Recently, I heard some Christians discussing the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Matthew 27. They were talking about how much he had gone through, and one said in a broken voice “He did all that for me”.
And I can remember feeling like that. But I now see that, like me, in focusing on Jesus they glossed over a verse far more tragic than any of those they talked about.
A few years back (very shortly before I quit), I went to the Melbourne Passion Play, a dramatisation of Jesus’ teachings, his suffering, and his death on the cross. I then used it as the jumping off point for my last Salt Cellar editorial, so I’m on record as saying I found it “surprisingly moving”. But part of what made it moving was the presentation of Jesus as a great teacher who was rejected by the authorities in spite of his God-given message. And that’s a message I can no longer accept.
Even assuming there was a historical Jesus, it’s not clear which (if any) parts of the gospel record actually contain his teaching. Different parts may not reconcile well: for example, I have discussed the problems I see with the different trial and crucifixion stories, and the even greater problems I see with the resurrection stories.
However, for now I’m going to take the stories as gospel while looking for the most tragic verse in them.
The effect on Jesus
In the gospel stories, Jesus definitely suffered. First he struggled to accept his role in the story, then he was beaten, mocked, scourged, and crucified, and as perhaps the most tragic act finally felt forsaken by God. All that before the soldiers in their turn recognised (too late!) that they had killed the Son of God.
But, while these are well known to Christians, they aren’t the tragedies I’m looking for. They are sufferings that are temporary, and they are sufferings that he had some control over. He chose to let them happen because he felt they would fulfil his mission.
Let’s be real: According to the story he suffered on the cross for a few hours. Yes, he said gave his life for his friends (presumably his followers, not believers 2,000 years later in a country Down Under that wasn’t known to the Romans). However, he also claimed he had power to take up his life again. Many have faced far more suffering than Gospel Jesus and ultimately given their lives for a cause they believed in - and they didn’t get the option of coming to in a comfortable tomb after a few days.
This might sound like blasphemy to some believers - but how is not true? While the story is tragic, it is hard to see why it should be treated as particularly special. It is supposed to gain power because we deserved death and Jesus didn’t - but again, he wouldn’t be the only person in history to die who didn’t deserve to.
The effect on his followers
I expect most believers would agree generally that Jesus died for their sins, and that this should change their lives because they owe him something. However, the details have been more contentious. There have been many debates about the Atonement: how it works, and what it achieved. At times this has led to divisions - a far cry from the unity that gospel Jesus called out as a sign of the truth of his message. This is a direct effect: Friends and family have been separated as a result of the gospel crucifixion records.
Worse, though, the crucifixion record is also used to demand that believers should do more for Jesus. They are told to “take up their cross daily”. They are told to “endure suffering” because “Christ suffered for you”. They are shown the example of Paul, who metaphorically crucified himself so that Christ could “live through him”. Somehow, Jesus is special because <reasons>, and it’s fair game for his life to alter everyone else’s.
For some believers, these teachings mean being the doormats of this world. For others, they mean being deliberately counter-cultural and rejecting some of the benefits of modern society. For still others, they mean giving up their own aspirations so they can work in the service of the Cross. And for all these it can mean indoctrinating their children with the same broken attitudes.
These demands have other real consequences: Some believers (often the most sincere ones) are made to feel life-long guilt for not doing enough. They are constantly reminded of the things that they might have been able to do for Christ and failed to achieve.
It’s not clear to me why such a small period of suffering should mean Jesus now gets to control the lives of millions of believers and demand allegiance to his stated goals over their own. Let alone that said believers should consider themselves damn lucky he’s merciful and only sometimes demands perfection from them.
But to me these verses still aren’t the most tragic about. While I object to verses suggesting that suffering is a virtue in and of itself, the fact remains that fervent believers have (at least to some extent) chosen to follow Jesus in a way that leads to hardship. This can give them the satisfaction of feeling that they are doing the right thing, and that they have a purpose in life.
While I personally think they are following the wrong path and looking forward to a future reward that will never come, so long as it gives them purpose and doesn’t lead them to harm others I don’t think it’s too terrible (sadly, all too often fervent Christians practicing their “freedom of religion” does harm others - but that’s out of scope for this post).
The effect on the Jews
No, the verse I find most tragic is the one that pins responsibility for Jesus’ death on the Jews in perpetuity:
And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”Matthew 27:25 (ESV)
Perhaps those who gloss over this verse wouldn’t even consider persecuting the Jews as “Christ-killers”. Certainly for the majority of my time as a believer this verse just didn’t register at all, and I suspect I’m not alone in that.
Other believers might acknowledge that terrible things have been done in the name of the church, but glibly dismiss those actions as “not True Christianity”.
Now, it is fair to say that this isn’t the only verse in the Bible that blames the Jews (the rival religion!) for the death of Jesus. But this is one of the worst, both because it claims that the Jews acknowledged their guilt and because it justifies persecution of future generations of Jews. And the results have been truly tragic (have a look at some of the examples I’ve documented).
This verse is toxic and should be struck from the Bible. And no, I’m not kidding. It’s hard for me to see that it contributes much to the story, and any theoretical benefit is outweighted by the harm it has done and continues to do.
Gospel Jesus was one legendary character who chose to suffer for a brief period of time to help fulfil some supposed higher purpose. And believers in him continue to choose hardship in hope of a better future. However, the Jews didn’t choose any of this - they were caught up in persecution leading to exile and sometimes death, all because of the ill-judged words of a new religious organisation trying to appropriate their scripture.
And yet in the hand of many Christians it is the sufferings of Gospel Jesus that gets most of the attention - to the extent that I’ve seen it fairly described as “torture porn”. Yes, it’s a sad story, but it’s only one of many. Maybe there was a historical Jesus behind the legends who died for a cause that he believed in, and maybe there wasn’t. But Gospel Jesus is just one of many people who have died for a cause.
I don’t think the Christian presentation is proportionate. How can we possibly compare the suffering of one person for a few hours with the sufferings of an entire race over thousands of years? (particularly given much of that suffering was inflicted at the hands of Jesus’ followers and in his name).
That is why I see a far greater tragedy in one small verse in Matthew than in all the rest of the crucifixion story put together: The story had far more wide-ranging effects than anything that happened to Jesus personally in that story.