Why Did Jesus Go To Jerusalem? A Holy Week Reflection

Did Jesus go to Jerusalem to get himself killed? If he did, why, in the tinder-box atmosphere at Passover, did it take him so many days to get his wish?
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These are my questions based on the historical fact -- yes, fact -- that Pilate executed Jesus at Passover. Did Jesus go to Jerusalem to get himself killed? If he did, why, in the tinder-box atmosphere at Passover, did it take him so many days to get his wish?

My answer is that Jesus went up to Jerusalem to make twin demonstrations, first against Roman imperial control over the City of Peace and, second, against Roman imperial control over the Temple of God. In other words, put personally, against the (sub)governor Pilate and his high-priest Caiaphas.

It is not necessary, by the way, to demonize either of those two officials -- even though they represented very bad administration. Pilate was weak because he could be fired by the Syrian governor and Caiaphas was even weaker because he could be fired by Pilate. Be that as it may, why was Jesus not already killed by (our) Palm Sunday evening?

Two reasons. One is that he was protected by a "crowd" composed not only of those who came with him from Galilee but also of those others who had invited him to bring his message of God's Kingdom-on-Earth to Jerusalem for maximum publicity precisely at Passover. Notice how often Mark's gospel emphasizes that protective "crowd" on (our) Sunday (11:8), Monday (11:18) and Tuesday (11:32; 12:12,37) of Holy Week.

Another reason is that every night Jesus withdrew from Jerusalem into the safety of friends and security of supporters away from the city and around the Mount of Olives to Bethany. Notice, again, how Mark emphasizes that point as well (11:1,11,12; 14:3). Bethany was Jesus's protected staging area. In plain language, Jesus was planning, despite those dangerous demonstrations, to leave Jerusalem without getting himself killed. And he almost made it -- until (our) Thursday.

The first demonstration was programmed for (our) Palm Sunday and it was not just a criticism but a lampoon of Roman power. For security and crowd-control at Passover, Pilate came up to Jerusalem with extra troops from his base at Caesarea on the coast. Imagine him coming in from the west on a powerful stallion as Jesus was coming in from the east not just on a donkey but on a nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her -- see my leading image above.

That story is told in Matthew 21:1-11 and explained by a quotation from the prophet Zechariah contrasting Macedonia's Alexander and Israel's Messiah. The latter will enter Jerusalem "humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Why? "To cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall com-mand peace to the nations" (9:9-10). Peace on earth, yes, but not peace by Rome's violent victory, rather peace by God's non-violent justice.

The second demonstration came on (our) Monday. Once again it was an action clarified by a prophetic word, that is, an action-parable. The Temple was, of course, the House of God -- for all the nations, in fact, within Herod's huge Court of the Gentiles. But it was also the House of Rome as symbolized by imperial control of the high-priest's sacred vestments and the great golden eagle above its western entrance from the Upper City.

In an earlier demonstration, around the time Jesus was born, a Pharisaic group had been martyred for their attempt to remove that golden eagle. Jesus's own demonstration against Roman control of God's House was accompanied by a quotation from the prophet Jeremiah. He had warned against using worship to replace justice, against turning the Temple into a "den," that is a refuge, safe-house, or hideaway for "thieves." If it continued, said Jeremiah, God would destroy the Temple itself (7:1-15). And that divine threat almost cost Jeremiah his life (26:1-14).

Jesus' action-parable against the Temple fulfills God's threat in Jeremiah 7 just as his action-parable against the City had fulfilled God's promise in Zechariah 9. He symbolically destroys the Temple's fiscal basis by overturning the tables where monies were changed into the standard donation-coinage (Mark 11:15-17). And, again, he got away with it because of the protective screen of "the whole crowd" (Mark 11:18).

By (our) Wednesday morning "the chief priest and the scribes" had decided not to arrest Jesus because it might cause "a riot among the people" (Mark 14:1-2). But by (our) Thursday evening they had discovered -- with or without Judas -- where to intercept Jesus as he went "across the Kidron Valley" from Jerusalem to Bethany every evening (John 18:1).

Jesus was arrested in the darkness apart from his large protective "crowd" and was crucified as swiftly as possible. By the way, do not confuse Jesus' large protective "crowd" with that small "crowd" (six or seven partisans?) who came before Pilate to get Barabbas and not Jesus freed from prison (Mark 15:6-8). If Jesus proclaimed the 'Kingdom of God," sneered Pilate, let him die as "King of the Jews" (Mark 15:2,9,12,18,26).

In Matthew's parabolic aside, the wisest advice Pilate got that day -- our Good Friday -- was from his wife: "Have nothing to do with that innocent man" (27:19). But Pilate replied, I imagine, "What happens in Jerusalem, stays in Jerusalem."
(Image from Art Resource)

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