{ lenten reflections : depravity and death }

I meant to post my Holy Week reflection for Good Friday later in the day yesterday. Sadly, my schedule did not allow the time to post three times in one day. I may have been a tad delusional in thinking that a realistic goal; even still, the events of that day were rolling around in my head and my heart all day. As we meditate on the trial, crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus on that fateful Friday almost two thousand years ago, may we choose hope today. Jesus cried out on that cross, “It is finished!” because He was about to end the war once and for us all. We still fight skirmishes with our flesh and with the enemy, but the days of skirmishing are numbered, and that number is finite and shrinking. He said it is finished; we must trust that it is.

Good Friday. What a horribly paradoxical name for the day Jesus was illegally and unjustly tried, tortured and crucified for the sins of others, and killed and buried as a criminal and deceiver. There doesn’t seem anything in those descriptions that should be counted as good. Yet the paradox is also stunning in its truth and beauty, because while what Jesus endured was the polar opposite of good, the fact that He did it is the very definition of good. And it was good for us that He chose to submit to the Father’s will and endure those horrors that we deserved so that we may enjoy the fullness and abundant life He secured and chooses to share with us because of His goodness and His love.

It’s a bit of a head trip for me to meditate on that paradox today, almost two thousand years later, but the fact that I am enabled to recognize it as such is a benefit the people who witnessed those horrors did not have. They had no clue what was happening or what it meant beyond what they could see with their eyes and hear with their ears. And what they heard and saw made no sense and had no goodness in it at all. It’s easy for me to let the knowledge of that paradox gloss me right past the reality of the horror, but it is important to stop and let myself sit down in the horror for a little while. Jesus saw fit not to release those who surrounded and loved Him from sitting in the horror–He did not explain to them exactly what would happen in its physical detail to protect them from the horror and confusion. I must conclude, then, that if in His goodness and love toward them He did not release them from that inner turmoil, then I should not release myself from sitting in it a bit either. Sometimes turmoil is good and productive, despite how it feels. This is a weekend for embracing the turmoil and finding the goodness in it.

The narrative account included in the She Reads Truth Lent study for Good Friday leave me rather nauseated. While Matthew 27:1-61 does provide narration of what happened to Jesus, it does so by focusing more on the responses of the Pharisees and Jewish leaders, the Roman rulers, the soldiers, and the crowds, than it does on timeline details.

We read that Judas repented and then, out of despair, killed himself. Oh how my heart breaks for Judas and what He didn’t yet know. Oh how I pray somehow it wasn’t too late for him, even in his despair. And oh how my heart breaks, because I have witnessed that despair first hand far too many times. That narrative hits me in a personal space, and there are no words to describe its effect.

We read that the Jewish leaders, who had arrested Jesus the night before and held secret farces of trials in order to conclude He was deserving of death. Let’s be clear here folks: the Jewish leaders (Pharisees, chief priests, high priest, scribes, and Sanhedrin) broke every law they claimed as proof of their righteousness. They arrested an innocent man, put him on trial in secret and during the middle of the night (both of which were expressly forbidden by the OT law) on a Sabbath (because Passover is automatically a Sabbath day–honoring the Sabbath is one of the big ten and one that they had made burdensome with extra regulations), brought lying witness after lying witness before the leaders sitting in judgement (bearing false witness–that’s one of the big ten, too!), and maligned Jesus, essentially committing the very sin for which they decided He was guilty enough to be murdered (blasphemy against God, which transgresses at least two of the first three big ten commandments). Oh, and let’s not lose sight of the fact that Jesus was in fact murdered, and in cold blood, which is also one of the big ten!

The leaders finally get the death sentence they want from the Roman rulers, the only ones permitted by Roman law to enact a death sentence, and then the show really began.

And I do mean to say that it was a show–a spectacle really. In fact, the people wanted that entertainment so badly that the scripture tells us that Pilate’s fear of a riot over the issue is why he finally, knowing Jesus was innocent and declaring it to be true, relented to releasing Barabas to freedom (the true criminal–guilty of inciting riots and rebellion, ironically enough) and sending Jesus to the cross.

And the people cheered! Many of these were the same ones who cheered when Jesus entered Jerusalem less than a week earlier. At the time it might have been easy to think they believed He was the Messiah, but they thought He was the kind of messiah who would march into the city, overthrow the Roman rulers, and set them free as an independent kingdom on earth and finally free from foreign oppression–just like the events in Egypt that they would commemorate later in the week. I imagine that many who had cheered Him on as the Messiah on Sunday believed the priests claims on Friday that He was nothing more than a deceiver they needed to be rid of so they could go on hoping in a vision of messiah that was misguided at best and the result of self-worship at worst. Now the masses were angry, and they wanted the show that would satisfy their vengeance over feeling deceived. This was payback, folks.

The Roman soldiers led Jesus away and enjoyed and savored every moment of the torture they would inflict, both physically and emotionally! They were up for some fun as well! Forget whether or not He was God; those soldiers had no respect for human life. None whatsoever. It was all just a sick game for them. And that’s exactly what they did: they dressed Him up and played games with Him as though He were their doll and they were playing pretend. But their was nothing pretend about their malice. Jesus’s torn and disfigured body was proof of that.

The real show started as the Roman soldiers led Jesus and the two criminals being crucified with Him through the streets of town, out the city gates, and up the hill where they would hang on their crosses until dead. Anyone would be able to see them silhouetted against the sky, whether inside our outside the city. And everyone enjoyed the spectacle. The scriptures tell us that as He walked that path with His splintery cross resting on and tugging at his mangled back and shoulders, the people continued their cheering: when the soldiers would hit and kick Him, as soldiers and commoners alike mocked Him and celebrated His humiliation and torture, when anyone spat on Him or zinged Him a good one-liner. They cheered as His hands and feet were nailed to the cross, as His cross was hoisted upright, as He suffered and bled. At one point, He cried out to God in Aramaic, and the people thought that He was crying out to Elijah to come down and save Him. They got really excited about this! “He’s calling for Elijah! . . . Let’s see if Elijah comes to save Him!” (vv. 47-48). I can see them in my head, scrambling for their sodas and bags of popcorns and sitting down to see what would happen: “Will Elijah finally come? Will God save Him? What’s going to happen? Oh man, this is gonna be so good! I can’t wait to see what comes next!”

It was a spectacle of depravity beyond the power of human language to express, and it is nauseating to imagine.

The ironic thing is that when Pilot stood before the crowds earlier that morning and told them he found no guilt in Jesus that deserved a death sentence, and as he washed his hands to symbolize his innocence of the murder they were insisting be granted to them, the people called out,

“His blood will be on us and on our children!” (vv. 20-25)

What they didn’t understand is that the guilt had always been on them and their children, since the first sin in the garden so long ago. Pilot tried to claim his innocence, but whether he wanted to set Jesus free doesn’t matter; he didn’t do it. And even if he had, he still wouldn’t have been innocent, because he was a human, and the guilt that sent Jesus to the cross had always been on the heads of every human.

Until that day, when Jesus stood silent in the farcical secret and public trials and received the guilty verdict and death sentence that belonged to them—and us.

Please don’t think that we are any better today than they were back then. The only difference between humans now and humans then is that we have far more resources now for white-washing our empty, rotting internal tombs and convincing ourselves that we have somehow improved as a race over time.

We have not. I have not.

I don’t like to think about my depravity, but not thinking about it doesn’t mean it somehow goes away. My thoughts are not that powerful! That abyss of depravity is in me, and I dip into it and take leisurely swims all the time—whether I choose to recognize it or not. Reading the account of the people’s treatment of Jesus that day makes me so uncomfortable, not because of something they did or the way they responded, but because it hits too close to home for me to remain comfortably blind in my pharisaical delusions.

I like to think I’m defending my rights or a particular manner of being treated that I believe I deserve, but what that really looks like is arresting Jesus in the dead of night and holding farcical and blasphemous trials in the name of protecting my reputation and self-righteousness.

I like to think that I’m just providing for and protecting myself in the best ways I know how, but what that really looks like is torturing and mocking Jesus, like both the crowds on the ground and the criminals hanging next to Him: “The Son of God?! Really?! Prove it!! Let’s see you save yourself, first! Then we’ll see if I deem you worthy of my faith and trust! Then maybe I’ll consider doing it your way instead of my own.”

I like to think that following the cultural currents flowing all around me makes sense, because if the masses all agree then it must be right and good, but what it really looks like is nailing Jesus to a cross with my own two hands and then hoisting Him up for the world to witness my rejection and humiliation of Him.

I like to think that I am responsible for choosing my own definitions of success, approval, and my identity, but what that looks like is sitting with the scoffers on the ground with my soda and popcorn waiting for the show to get even better, waiting for Him to yell out something really juicy as He suffers just a little longer.

I see an apple that looks good for eating and I reach out, pick it, and eat it, thinking there can’t be any harm in satisfying my hunger and desire, but what it really looks like is the dead body of the God of the universe hanging limp on a tree in the consuming darkness, water and blood flowing out of the wound in His side where the spear was thrust just to make sure He was really, really dead.

Yes. That same depravity is in me, and I choose it constantly. And then I stand in my internal and relational wastelands wondering what happened and how things could have gone so terribly wrong and ended up so horribly dead.

In the “Holy Week in Real Time: Good Friday” devotional reading, Pastor Russ Ramsey says

Never before or since has more been lost and gained at the same time as at Jesus’ crucifixion. The world gained the atoning sacrifice of Christ. But for many of those present, their hearts broke because the One they believed to be the Savior of the world was dying at the hands of Rome. They couldn’t stop it, and they didn’t yet realize—He was dying for them. Many had put their hope in Jesus, and though He had told them earlier that He would suffer many things and rise three days later (Mark 8:31), how could they possibly have known this was what He meant?

“The reactions of the condemned men crucified on either side of Jesus and those gathered at the foot of the cross tell the story of every man and woman when it comes to what we make of Christ’s crucifixion. The cross of Jesus confronts us all with the question of the true identity of Jesus Christ. Times of desperation can harden us or soften us, but the question of Easter never goes away: Who do you say that Jesus is?”

Later that evening, after Jesus had been buried in the tomb of Joseph of Aramathea, we are told that two women (Mary Magdelene and the other Mary, probably Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus) “were seated there, facing the tomb” (Matt 26:61). I imagine they sat there in shock. I imagine them staring at the stone that covered the tomb’s entrance, confused and in pain over how in the world their precious Lord ended up on the other side of it. So close yet so far away.


And I imagine they may have wondered, just like me,

“What just happened? Was He really the Messiah? What now? Oh, what now?!”

Those were questions they did not have the luxury of escaping or glossing over. They witnessed everything that happened, and I imagine the images of human depravity haunted them as they sat in front of that tomb trying to process their new reality. But they had to wrestle, and so do we. Don’t let yourself escape without sitting in front of the occupied tomb and coming to grips with the realities it points us to. Make sure you wrestle with the only question in the universe that matters at all:

Who do you say Jesus is?


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