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.

The road through the wilderness

“After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” —Luke 19:28

When Jesus leaves Jericho, he turns west to climb towards the Holy City. I mentioned that it is only about 15 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, but it is a winding climb of over 1200 metres. It also takes the traveller through different worlds that clash, both in biblical history and in the present day.

The climb takes us through one of the most extreme zones of climate variation in the entire world. Within the 15 miles of the journey there is a remarkable difference in annual rainfall. In Jerusalem, the rainfall totals about 600 mm a year; five miles further east it has halved to 300 mm; and in the Jordan valley, as one approaches Jericho, it is only 100 mm a year. (This sharp shift is due to the fact that virtually all the rain in this area comes from the west, and the region east of Jerusalem lies in the lee of the central mountain ridge running north-south through the land.) The lack of rainfall strikingly affects the appearance of the land. Going east, one has barely crested the Mount of Olives before the comparatively fertile territory in which Jerusalem is situated turns into semi-desert. Five miles east of the city, it is too arid to grow crops unless artificial irrigation is provided. The city of Jericho itself is only possible because of the copious underground springs which spurt out of the cliffs in the Jordan Valley.

These geographical realities affect lifestyle. In this small space of land, what has sometimes been called the perennial conflict between the desert and the sown are visually apparent, both in biblical times and today. Those, such as the semi-nomadic Bedouin, who seek to wrest an existence in this harsh terrain, are all too easily viewed as marginal people, whose needs can be sacrificed to others who are more powerful.

In our reflection linked to Jericho, we began to look at the challenges that confront Jesus as he approaches Jerusalem. How is he to react to the all-powerful Roman rule dominating much of life in Jerusalem and throughout the rest of the country? Should he struggle against it? Should he collude with it? Or should he seek to stay as far away from it as possible?

Strangely, as he begins to climb from the Jordan Valley and Jericho through the desert terrain, he would have encountered symbols of each of these three responses. We have already mentioned the palace of Herod and Archelaus in Jericho itself. On the cliffs above the city, there was also the fortress of Duk, build to guard the eastern borders of Herod’s realm. All these structures symbolized the concern for power and control of those like Herod, who had thrown in their lot with Rome, colluding (to their own benefit) with the Roman rule in the country. In some of the wilderness wadis there were aqueducts, built with Herodian money, to divert water for the benefit of the wealthy.

The Zealot reaction to Rome—to struggle against it—was by definition less physically obvious. But these wilderness regions were often where such outsiders loitered. Protected by the terrain, they used it as concealment for ambushes upon unwary travellers to rob them of possessions—and? sometimes their lives. Such an ambush may be being pictured in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37). Indeed, in a sense, the so-called Inn of the Good Samaritan offers even today a physical trace of the realities behind such a story.

The third reaction to the Romans—to try and stay away—is also visible in these hills. Indeed, before Jesus began his climb, he may have first made the choice not to divert along the shore of the Dead Sea to the settlement now called Qumran, where a group of people, probably associated with the Essene movement, lived in a form of monastic purity. They sought to keep themselves separate—and wrote and copied what we now refer to as the Dead Sea Scrolls. By joining them, would not Jesus have kept himself “safe”?

But Jesus rejects that option and strides westward, eventually glimpsing the crest of the Mount of Olives. Travellers today, journeying from Jericho to Jerusalem, will see the crest of the Mount of Olives marked out for them by three tall towers. Each one in its different way symbolizes “those kingdoms of the world and the glory of them” (Matt 4: 18 RSV) the many nations whose efforts to dominate Jerusalem and the Holy Land over the centuries have contributed to the lack of peace in the land today.

“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany” (John 12.1)

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