As Holy Week approaches, the other meaning of passion

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April 17, 2011

Most of April this year falls in the season Christians call Lent, a period of special prayers, fasting, and works of charity which are intended to bring members closer to the Gospel values. Lent culminates in Holy Week and the highlight of that week for most Christians is Good Friday, the day on which Jesus died a most cruel and inhumane death on a cross.

A few years ago Mel Gibson portrayed the agony and suffering of Jesus in the movie, The Passion of the Christ. The movie showed the cruel treatment of Jesus in very graphic detail and purported to be the definitive story of Jesus’ last days based on the Gospel accounts. Many accepted that claim and heralded the movie as a great depiction of how much God loves us. Unfortunately this movie is not biblically accurate.

            The passion, that is, suffering, of Jesus is proclaimed as the ultimate saving event for all humans because it atoned for the original sin of Adam which separated humans from God for many millennia.

            There is another understanding of Jesus’ death, however, that takes us in quite a different direction. This understanding has nothing to do with atonement but rather with human actions and relationships.

The other passion

            Another way we use the word passion is not as suffering but as a driving force or purpose of one’s life. This passion of Jesus was the “reign of God”, often translated or referred to as the “kingdom of God”. I prefer “reign” because the word “kingdom” has a connotation of royalty and rule, neither of which is part of the message of Jesus. In fact, Jesus constantly challenged the rulers and especially those Jewish leaders who were complicit with the Roman rulers. This ultimately was the primary cause of his crucifixion, according to Marcus J. Borg in The Meaning of Jesus.

For Jesus the “reign of God” was available to those who seek it in this life, not just something after death. This reign of God was present whenever people lived the qualities of this reign: loving, caring, forgiving, and compassion. Communion with God, which we call prayer, was part of their lives too. Jesus’ message was a challenge to the wealthy and ruling class, who oppressed the rest with their rule and control.

According to Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem, 90% of the people were in the peasant category as farmers or merchants serving the needs of fellow peasants.  One-half to two thirds of the peasants’ production went to increase the wealth of the ruling class. Jesus recruited disciples from the peasants and hung out with them. Jesus, of course, was a peasant himself.

            Prophets were people who called people back to God. Jesus was the preeminent biblical prophet. As happened to many prophets, Jesus was killed because he upset the Jewish leaders who cooperated with the Roman rulers. This meaning of Jesus’ life is lost in the focus on understanding the suffering and death of Jesus as atonement for Adam’s sin.

            By being faithful to God’s call to proclaim the reign of God in first century Palestine, Jesus was executed in a most humiliating death. There is nothing glorious in that death other than his faithfulness and the new life that emerged from it after the resurrection. We are called to face our struggles (death) and through them come to a better life. One does not have to be a Christian to hear and accept this message. That is good psychology.

Meaning for today

            Today in this country we face the rapid rise of a ruling and wealthy class with whom our elected leaders are in collusion. Wealthy people are becoming wealthier, there are more poor people than ever before in our American history, and the middle class is being squeezed. The wealthy are able to do this because policies and laws are passed to help them created and maintain their wealth.

            Where are the prophets of today? Who is calling our leaders to accountability? The last great American prophet was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr who was also killed for his prophetic work and words.  Jim Wallis is a prophet, constantly challenging the wealthy with his books and ministry at Sojourners in Washington D.C.

            I am embarrassed by most of my bishops in the Catholic Church who have abandoned their prophetic calling. Rather than stand forthrightly against the war in Iraq nearly a decade ago and rather than challenging the tax policies that benefit the rich, they instead harangue about orthodox doctrine and rail against politicians who support choice and gay rights. A notable exception was the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw.

            Do you know a prophet? Are you a prophet? Are you willing to stick your neck out for the values of fairness, common decency, civility, and compassion for those less fortunate? These are all part of the basic Christian message, but you won’t hear that from many of our well-known Christian politicians and you don’t have to be a Christian to aspire to them. That in a nutshell is the meaning of Lent.