At this time of year, newspapers across the country publish their annual directories of Easter services. Those annual directories fascinate me. Lumped together on one page of newsprint are religions that hold wildly divergent values and opinions. Some of those religions are committed to broad tolerance of other religions, while others are strictly intolerant. Some of the religions hold clearly defined beliefs about Easter, and others hold very fluid beliefs. Some of the religions are very focused on making money, and others seem to have little focus at all.
Of course, diversity of religious belief and practice is not a phenomenon unique to the post-modern world. Opinions about religion were at least as diverse in the ancient world. The Gospels adequately attest to this.
The Sadducees of Late Second Temple Judaism were religious conservatives who were so parochial and exclusivist that they grew to resemble their most hated enemies. The Jerusalem Pharisees were obsessed with power: the religious power they wielded as teachers and the religious power they were denied by the Roman Empire. Herod, the vassal king of Galilee, viewed religion as a form of entertainment and a distraction from the worries of governance. Pontius Pilate, and the Empire he served, considered politics to be a religion.
Even within the group of Jesus’ disciples, there was a diversity of opinion about religion. After praying over a boy who was sick, and failing to cure him, the disciples argued about which of them was the most important. (Lk. 9:46-48)
The Passion Narrative we read moments ago revisits all those groups and opinions. The disciples argued again about who was the greatest among them. The self-righteous who were offended by the mercy Jesus showed to sinners were able to take their revenge by making him look like the poor unfortunates he tried to help. Pilate remained deeply concerned with the political pressures associated with his governorship. Herod sought more and better entertainment, and the crowds vacillated between scorn and pity.
Surrounded by this swirling diversity of opinions and commitments, Jesus remained firm in his belief that faithful religion is defined in terms of forgiveness. When all had turned against him, he said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34)
Of all the varied opinions about religion on display in the Gospels, Jesus’ opinion seems the strangest. He believed that faithful religion amounted to radical imitation of God who is perpetually merciful to all.
I’m sure there’s a broad range of motivations that bring people to church this time of year. Some are attracted by the pageantry; others are led by nostalgia or sentimentality. Some seem to be motivated by little more than unexamined habit.
Luke’s Passion Narrative is an unequivocal statement about the nature of faithful religion. The truth is apparent to those who are willing to listen. Only one person emerges undiminished from the event of Jesus’ crucifixion. The crowds remained victims of their own whims. Pilate remained in a precarious political position. Herod remained bored and marginalized. The Jerusalem Pharisees remained troubled by threats to their authority, and Jesus’ disciples remained completely unsettled and directionless. Only Jesus triumphed; only he was unbowed by circumstance and unconquered by events beyond his control. To the faithless, his death looks like defeat; for the faithful, it is victory.
Jesus emerged from the crucifixion with God’s approval. He endured successfully “the test” he warned his disciples about. Jesus remained in God’s presence because he remained forgiving; this is the definition of faithful religion.