“He Had To Go” –by Richard Bedard
It was going to be a busy Palm Sunday morning. I had been asked to Lector for parts of the Passion Gospel at Mass. Following Mass, it was my turn to teach the RCIA class. The topic this week was to be: “The Social Teachings Of the Church”. Here it was Saturday and I was practicing the Reading and polishing up my presentation for class. As I reflected on both things, I made the connection between Our Lord’s Passion and Death and Social Justice.
Aside from all the traditional reasons we are all familiar with, dealing with the Salvation and Redemption of mankind, Jesus had to die for other reasons. If we take a good look at the events of the life of Christ, more specifically His public ministry, it all becomes clear.
Jesus died because He angered too many people… the wrong people. He was too controversial. He was considered subversive to the whole Hebrew culture, religion and establishment. Think about the male dominated culture in Jesus’ time. Back then women were considered little more than property. And what did He preach? all female qualities.. love, patience, forgiveness, nurturing, humility, peace, service to others etc. In the Hebrew Relgion, of His time, we know that the Ten Commandments were only part of something like one hundred and fifty total commandments that the average Jew was expected to observe. If a woman had a baby, she was considered unclean. If a man touched a corpse he too was considered unclean. If a woman was caught in the act of adultery the punishment was stoning to death. If a husband merely suspected his wife was an adulteress, he could bring her to the Jewish Authorities and let them determine her guilt or innocence….whether or not his claims had any merit or were just unfounded jealousy. Sinners made public displays on street corners of wearing saccloth and ashes, rather than focus on inward conversion of heart
Forgiveness of sins was mostly a ritualistic affair. Depending on the sin and the amount of money you had, you bought either pigeons if you were poor or if you had money, sheep to give to the priest in the temple for him to sacrifice and offer up in expiation for your sins. (The meat of which went to feed him and his family) The focus was not on conversion of heart or remorse. You merely did the prescibed things and that was that. Similar prescribed rituals were used once you were determined clean again by the priest in the temple. The temple was not only a place where you worshiped God, and had your sins expiated, it was also a place of big business. Vendors from all over would come and sell sheep, goats, pigeons and the proper cereal grains etc. which were needed for you to purchase and give to the priest to offer up. It is no wonder Jesus grew angry at the sellers in front of the temple who had turned His Father’s house into a market place. ….causing the vendors and temple officials to get angry at him for threatening the livelihood of the vendors as well as the well being of the temple officials and their families..
In Mark’s Gospel, Mk 1:40-43 we read Jesus healed a leper. Scripture scholars today think the word used to mean “moved with pity” was actually a similar word with a similar spelling which renders the reading to mean “moved with anger”. It is thought today, that Jesus uttered a gutteral incomprehensible sound and flew into a rage and yelled at the leper when he asked to be healed. Jesus? angry? Yes! He was filled with rightous anger, not at the leper but at the society which treated lepers as outcasts. As with women who had given birth and men who accidently touched a corpse, lepers were also considered unclean. All were ostracized from society until the priest in the temple examined you and declared you clean again and then you had to make the prescribed offerings…….. if you could afford it that is. If you had a skin rash, you were unclean. And until things cleared up (or not), your family starved. You could not sell your goods and wares in the market, people wanted nothing to do with you or any member of your immediate family. People shunned you. And you certainly could not even worship in the temple. Imagine a father having to watch his family starve because his rash won’t clear up? We can safely assume many resorted to thievery (getting them deeper in trouble with the authorities) or reduced to begging.
Jesus did many other things which angered the Pharisees. He often forced them to look at their own hipocracy. When He was asked about why his disciples gathered grain to eat from a field on a sabbath, He reminded them of how King David had done the same thing when he had been in need. And again in the story of the stoning of the harlot, Jesus forced those who would stone her to look at their own sin before casting any stone. Instead of stoning her, they dropped their stones and walked away one by one. But you can almost feel the resentment and anger they felt towards Jesus after this. Now they could not even punish adulterers according to their laws because of this man.
Jesus spent His whole life teaching us to be concerned with our neighbor’s basic human rights, food, shelter, clothing and healthcare. He taught that the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around, and thus it was ok to heal on the Sabbath. He healed everyone who asked for it. He forced them to look at how they suspended observing God’s commandments in favor of keeping their man made traditions.
In short, Jesus bucked the system. He was a radical. He was viewed as dangerous to the Jewish culture. He advocated for the poor, outcasts, the sick, and those who counted for nothing. Jesus was socially just. An illustration of this is found in Mark chapter 2 v 16-17. We are all familiar with the Pharisees who questioned Jesus on why he sat and ate with tax collectors and sinners. His reply is infamous. He tells them that those who are well do not need a physician, only the sick need one. Next he tells them that He did not come to call those who are “righteous” but that He came for sinners.
It is interesting that Jesus uses the word righteous here. All throughout the Old Testament you find the term righteous used many times. The word “righteous” is synonymous with the word “just” and as meant in the bible the two words are interchangeable. A person who is righteous is a person who is just in all that he does. He is a person who is ‘just’ in his dealings with his neighbor. He is also in “right” relationship with God and neighbor. To know that a neighbor is in need and to do nothing to try to help would be an injustice, for example. In Micah 6:8 we get a glimpse straight into the mind of God. “You have been told O man, and have heard what Yaweh asks of you, simply this; To act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God” Notice here which of the three is listed first!
Yes Jesus died because He loves us much more than we can ever imagine and wants us to share eternal joy with Him. But He also suffered and paid with His life for who He was, and what he taught and what He stood for and for being socially just. …….He had to go. The Pharisees plotted his death for a long time and for several reasons, but in the end, they also used the handiest excuse of all. He claimed He was the Son of God. That one alone commanded the death penalty under Jewish Law.
How are we unjust towards our neighbor today? How does our silence contribute to the slaughter of the unborn? How do today’s morals help break down the family? How do our spending habits and insatiable thirst for goods, help perpetuate social injustice and unrest here and in third world countries?
Let us be just towards our neighbor, that we might awaken from the tomb of our sinfulness and rise with Him and in Him as a new creation.
“If you want Peace, work for Justice.” Pope Paul VI
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