Introduction to the series

Why was Jesus crucified? What implications does this have for the meaning of Jesus’s cross for us today? As Holy Week approaches, we seek to follow in the steps of Jesus as he makes his final journey from Jericho to Jerusalem—a journey which will result in his death a few days later.

The following series of reflections looks at several stopping points on this last journey of Jesus. We begin with his experience of Jericho, because it is the location where his initial profound and challenging choices will need to be made.

To grapple more deeply with the life and passion and death of Jesus, it is important to explore it in the context of the politics and history of the New Testament period. There are not, nor should there be, easy correlations between situations then and now. But the passion cannot be understood apart from politics. Jesus lived his life in a milieu in which his compatriots (and others) differed profoundly in their response to the political realities of his day. Support the rule of Rome? Collude with it for one’s own advantages? Oppose it, with armed force if necessary? Long for a Messiah, a “Son of David,” who will come and triumph over his people’s enemies? Seek to isolate oneself and hide away in safety? As we travel with Jesus on his journey, which we can truly say has changed the course of human history, we hear the echoes of these questions both in the biblical texts and in the landscape he encountered.

Bethany: The last homely house

“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany.” —John 12:1

J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, described the house of the elf-lord at Rivendell as “the last homely house,” cherished by those who were setting off from it into dangers ahead.

For Jesus, the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany was “the last homely house.” It was where he was regularly welcomed at supper as one of the family (Luke 10:38–42). There is evidence that for many pilgrims from Galilee who were travelling to Jerusalem, Bethany provided respite and lodgings near the end of their journey. It was a place from which they could venture into Jerusalem itself each day, but return to Bethany each evening to be among friends and family. We are specifically told that Bethany was about two miles from Jerusalem (John 11:18).

The Gospels hint at the very close relationship that Jesus had with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. In the Gospel of John, we are told that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). In this chapter of John’s Gospel, we read how Jesus took the conscious decision to come to Bethany to heal Lazarus in spite of the fact that to do so consciously put him himself much closer into personal danger.

Ever since New Testament times, Bethany has been associated with this story. It is even written into its name—in Arabic, the village (which has become a town) is called al-Azariya (“Lazarus’s place”). In fact, Jesus’s actions in raising Lazarus from the dead, told in detail in John 11:1–44, seem to have provoked further the fear and controversy that would lead shortly to Jesus’s own death. The giving of life to Lazarus provoked such a stir among the wider population that the religious leaders were afraid of what the Roman authorities might do in response: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (John 11:48). Yet again, “reacting to the Romans” is to become part of the backdrop of Jesus’s imminent crucifixion. Jesus’s love for Lazarus becomes deeply sacrificial. The story is a vivid account of the words that Jesus will share with his disciples at his Last Supper: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

There is, however, something vitally important in that Jesus’s last days, his love, and his sacrifice, should be associated with this “last homely house.” The death of Christ is both part of the story of the political ferment, of the story of reacting to the Romans in first-century Judaea, and the story of love for individuals and a family. Both are true, and both need to be held together. Jesus came to change the world, and he also came to make life tolerable—even joyful—for ordinary human beings and human families. That is the message of Bethany, “Lazarus’s place,” 2000 years ago. It must also be its message for today.

By Dr Clare Amos, former programme coordinator for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches