Good Friday 2023, John 18:1-19:42 The Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector
Annually I spend the week before and the week of Holy Week listening to the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar on repeat. This year I recalled my initial attraction to this particular telling of the Passion. When I was in eighth grade and awaiting my Methodist confirmation at that year’s Easter Vigil, we were asked to fast, along with our parents, beginning at the reading of the Good Friday Passion, until the end of the Vigil the next night.
I had never, nor had my mom, done anything like that before. We passed the long hungry hours watching Jesus Christ Superstar. It was my first introduction to the 1970s rock opera and I was hooked. I don’t remember much of my actual confirmation aside from the feeling that I knew there was food waiting for us in the Hall, but I do remember the feeling of being mesmerized by the film. The catchy songs, the visuals that confronted the war in Vietnam, the 70s costumes, and especially the clearing of the Temple (my favorite Holy Week moment).
This year as I listened to the musical more times that I’d like to admit, something new struck me. I found that I was listening to Caiaphas’ words in the song “This Jesus Must Die ” over and over again. I considered how we as modern Christians might address anti semitism. I started to think of how it must have felt to be leaders of an occupied people who had just seen the full military might of their oppressor roll into town. Caiaphas goes from saying, “The one thing I’ll say for him… Jesus is cool”, to “I see bad things arising. The crowd crown him king; which the Romans would ban. I see blood and destruction, Our elimination because of one man” (Jesus Christ Superstar).
As I listened I thought I’d take a look into the language of John’s passion since it has long been used to support anti semitic rhetoric. I spent time researching and considering what it means for us to steep ourselves in a story of embodied love and liberation while knowing it has been used to hurt people.
So, how has the Passion of John been used to harm our Jewish cousins? Since the fourth century this is the Gospel that has been read on Good Friday (Sojourners) and falsely interpreted in ways that encourage prejudice. “During the medieval Good Friday service, Christians prayed for the…’deceitful Jews’”, that they might be converted… (and), a chant known as “the Reproaches” was sung. In this piece, the voice of God accused the Jewish people of faithlessness in rejecting Jesus as their messiah and crucifying him instead” (Sojourners). Through liturgy Christains of the day were taught that the Jewish folks in their communities were their enemies “who killed their savior” (Sojourners). So, violence against Jewish folks ensued for centuries.
While some efforts were made to try and keep this in check other aspects of Christianity fueled this prejudice. This included, “The theological anti-Judaism of the Church fathers, repeated endlessly in medieval and Renaissance-Reformation preaching”. We have to recognize that because of the ways the Church’s teaching influenced society, modern anti-semitism grew and grew. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum). It was not until after the Holocaust during Vatican Two that the church started to examine the ways in which liturgy was negatively impacting Jewish folks all over the world (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum). Today though, anti semitic hate crimes are at an all time high (pbs.org).
Let’s look at the language and historical context of this passage. The tension we feel in this story is about leadership and who gets to lead. “In John it is the Temple party, and not the people as a whole, who call for crucifixion (contrast to Mt 27.25); this indicates that John saw the opposition to Jesus primarily in the leadership” (Jewish Annotated New Testament, 191). Unlike other Gospels, “John has no formal Jewish trial and condemnation of Jesus, nor any Jewish beating or mockery” (TBC, 352).
Now what about the kingship of Jesus? “The word ‘king’ occurs twice as often in John’s account as in any of the other Gospels” (TBC, 353). In regards to Jesus being called “King of the Jews”, “The ruler(s) of the Jewish territories owed their primary loyalty to Rome…anyone claiming kingship without Roman permission would have been regarded as a potential or actual insurrectionist” (Jewish Annotated New Testament, 191). And Jesus isn’t the only insurrectionist on the scene that day. We look to the use of the word “bandit” to describe Barabbas which “probably means a revolutionary rather than a thief” (Jewish Annotated New Testament, 191).
The empire is not playing around here. They simply will not tolerate anyone challenging them, and the Jewish leaders are leading in fear of that. And so, “John places responsibility for Jesus’ condemnation to death on the Roman governor Pilate” (TBC, 352). We see this in understanding Roman law. A prisoner would have only been flogged after being sentenced to death, here in John the flogging happens in the scenes where Pilate is questioning Jesus inside and the Jewish authorities outside. He has made up his mind without giving a verdict. So this movement, “allows Pilate to exhibit Jesus twice to the Jewish authorities as a bloodied mock king, ridiculing Jewish sovereignty” (TBC, 353). This could be a move to get “the occupied people to acknowledge the dominion of the emperor” (TBC, 353). And finally, when Jesus is pushed forward and Pilate says, “here is your king” it is one last dig from the empire to an occupied nation with no sovereignty (TBC, 353).
Jesus died at the hands of the empire. The empire he opposed and that we are called to oppose today. Jesus knew that he was pushing the empire, challenging the status quo. Saying no to oppression and yes to God’s reign on earth that comes through living the way of God and not the way of empire. Living in love and not in the rhetoric of prejudice.
Given how embedded antisemitism has been in liturgy and traditions, it is particularly important for us to confront this. One way of doing this, is that we can begin to notice the language in this Passion and consider how it may be perpetuating prejudice. You have each been given a piece of paper with possible changes most of which are already used in various translations. I invite you to simply notice how the words wash over you after having heard the Passion reading today, and ponder how they might feel if they were a bit different.
Second, as a part of the process of dismantling anti semitism, we have established the Facing Anti Semitism dialogue program in partnership with our Jewish neighbors at Beth Israel congregation in Bath. This three-session program is in much the same style as the Sacred Ground program, in which trained facilitators lead small-group conversations on films and other materials about the history and manifestations of antisemitism. Feedback from the pilot group this winter has been encouraging, and two more groups will be convening this spring. Please consider participating in this process of learning and reflection about how we might begin to face the centuries-old wound of antisemitism.
In Jesus Christ Superstar as Jesus struggles through his last week, trying to teach his followers and step into his own end, he sings that they don’t, “Understand what power is. Understand what glory is. Understand at all” (Jesus Christ Superstar). Good Friday is about the power and glory of the death of Jesus that calls us to action. We are brought into desolation to notice more deeply the wounds around us, to see where we are to meet those wounds and injustices with the love God shows us and asks us to share with the world. May a renewed claiming of our salvation inspire us and remind us that we too are being called to more liberating work of the love and justice of Jesus Christ our Savior. Jesus died because of love, may we bring more of that love to the world. May it be so.
Resources: Jewish Annotated New Testament, Theological Bible Commentary, sojo.net/articles/how-christians-made-good-friday-bad-jews-and-whats-changed
Addressing Anti Semitic Language in the Good Friday Passion
When reading the passion narrative from John’s gospel, the following word
changes are appropriate.
18:12 “Jewish police” = temple police
18:14 “Jews” = Sanherdrin, or religious authorities
18:20, 19:14, 19:20 “Jews” = people
18:31, 18:36, 18:38, “Jews” = temple authorities
19:7, 19:12 “Jews” = Chief Priests 19:21 omit “of the Jews”