What did Jesus find in the Holy City he entered with his supreme claim? What powers were at work? What was the attitude of the people towards him? What his position in a situation drawing to its close?
First of all, there are those who call themselves “the Pure” – the Pharisees. From the point of view of character as well as politically, this is the strongest and most determined group, the real bearers of historical consciousness among the Jewish people. Still under the influence of the warlike Maccabeans, and convinced that the kingdom of Israel will spread from Jerusalem over the entire world, they are ready to stake everything on the realization of their dream.
When Jesus appears on the scene, they feel at once that the reality of salvation for which he stands directly contradicts their own. Consequently, they consider him an enemy who must be eliminated, and apply all possible means to this end. . . . Then there is the group of Sadducees, hated by the Pharisees, whom they in turn cordially despise. Cosmopolitans, they have severed all ties with their own history and adopted Hellenistic culture; they are intellectually alert, have many-sided interests, and enjoy life. Their politics are international and conciliatory. Spiritually they are rationalists and skeptics. They consider Jesus an enthusiast – one of the many of his day. . .
And the people? Instinctively they sense the Messiah in this wonderful man, and press him to act. He resists, knowing that their conception of God’s kingdom is essentially that of the Pharisees. The masses bring Jesus their problems and their sick; they listen to his words spellbound and are deeply shaken by his demonstrations of power. However, they are unable to reach a clear decision concerning him, but veer first in one direction then in another, as the mood of the moment blows them. There is no one there to help them to take a decisive step, so they remain the tool of those who happen to have the word.
Finally, there are the various rulers; they see no reason why they should be forced into any decision. Jesus’ compatriot, Herod, is a pleasure-loving, impotent despot. True, as we see from his discussions with John the Baptist, he is not insensible to religious personality, though he does not allow this weakness to interfere with his doings. For a lightly given ‘word of honor’ he sacrifices the last of the prophets. He is also interested in the new Prophet, as he would be in any new sensation; a fool the man who ever counted on the “fox” (Luke 13:32).
As for the real representative of power in Palestine, Caesar’s procurator, he has never even seen Jesus. He knows that the times are thick with wandering preachers and miracle-workers, and if he ever heard of “the carpenter’s son,” he probably held him for one of these. This then the little world into which Jesus walked, proclaiming his message, working the miracles suggested by the people’s distress or the spiritual demands of the moment.
He exhorted, summoned, aroused. Not only did he attempt to drive home a teaching, demonstrate a way of salvation, proclaim a new interpretation of the kingdom; he tried to make men conscious of the stupendous reality knocking at their doors. Now is the hour! God’s kingdom is at the gates of history, ready to enter. God has risen to his feet. The moment for sacred fulfillment is ripe. Come!
Looking closer, however, we see more. Jesus is flinging all his strength into this hour, advancing with all the love of which he is capable. He does not think of himself. He knows neither pleasure nor comfort; neither fear nor false consideration. He is completely and entirely messenger, prophet and more than a prophet. And still we do not gain the impression of a man working towards a fixed goal.
Procession into Jerusalem by James Tissot, c. 1890
Perhaps the reply is: What is at stake is too huge to be “worked” for. Such things happen of themselves – he only proclaims them, clears the way for them as all prophets have done. But is there in Jesus the restless drive that constantly spurred an Elijah? Has the Hand laid itself on him as it did on Jeremiah, who, still proclaiming the word of God, broke under its weight?
No. Jesus is the bringer of the tidings of all tidings, but they neither crush nor drive him; he and his message are one. True, he is anxious that everything “be accomplished” (Luke 12:50); but this is his own intrinsic desire for consummation, not pressure from above.
Or is Jesus a fighter? One is tempted to imagine him one of those great and noble figures. But does he really fight? I do not believe so. Certainly, he had adversaries, but he never really considered them such or treated them accordingly. His real enemy was the condition of the world – and Satan, who supports it against God. But even Satan is no adversary in the full sense of the word, for Jesus in no way recognizes him as an equal. In the final analysis he does not fight – for that he is too serene.
We penetrate deeper into the soul of the Lord only when we see his deeds and his conduct from a central point of view outside the world. The moment we try to fit him into any familiar human category, all genuine recognition is destroyed. After an initial period of apostolic plenitude both in word and deed, we see the crisis gathering, and how first in Jerusalem, then in Galilee, the decision falls out against Jesus. Once it is definite, he goes, not because he is forced to, or in desperation, but calmly resolved, to Jerusalem, and to the death he knows awaits him there (Luke 9:51).
We have already seen what takes place: the revelationary character of Jesus’ entry, the spirit of prophecy upon the “multitude” who now breathlessly await the expected signs of the Messiah and the establishment of the kingdom. From the viewpoint of truth, they are hopelessly entangled in earthly expectations, and as soon as they see that their Messiah is politically powerless, their dream collapses.
The Pharisees, who are prepared to go to any lengths, wait for this moment. They still fear the people, who feel essentially as they do, but the people attempt to force Christ to fit their conception of the Messiah, whereas the Pharisees are out and out hostile. All that separates the masses from their leaders is a misconception, but as long as it exists, the Pharisees must be cautious.
Now the Sadducees and Hellenists also become uneasy. They fear a political embroilment and begin to discuss among themselves how this dangerous fanatic might best be stamped out.
What does Jesus do? A man convinced of his high mission and placed in a similar position would have done everything possible to drive home the truth. He would have spoken with the priests, the Scribes, with those who had influence among the people; he would have taken Scripture to hand and clarified his identity with the aid of the Messianic prophecies. He would have attempted to recapture the hearts of the crowd, to reveal to them the essence of his teaching, and to win them over to his side. Is this what happens?
No! Jesus does proclaim the truth, and his words are powerful and penetrating; but he makes nothing like the effort we expect of him. And his manner is anything but winning; it has something uncompromising about it, harsh and challenging. One eager to do everything in his power to swing a crisis in his favor does not speak as Jesus speaks.
The man we mentioned might also have reasoned thus: The time for persuasion is past; now for action! The adversary impermeable to reason must be met on his own grounds – force with force. He would have attacked each group at its weakest point. He would have played the Sadducees against the Pharisees and vice versa. He would have appealed to the people, would have warned them, stirred them to action, would have denounced their leaders and won them over.
Or he would have realized that the odds were against him and flee. Jesus could easily have done so. The Pharisees even expected him to: “You will seek me and will not find me; and where I am you cannot come.” (John 7:34–35) The Jews therefore said among themselves, “Where is he going that we shall not find him? Will he go to those dispersed among the Gentiles, and teach the Gentiles?”
Our man would probably have done so. He would have gone to Alexandria or to Rome, certain of finding open ears there and hopeful of returning later under more favorable conditions. But this idea is totally foreign to Jesus. There remains one more possibility: that our man admit himself defeated and, according to his nature, exhausted, despairingly, or proudly die. Perhaps he would even fling himself into death, as into the mysterious counterpole of success, reckoning on the logic of death and life, catastrophe and new beginning.
Nothing of all this applies to Jesus, though attempts were made into the period in which “the eschatological” was in vogue, to prove that when all possibility of earthly success was clearly out of the question, Jesus played upon the “success of a failure,” on the mysterious intervention of God, hoping that from his death would come the fulfillment of all things.
Actually, there can be no talk of this. Jesus does not capitulate; never is there the slightest trace of “breakdown,” and it is as false to speak only of catastrophe, as it is to take his earthly failure in a bound of mystic-enthusiasm that tries to make a creative downfall of his death. This is unrealistically exalted and, by comparison with the truth, thin psychology.
Here is something quite different. What? If we follow the Gospel-reports of Jesus’ last days closely, we find nothing of extreme concentration on a single goal; nothing of relentless effort or struggle in the usual sense of the word. Jesus’ attitude is entirely serene. He says what he has come to say – unmitigatingly, objectively; not with an eye to its acceptance, but as it must be said. He neither attacks nor retreats. He hopes for nothing as humans hope and fears nothing.
When he goes to Bethania by night and stays with friends because of the opposition against him, this does not mean that he fears his enemies, but simply that the ultimate is postponed because its hour is not yet ripe. Jesus’ soul knows no fear, not only because he is naturally courageous, but because the center of his being lies far beyond the reach of anything fearful. Therefore, he cannot really be called audacious in the human sense. He is only completely free for what in every minute of his life must be done. And he does it with unutterable calm and sovereignty.
The more closely we distinguish between Jesus and any other man, the more clearly we see that what is happening here is not measurable by human standards. True, it is conceived by human spirit, willed by human will, experienced by the most ardent and sensitive of human hearts; but its origin and the power with which it is consummated give Jesus a greatness outside human comprehension. So God’s will is done, and Jesus wills this will. It is humanity’s second great test and failure – brought about by a specific people at a specific time, but because of our solidarity with all human existence, also to our woe.