we see in our first reading, Ezekiel looked forward to a day when God would unite His people under a new King David; he looked forward to a day when God would return His People to the land that He had given them where they would live in peace and justice; he looked forward to a time when God himself would place His own sanctuary among Israel and dwell with them forever. Yet it seemed to Jesus’ contemporaries that this promise had only partially been fulfilled. The Exiles had indeed returned to Jerusalem - but at the command of a Persian King, not a new David. By Jesus’ day the colonial power had changed, Judaea was ruled from Rome rather than Persia or Greece, but the basic situation was the same: Israel dwelt in the land, but the Kingdom had not been restored.

This left the religious authorities of Israel in the dangerous position of being people with something to lose. Whilst on the one hand the Jews were appalled by pagan Rome’s idolatry and resented Roman interference in their affairs, they were on the other hand granted certain privileges within the Empire to practice their religion. The temple was particularly important in this regard. Here heaven and earth met: Once a year, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwelled, and act as a mediator for the people before God. Through sacrifice, the holiness of Israel as God’s chosen people seems to have been affirmed. It is possible that Israel understood their holiness as a kind of buffer between the profane world and God. The holiness of Israel was necessary if the world was to bear God’s presence. No man can look upon God and live. Israel, the holy nation dwelling in a holy land, protected the rest of the world from the destructive holiness of God.

Against this backdrop it is easy to see why Jesus made the Sanhedrin so nervous. It is easy to risk everything for the sake of the gospel if we have nothing in the first place. The Sanhedrin, however, from one perspective had everything to lose: they feared that the relative religious freedom they enjoyed and even the temple itself might be lost if the crowds following Jesus were interpreted by Rome as insurrection. They were well aware that the Roman response to rebellion was usually swift and brutal: the nation would be crushed by the legions and a new exile would follow. The signs that Jesus performed of the coming Kingdom, such as the raising of Lazarus just before this gospel, heightened their anxiety. They understood that by these signs many would be persuaded that Jesus was the Messiah, but their fear drove out faith. Instead of risking what they had in order to follow Christ, instead of rejoicing in his works as signs that God had visited his people and inaugurated a new age, they chose instead to do evil: ‘they planned to kill him’ so that ‘the whole nation may not perish’.

The mistake of the religious authorities was to rely on Roman law and their own ingenuity to preserve the nation rather than the power of God. In our psalm the prophet Jeremiah tells us: ‘The Lord will guard us, as a shepherd guards his flock’. It is wrong to do evil in order to protect what is good. It was wrong for the Jewish authorities to plot the death of an innocent man in order to protect a nation. It is wrong for us today to do evil in order to protect the Church. We must always do what is right, and trust that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will take care of us and all those that we love.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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