31 March 2012

A 1st Century Scapegoat No More

5th Week of Lent (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Once attained, power—political, religious, financial—is very difficult to give up. There's something about the ability to impose one's will on people and events that's highly addictive, even corrosive to one's capacity to hear the truth. Caiaphas is a good example. He served as High Priest of the temple in Jerusalem for eighteen years, an unusually long term for the office. Caiaphas must have been an excellent politician. His nation was ruled by a foreign military power, the Roman Empire. His people were sharply divided into competing regional and religious factions, some of whom were militant nationalists and terrorists. His life was made even more difficult by this itinerant preacher who went around healing unclean outcasts; cavorting with tax-collectors and prostitutes; crashing bible studies in synagogues; and worst of all, publicly proclaiming his own divinity. The scribes and the Pharisees had reported that this country-bumpkin preacher only had a small group of devout followers, but he was also drawing big crowds and talking about the destruction of the temple. When he raised a man from the dead, Caiaphas had had enough. The threat had to be eliminated. Powerful people do not easily tolerate competition or opposition. The Way, the Truth, and the Life does more than compete and oppose—he wins. Always has, always will. 

We might have some sympathy for Caiaphas and his allies. There's no doubt that they are in an untenable bind. They govern a subjected nation and rule only b/c their conquerors allow them to. If they can't suppress the religious and political zeal of their own people, the Romans will do it for them. The Sanhedrin had long hoped to bring all the people of Israel back to their Promised Land. To do this, they need a lure, a draw; they need an intact temple and functioning priesthood. The last thing they need is some street preacher stirring up more trouble. That he appears to be who he said he is only makes their situation more dangerous. Raising Lazarus from the dead proves to be the one competitive stunt, one oppositional act that they cannot let slide. Caiaphas prophesies that the death of one man will save his people. He's right, of course, but not in a way that he can ever imagine. We can be sympathetic to his situation, but his religious and political power render him unable to hear the truth; he is both deaf and blind to the righteous Way that Jesus forges for the people of God.

Caiaphas' position as an the supreme Jewish authority in his nation prevents him for seeing who it is that he is plotting against. Deaf and blind to the Word, he sees a future for his people in the death of one man. I wonder if we share his vision. I mean, do we see a future for our people, the People of God, in the death of just one man? Caiaphas sees a scapegoat to appease the Romans. What do we see? Tomorrow, the final leg of our journey to Jerusalem begins. We walk into the crowds behind Jesus. They cheer; they call his name. They wave palm branches and welcome him as a king, shouting, “Hosanna!” We know where our king ends the journey, and we know where he finally ends and how he gets there. Our eyes and ears are wide open. But what do we hear in the cheering? What do we see in the clamoring crowds? Do they understand what we does for them? Do we? The temple of his body is destroyed on a Roman cross. And God's people are saved. Not from the Romans, or the Venetians, or the Ottomans, or the Nazis. They (and we) are saved from the corrupting power of sin. We are a graced nation won on a cross.


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