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.
Jesus’s encounters in Jericho, especially as presented in the Gospel of Luke, point to the decisions and choices that he will soon need to make.
35 As he (Jesus) approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43 Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.
1He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
11 As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 So he said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. 13 He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Do business with these until I come back.’ 14 But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading. 16 The first came forward and said, ‘Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.’ 17 He said to him, ‘Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.’ 18 Then the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your pound has made five pounds.’ 19 He said to him, ‘And you, rule over five cities.’ 20 Then the other came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.’ 24 He said to the bystanders, ‘Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’ 25 (And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds!’) 26 ‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’”
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
As it is today, Jericho in the time of Jesus was a gateway town. Lying near the southern end of the Jordan Valley, just north of the Dead Sea, it was the “pass-through” place for travellers to Jerusalem coming either from the east, across the Jordan river, or from the north, from parts of Galilee. Having passed through Jericho, most travellers and pilgrims would turn west and make their way up through the steep hills the 15 miles or so to Jerusalem. It was an exhausting journey through parched wilderness partly because it also involved an unrelenting ascent of more than 1000 metres. Jericho is the lowest town on earth (about 250 metres below Mediterranean sea level). It is also the oldest. The warmth and comparative lushness of the site due to its abundant springs made it a very attractive settling place to Stone Age human beings; even ca. 7000 BCE, it had become a walled city with defensive towers.
Over millennia, Jericho was fought over, destroyed, and rebuilt many times. By New Testament times, the cliffs above the city had also been fortified by the rulers of the Herodian dynasty to guard the eastern frontiers of their kingdom. These Herodian rulers had also left their mark very visibly within the city itself, as we shall see in a moment.
All the three Synoptic Gospels suggest that Jesus passed through Jericho on his way up to Jerusalem. It was, quite literally, the gateway to his passion. It is Luke, however, who gives us the most detail. Luke relates three incidents in succession: first, Jesus nears Jericho and heals a blind man begging by the roadside (18:35–43); second, Jesus enters Jericho and encounters Zacchaeus, a tax collector (Luke 19.1–10; and third, Jesus recounts a parable (19:11–27). The three incidents coalesce to offer us a sharp insight into the challenges that Jesus and his disciples face as they journey towards Jerusalem. These incidents make it clear that Jesus’s journey towards Jerusalem cannot be understood apart from the political and social dynamics of life in New Testament times.
Firstly, the blind man. In his repeated cries for assistance, the blind man addresses Jesus as “Son of David” (18:38–39). These are loaded words. David was remembered as Israel’s greatest king. It was during his reign, 1000 years or so before the time of Jesus, that the nation reached its greatest political independence. Later generations looked back nostalgically to the time of David, and hoped for a figure like him, a “son of David,” who would come and reinstate the freedom and prestige that the nation had enjoyed during David’s time. Many of the images of the longed-for messiah were coloured by imaginings of David—however far from historical reality those imaginings might be. To call Jesus “Son of David” was to load on him a nation’s hopes and expectations.
Secondly, Zacchaeus the chief tax collector, who needed a different kind of healing. Zacchaeus represented the world that those who cried out “Son of David” wanted to be freed from. Zacchaeus had thrown in his lot with the Roman authorities who now ruled Palestine either directly (as in Jericho and Jerusalem ca. 30 CE) or indirectly, through client kings of the Herodian dynasty (as in Galilee). Zacchaeus collected taxes on behalf of those Roman authorities. He had probably gained the privilege of doing so by outbidding competitors in what he was willing to offer to the authorities for the privilege of being their stooge; now he had to recoup his investment by squeezing as much as possible out of those whose lives he could control. For Jesus to accept an invitation to eat at Zacchaeus’s house would have been deeply aggravating to those who had suffered from his bullying. No wonder there was grumbling—and not just at Zacchaeus.
And thirdly, the parable. Luke’s version is a form of what is often called the Parable of the Talents, which we tend to read more often in the Gospel of Matthew. This is, I suspect, because in the Gospel of Luke, the story of the money entrusted to the servants is interwoven rather strangely with another narrative, which in some ways complicates the story. But this complication is precisely what Luke wants to highlight at this point.
So Jesus tells the tale of “a nobleman [who] went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. . .. But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’” Having received the power he desires, he “deals” with the slaves to whom he had entrusted his money while on his travels. After this, the nobleman says, “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”
Even a quick glance through the history of New Testament times strongly suggests that Jesus is alluding here to the story of Archelaus. Archelaus was one of the sons of Herod the Great (the ruler at the time of Jesus’s birth). When Herod the Great died, the Roman authorities who had overall control of the region divided his kingdom between three of his sons: Herod Antipas was given Galilee; Philip, the territory of Caesarea Philipp; and Archelaus, Judaea and Samaria—the region that included both Jericho and Jerusalem. Herod the Great may have been brutal, but Archelaus’s reputation, even before he ascended to power, was even worse. So a delegation went from Jerusalem to Rome to oppose Archelaus being made ruler of the area. To no avail. Rome did not listen, Archelaus was made ruler (the technical term was ethnarch), and not surprisingly, when he returned from Rome having received “royal power,” Archelaus took vicious revenge on those who had opposed his elevation. The twist in Archelaus’s tale, however, is that he ruled so brutally for the next decade that the Pharisees and Sadducees (who normally disagreed over most things!) sent another joint delegation to Rome asking for Archelaus’s removal. This time they were successful. Archelaus was exiled to Gaul, and a system of direct Roman rule over Judaea through prefects or procurators was instituted. (Pontius Pilate was the fifth in this succession of prefects).
Luke introduces the parable to us with the comment that Jesus “went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” Clearly there is some relationship between what Jesus wanted to tell his disciples about the kingdom of God and this story about the “kingship” of Archelaus.
I mentioned above that the Herodian kings left a visible mark in the city of Jericho. Herod the Great had built a lavish winter palace in the city in order to escape the cold of Jerusalem. Archelaus extended it and made it still more magnificent. Excavations have made clear the luxury of the complex. However, by the time of Jesus’s ministry, Archelaus had been exiled for more than 20 years: the glory and luxury that he had created for himself was no longer his.
Jesus tells the parable alluding to the story of Archelaus with that palace as a backdrop and visual aid. When I first realised this—while speaking to a group of students on a St George’s College Jerusalem course—it was an extraordinarily powerful moment of truth, as it must have been for those who first heard Jesus’s story. “You think the kingdom of God is near,” Jesus might have said. “But what kind of kingdom is it to be? Such as in the brutal reign of Archelaus? Absolutely not!” Jesus does not fill in the final chapter of Archelaus’s story for his audience, but allows them to remember the tale for themselves as they look across to where the palace was situated. The kind of kingship exercised by the ruler who bled his people dry to build a luxurious edifice for his own glory and pleasure ended up a transitory failure, and now in exile he was no longer enjoying its fruits. Was it not the polar opposite of the kingdom of God?
These three stories in Luke, with their differing political perspectives, are grouped together, I think, to suggest that Jesus refuses to offer one easy and straightforward answer to the challenges and expectations that his contemporaries throw at him. At the same time, his words and his actions make it clear that the kingdom of God he came to proclaim has concrete implications for the whole of human life and society, for justice, for peace, and for the flourishing of humanity and creation.
“After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem” (Luke 19.28). Jericho is for Jesus the gateway to Jerusalem. He will carry with him on his journey from this city the competing challenges, competing responses to contemporary realities that have been portrayed so vividly for us in Jericho. In Jesus’s encounter with Zacchaeus the word “today” appears twice (Luke 19:5,9). It somehow emphasizes that in Jericho, Jesus himself is “today” confronted with a moment of crisis, of profound personal and potentially costly choice.
He leaves Jericho and turns west to climb towards the Holy City. . . .
By Dr Clare Amos, former programme coordinator for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches