Friday, March 12, 2010

The Death of the Messiah: Part Two of Four; for Lent, 2010

First published Open Salon, MARCH 12, 2010 12:29PM


NOTE TO READERS: This Lenten essay was originally published on Open Salon, March 5, 2009. It is part of my Christian Calendar Series. I have edited it for 2010, clarifying certain points and improving the flow of the text.

Christian liturgy, ritual and most of Christian theology change little from year to year. The reason for the Christian Calendar is to encourage Christians to rehearse, ponder and reflect on, year after year, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, so that His life becomes part and parcel of our family history.

The story of Christ changes little, but we, His disciple, change and grow, become ill, or face death, our own or a loved one's, and in so doing we come each year to view the events of Christ and the traditions of His Church through different eyes.

Hopefully, what I write in this series will have a certain timelessness, updated slightly each year to improve clarity and thereby open more deeply our understanding of aspects of the events celebrated during the Christian Year.

This Lenten essay for 2010 lays out some basic parameters of orthodox Christian belief. What is written here are my own beliefs, which are widely shared by Christians in most mainline Protestant denominations and in the Roman and Orthodox Catholic denominations in the United States as being fundamental to Christian faith.

Note: Part One of The Death of the Messiah, 2010 Edition can be found here: ttp://

Why it is Good to have Four Different Views

of The Death of The Messiah


Last Friday in Part One I introduced this series, edited for 2010, on The Death of the Messiah. I pointed out that, while we may think there is only one story of the death of the Messiah, repeated four times, in fact there are four different renditions of the story of Jesus' death, both in the details and in the portrait of Jesus presented. I also said that there is also a fifth rendition: the one that we create from the other four.

I noted that from the perspective of the Christian believer these Gospel stories were divinely inspired and that God was therefore, both mindful of the inconsistencies in the stories, and intentional in his inspiration, in that he wants us to be able to see Jesus' death from four unique vantage points.

We do not improve on the Gospel accounts by trying to harmonize them, regardless how tempting it is to try to do so. Ultimately, all attempts at harmonizing the Gospels never give a true picture of what God is saying to us in those sacred texts.

Therefore, I ended Part One telling you that having four differing stories was a good thing, in spite of the ulcers that it must give to those who want all of the stories of Jesus to be clear, concise, neat and without factual disagreement.

Part of the problem for such people is that they insist on viewing the Gospels as history, which they are not. They are theology told in narratives, stories, and are kerygma, proclamation. Mostly they are proclamations of the Good News (Gospel) of Jesus the Christ.

Part Two:

While our vanity makes this hard to comprehend, Christians should understand that the stories in the Bible are not written to meet any human standard. They only meet the standard that God wanted them to meet when s/he inspired the writers of the Gospels to write them, a standard which God has not felt it necessary to justify to us. I'm comfortable with that, since s/he is God and I am not.

But many are not comfortable with that at all, and have, unsuccessfully, tried to "harmonize" the Gospels, doing away with troublesome inconsistencies. We are not going to do that. In fact, we're going to look at a couple of those inconsistencies today, and then use them to make the point that it is a good thing that we have four differing accounts of the Death of the Messiah.

First, let's look at the Gospel narratives in general. If you think about it logically, the first thing you will notice is that all the Gospels do hold to a common, basic outline of the events leading to the crucifixion. And that makes perfect sense. After all, there was a basic order of events that took place, indeed, had to take place, and each of the Gospel writers had to take this into account.

Thus, Jesus' arrest had to precede his trial, and the trial had to precede the sentence, and the sentence had to precede His execution. And all the Gospels contain these elements. In other words, all share a common plot. And that is just what it is: a plot of a drama, one we call "The Death of the Messiah."

And, in this narrative, this drama, there are not only the actions and reactions of Jesus, but also of supporting characters, like Peter and Judas and Pilate. And the drama is heightened by the contrasts between these characters: innocent Jesus and guilty Barabbas, faithful Jesus and betraying Peter, and in one of the Gospels, wise and troubled Pilate versus vile and remorseless "Jews". Even the scoffing Jewish leaders have their antitheses in the Roman soldier who, in two accounts, declares Jesus to be, in fact, the Son of God.

All of these elements, while often used quite differently in the differing Gospels, heighten our awareness of the struggle going on here, between Jesus and the world that, as John puts it, "knew him not."

The personification of the characters that surround him, the descriptions of their personalities and their desires encourages us, the readers, to participate in the drama by constantly asking ourselves the question: "Where would I have stood had I been one of these players in this drama of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus?"

Perhaps we can see ourselves as being among those who welcomed him into Jerusalem as a hero. But would we be able to see ourselves as Peter, denying him? As Judas, betraying Him? Or as Pilate, either wishing to avoid the issue altogether, as in John's account, or washing his hands of the whole thing, so he might appear blameless, as in Matthew's?

Or could we see ourselves abandoning him, as all the disciples did in three accounts, or staying at the foot of his cross until the end, as did the beloved disciple and Mary in the Fourth Gospel? Or, most telling of all, would we see ourselves, could we see ourselves, as being like the religious leaders who condemned him?

Perhaps not; but we certainly don't want anyone coming around to us individually, say, here on OS, telling us we've got our religion all wrong; haven't got a clue what God expects of us; have no compassion for the poor and have indulged our own personal gluttony in the face of God's commandment to love others! I would think our feathers would get just a bit ruffled if someone accused us of that. But that is exactly what Jesus did, isn't it?

Just so, there were many real life factors that colored the writing of the Gospels, which, as we learned last week, were all written about 30 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. The memory of what happened at Jesus' death was deeply affected by the life situations of the local Christian communities in which the Gospel writers lived; and each was a little different. Each Gospel, for example, reflects how the writers perceived the Romans and the Jews.

Take the Romans, for instance. How do you get a balanced portrayal of Jesus when writing in a nation occupied by Romans? How do you offset the negative attitude toward Jesus exhibited by Tacitus, the great Roman writer, who treats Jesus as a despicable criminal; worthy of no more than a few lines in his writing?

How would you overcome Tacitus' portrayal? What if, say, you were to portray Pilate as being a spokesman for Jesus, or at least, not against him? Two of the Gospel writers did just that. If you carefully move through the Gospels according to when they were written: Mark first, then Luke, then Matthew, and finally, John.

Yyou'll see that Pilate is increasingly portrayed as a fair judge who recognized Jesus as innocent of political ambition. This viewpoint not only rehabilitates Pilate in the eyes of Christian readers, but also rehabilitates Jesus in the eyes of Romans: if a Roman Governor of Pilate's stature saw nothing wrong in Jesus, Tacitus must have been mistaken about Jesus being nothing more than a common criminal.

Lets look at just one more example: "How would you characterize Jewish involvement in Jesus' death? Who was involved, responsible, for the death of Jesus? Was it "the Jews?" If so, was it all of the Jews? Or just the Pharisees? The Priests? All the Priests? The Sanhedrin?

What about Joseph of Aramethea, a Jew? Wasn't he in the Sanhedrin? Weren't, in fact, all of Jesus' named followers and the vast majority of all the other followers of Jesus also Jews? Wasn't, after all, Jesus a Jewish Rabbi? So just who are these "Jews" who "killed Jesus?"

Well, it depends on which Gospel you read. If you wish to go easy on the Jewish involvement, or want to limit it to a handful of leaders, read Luke. In Luke there is no calling for witnesses against Jesus and there is no Jewish death sentence against Him. In fact, there is no formal night time trial, complete with the high priest Ciaphas in charge, as in Mark and Matthew. There is only a simple questioning in the morning by the Sanhedrin.

John, who is hard on the Jews elsewhere in his Gospel, also does not write that any Jews were heavily involved in deciding Jesus' fate. John records no Sanhedrin session at all after Jesus' arrest, but only a police interrogation conducted by a different high priest, Annas.

Confused? Add further confusion: John includes Roman soldiers and their Tribune at the arrest, the others do not. This is important, because no Roman Tribune could have been dispatched without the knowledge of Pilate, which would mean that Pilate was involved far earlier and more deeply than any of the other Gospels report.

On the other hand, if you suspect that it was "all of the Jews" who accused Jesus then Matthew's Gospel leads you that way; while Mark and Luke limit their accusations to the Jewish leadership, specifically the priests and the Sanhedrin. John goes easy on the Jewish leaders during the trial period because John believes that the "world" rejected Jesus and so places blame implicitly on everybody, and does not go easy on either the Romans or the Jews as groups. Both are guilty in John's eyes.

We could spend several weeks looking at, and comparing, the Gospel accounts of such things as those above, and things like: How did Jesus view His own death? How did the disciples react at Gesthemene? What did they do at the arrest? Could the Jewish trial even have happened according to Jewish law? What happened at the actual time of death? Did the curtain in the Temple split? Were graves opened? And, later, were there guards at the tomb? And on and on.

But we really don't have time for all that. And, more importantly, if we took the time, would we find out anything that would help us better understand Jesus? Well, I have done that for decades, and can tell you that studying and arguing about such questions does almost nothing to help us learn about Jesus.

What will help us know more about Jesus is to know that each individual portrayal of Jesus' death gives us an insight into who he is such as none of the others give us.

And the reason is simple enough. Each divinely inspired evangelist knows a different facet of Jesus and his Passion, and he portrays, therefore, a different picture.

What I'm going to do now is give you a brief summary of what careful study of three of the portrayals of Jesus and the events leading to his death can tell us. We will look at Mark, Luke and John. Matthew's portrayal of Jesus is closely based on Mark's, and while Matthew adds many details about events, a discussion of Matthew's portrayal of Jesus would be covering essentially the same ground as the discussion of Mark's portrayal.


Both Mark and Matthew portray a very human, very vulnerable Jesus. Mark portrays a scene of stark human abandonment of Jesus at the time of his Passion. Yet, in the end God turns it all around, and neither the abandonment of the disciples nor Jesus' own questioning of God affects God's moment of supreme grace in raising Jesus from the grave.

Mark's gospel intends to shock. And it does. In Mark, long before the Passion the disciples were almost universally clueless as to whom Jesus really was, and, even when they came close to the truth they could not accept the idea of a dying Messiah. And it only gets worse as the tension mounts toward betrayal and death.

In the garden at Gethsemene they fall asleep, not once, but three times. Judas betrays him, but Peter is hardly better, denying that he ever knew him. All flee, one in such haste that he leaves his clothes behind, literally saving his own skin - the very opposite of leaving all things to follow Jesus.

The Roman and Jewish judges are seen by Mark as great cynics. Jesus hangs from the cross for six hours, and three of those hours are filled with mockery and three with utter darkness. And Jesus deeply feels abandonment, even by his heavenly Father. Mark's very human Jesus cries but one thing from the cross, quoting the 22nd Psalm, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

Yet, in the end, God vindicates his Son. If the trial before the Sanhedrin was to assess his threat to tear down the Temple, God in an act of judgment and vindication, tears the veil of the Temple in two. And an outsider, a hated Roman, is heard to say what no Jew, disciple or priest, could ever figure out: "Truly this was the Son of God." In Mark, only after his death on the Cross is it possible to see that Jesus was no false prophet, but was, indeed, the Son of God.


Luke portrays a very different Jesus. And the disciples are shown in a far more sympathetic light. They remain faithful to Him in his trials. And, while they fall asleep while Jesus prays, once, not three times, it is only out of their "sorrow." Even the enemies of Jesus look better in Luke. There are no false witnesses produced at the Jewish trial, and even Pilate acknowledges three times that Jesus is not guilty.

The people are not rabble calling for his death, but rather are grieved over what has been done to him. And, just as they show great concern for him, so too is he less anguished by what will happen to him than by what happens to them. At the arrest he heals the slave's ear and on the road to Calvary he worries about the fate of the women in the coming trials. Further, he forgives those who crucified him and even promises paradise to a thief who merely asks to be remembered, a scene only in Luke's Gospel.

Thus, in Luke, the crucifixion becomes a time of divine forgiveness and care. Jesus dies in tranquility, unlike in Mark, saying simply. "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."


In stark contrast to either Mark or Luke, John portrays a triumphal Jesus, even in death, a Jesus who long before the passion defiantly announced, "I lay down my life and I take it up again; no one takes it from me!" This Jesus knows, in advance, exactly what is going to happen to him and when, and it will happen as and when he says.

When the Roman soldiers and the Jewish police come to arrest him they fall to the ground powerless. In the garden he does not pray for the cup to pass him; for it was for this moment he was born. He is so self assured that he offends the high priest; and even Pilate feels his power. Jesus has no fear of Pilate. saying, bluntly, "You have no power over me." Nor does anyone carry his cross; this is something he is perfectly able to do for himself. Even his royalty is proclaimed in three languages on the cross and is, in fact, confirmed by Pilate.

Totally unlike the three other Gospels, Jesus does not die on the cross abandoned, but with his mother and the beloved disciple with him. And speaking to them from the Cross he gives the beloved disciple and his mother to one another, creating, as it were, a family of loving disciples to carry forward the message.

This Jesus can not cry out "Why have you forsaken me?" because the Father has always been with him, literally "in" him, and will be so through death to resurrection and glorious ascension. His last words bear no anxiety or pain, but the simple statement that he has done what he came to do: "It is finished." And only then, when he declared that he has done what was needed, does he hand over his spirit to the Father.

Even in death he continues to dispense life as living water and blood flow from his pierced side. And his burial is not something hurried and unprepared as in the other Gospels, but he lies in state amidst 100 pounds of spices - as befits a king.

In the final two posts in this series we will go into this in more detail. But let me ask you: do you despair because these portraits are so starkly different? Do you think that one is, must be, more correct? Remember, all three descriptions are given to us by one Holy Spirit, the one Spirit that inspired the writers of each Gospel.

And, understand this well, no one Gospel, or all four Gospels combined, exhaust the meaning of Jesus! In fact, a true picture of Jesus can only just begin to emerge because we have at least four differing depictions.

Why, then, is this Good News? Because by having these differing descriptions people with different spiritual needs can find meaning in the cross. And even the same person, at different points in his or her life, can find meaning there.

As Jesus did in Mark's Gospel, have you never needed desperately to cry out "My God, My God Why Have You Forsaken Me?" Have you never felt that? Do you not need to know that when you feel that way, just as Jesus did, God has not abandoned you and that he can reverse tragedy in your life?

As in Luke's Gospel, have you never been hurt by others, deeply hurt, and have finally found some relief from your anger in forgiveness? Is "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" not something that we need to hear, knowing that our Savior had far more reason to hate than we shall ever have?

Don't we, with Luke's Jesus, need from time to time to turn ourselves over fully to God, having been unable to fix things for ourselves? Can we not find hope and comfort in saying, "Into your hands, O God, I place myself."?

Yet, as in John's Gospel, are there not times in your life when you desperately need to know that evil and sin and all the perfidy of this life cannot prevail against God and those who have faith in him?

With John don't we often need to believe that we worship an all knowing, fully in control, always in command, Jesus who will guide and protect, defend and defeat every foe and evil, be it the prevailing powers, or the principalities or the purveyors of lies?

Jesus is all of these and more, far more than can ever be captured by putting pen to paper. These descriptions do not exhaust the portrayal of Jesus, they begin the task. Each Christian will ultimately find a portrayal of Jesus the Christ that fits his or her personal needs. And that portrayal will not be complete for everybody else, and may change over time as we learn more about the One in whom we place out trust.

Hopefully this brief Lenten series has begun to outline for you some of the major characteristics of Christ that will give you a basis for a better understanding of the One whom Christians call "Our Lord and Savior."

Listen to Fr. Raymond Brown. "To choose one portrayal of the crucified Jesus in a manner that would exclude the other portrayals or to harmonize all the Gospel portrayals into one would deprive the cross of much of its meaning. It is important that some be able to see the head bowed in dejection, while others observe the arms outstretched in forgiveness, and still others perceive in the title on the cross the proclamation of a reigning king."

That, my friends, is Good News.


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This posting for 2010:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Death of the Messiah: Introduction; for Lent, 2010

First Published in Open Salon, MARCH 5, 2010 2:36PM


NOTE TO READERS: This Lenten essay was originally published on Open Salon, February 25, 2009. It is part of my Christian Calendar Series. It is intended to set a tone for thinking about the season of Lent. I have edited it for 2010, clarifying certain points and improving the flow of the text.

Christian liturgy, ritual and most of Christian theology change little from year to year. The reason for the Christian Calendar is to encourage Christians to rehearse, ponder and reflect on, year after year, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, so that His life becomes part and parcel of our family history.

The story of Christ changes little, but we, His disciple, change and grow, become ill, or face death, our own or a loved one's, and in so doing we come each year to view the events of Christ and the traditions of His Church through different eyes.

Hopefully, what I write in this series will have a certain timelessness, updated slightly each year to improve clarity and thereby open more deeply our understanding of aspects of the events celebrated during the Christian Year.

This Lenten essay for 2010 lays out some basic parameters of orthodox Christian belief. What is written here are my own beliefs, which are widely shared by Christians in most mainline Protestant denominations and in the Roman and Orthodox Catholic denominations in the United States as being fundamental to Christian faith.

The Death of the Messiah: Introduction

This is a Christian Reflection, written for other Christians, other people of faith who may wish to better understand this aspect of Christianity, and for others, seekers and the curious, who may wish to know about the Christian understanding of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, the Christ. The Reflection is a statement of belief. It is kerygma, proclamation. If you come here with an open heart and an intention to be tolerant of the beliefs of others, all beliefs, all religions, or none at all, you are in the right place. If not, this post is not for you.

"How Do You See the Death of the Messiah?"

This is the first of a series of four Lenten Reflections on the Death of the Messiah, in other words, on the Passion of Jesus, the Christ. The series is the result of research I did to help ordinary Christians better understand the meaning of the Death of Jesus.

It is my conviction that our understanding of Christ's Passion has been warped badly by well meaning scholars and pastors who have sought to simplify the reality of His death. Simplification is often a good thing. But when simplification leads to confusion and false understandings of what the Bible says, then it ceases to be useful.

I feel strongly that we need to understand the Cross of Christ as God has taught it, not as we might like to hear it. Therefore, four times during Lent, with our focus clearly on the death of Jesus on Good Friday, we will look at the events immediately preceding Jesus' death and at his crucifixion. This Reflection and the next constitute an overview of all four Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus.

The final two Reflections will be a more detailed look at two of the four accounts, those of Mark and Luke. We will not look at Matthew and John in that detail; but the contrasts between Mark and Luke are clear enough that you will be able to understand that, like these two Gospel accounts, Matthew and John are also different in their understanding of the Passion.

Teachng Reflections like these demand more of you than a little skim of the text. You will need to read rather carefully so that you can form your own opinions as to what is meant. In fact, contrary to many well meaning, but misled people, there are seldom simple answers, including in the Bible.

Jesus’ death was not simple. But his death, when viewed in the light of his subsequent resurrection, is the most important event in Christian faith. Christian salvation literally depends on it. And so Christians certainly need to understand it. Most importantly, Christians need to understand what the Bible says about it, not what we might have heard that it says, or what we might wish that it says.

So I am inviting you to a true Lenten “discipline,” in the best sense of that word. And I promise you that if you will pay attention the reward will be great, for you will have a far better grasp on this event that Christians believe is the pivotal event in human history.

I chose the series title, The Death of the Messiah, in honor of the magnificent, unparalleled, work of the same name be Fr. Raymond Brown. His book, The Death of the Messiah is universally recognized as the most significant contribution to understanding the death of Jesus in the history of the church. That monumental work is over 1800 pages long. Obviously, we can only glean the highlights in a short series of reflections, but I need to acknowledge that Raymond Brown has greatly influenced my own thinking on this issue.

We will be looking at a very small segment of the Bible: the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, through four very different sets of eyes: those of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. What we probably don't realize, however, is that most of us have created yet a fifth set of eyes. This fifth set of eyes is the one by which we have filtered what we know from those four very different accounts into one homogenous account that we believe fits what happened to Jesus in the brief time from Gethesemane to the grave.

We may even think that all four Gospel accounts of the death of the Messiah are essentially the same, and that our understanding of what happened to Jesus and how he approached his death is based on one uniform account. But that is not true.

The accounts of his death are not the same in key ways; and the Jesus depicted in each of those accounts is quite different from the others. The four gospels vary substantially, both as to what the Gospel writers say happened, and as to the theological implications and conclusions that each individual writer gives to the story.

For some that may be jarring, disquieting, and they may not even want to hear it. Christians naturally want to "harmonize" the four Gospel accounts, make them into a homogenous unit, with no loose ends. Attempts at "harmonizing the Gospels" have been made from the beginning of Christianity. None have been successful.

When we seek to harmonize the gospel accounts then we fall victim to believing what we want to believe rather than what the Bible clearly tells us. We, quite naturally, I think, would prefer one set of so-called "facts" to the rather differing narratives we read in the Bible.

We are like a good detective called to take the statements of four witnesses to an accident at an intersection, each standing at very different places, and while all saw the same thing, none of the four eye witnesses agree on what they saw.

The early church struggled with this problem for many years. But, and this is very important, the church, from the beginning, believed that the divinely revealed scriptures, even while often differing in detail, were the work of God, processed through the minds and hands of man, yes, but nevertheless divinely inspired by God.

And, for over 1600 years, the church has said that, regardless of their lack of harmony, the four Gospel accounts of Jesus were intended to give us different pictures of Jesus; and that, therefore, all were true in the eyes of faith. The church has consistently held that no one account of his life, death and resurrection could capture all the facets of his life and death.

Therefore, while many individuals have tried to harmonize the Gospels through the centuries, the church has seldom encouraged these attempts, which is precisely why we have four Gospels and not one. The church has been far more content than most individuals to allow the Gospels to stand as they are, seeing them as four different, divinely inspired ways of viewing the same events.

And that is the tack we shall take in this series. The truth is that the Gospels, and the death of Jesus as reported in them, cannot be harmonized. They are different, both in substance and in theological outlook. For instance, the Jesus described in Matthew and Mark is a far different Jesus than the one described in John, in almost every way imaginable.

Now, if you are a believer in Christ you have two choices. You can say that they all cannot be true and insist on harmonizing them, force fitting them into your own pre-conceived ideas of what you think went on, or at least what you think should have gone on.

Or, you can look at the Gospels as they stand and see what God is trying to tell us about the death of Jesus through the divinely inspired work of these four stories. Fr. Raymond Brown decided to do the latter: to look at each Gospel separately and to then attempt to discern God's message from the differing texts. That is what I shall be doing in this series, using Dr. Brown as our guide.

What we shall find when we are finished is that Jesus was and is a far more complicated being than we previously thought; and that the writers of the Gospels had to struggle with that fact. And they also had to struggle with the fact that they wrote long after the event took place.

Jesus died about 30 AD. The earliest Gospel, Mark, was written at least some 20 to 30 years later but, most likely, about 40 years later, around 70 AD. Luke was likely written about the mid-80s AD, over 50 years after the death of Christ. Matthew was probably written sometime between 80 and 100 AD, 50 to 70 years after the death of Jesus.

The date of the writing of the Gospel according to John is harder to pin down, but, in any case was not before 75 AD or much later than 100 AD, that is, 45 to 70 years after the death of the Messiah. In other words, if they were writing today, they would be writing about something that happened somewhere between 1910 and 1980!

There was no intention to write the Gospels immediately after Jesus died. The whole point of writing the Gospels at all was that Jesus did not return as quickly as expected and the stories were starting to get confused, sometimes deliberately, as they were verbally passed down year after year.

The original eye-witnesses were dying off, or already dead. Many false oral gospels were springing up in the widely dispersed church. Luke makes this most clear in the preface to his Gospel where he tells us that he is writing it to set the record straight.

Each of the four gospels in the Bible was intended for the Christian community in which the writer resided. There is no evidence that the writer thought that he was writing to the church universal.

Each writer's resources were slightly different. Mark, the earliest written, wrote primarily from the oral tradition, that is, from the verbal stories of Jesus told in his community by its leaders. There is no evidence that he had any written materials to edit, although that is possible.

Matthew, writing quite a bit later, relied heavily on Mark's gospel, often word for word. It is clear that Matthew edited and adapted from Mark. But he wrote a much longer Gospel, adding items from his own tradition, the oral tradition in his community and from other sources.

Matthew also added early Christian "apologetics", in other words, defenses of the faith made by early church leaders against accusations and threats from the Jewish leaders and the Romans. He adds, for instance, scenes about the death of Judas, about Pilate washing his hands of the whole affair, about the dream of Pilate's wife, and he places guards at the tomb.

Both Matthew and Luke seem to have shared ideas from a written source that we no longer have any record of. That source is simply called "Q" for the German word, "quelle" which means "source" in English. We know this because both Matthew and Luke have identical word for word accounts in their Gospels that are unknown to Mark or John. In addition, both Matthew and Luke drew from their own oral, and perhaps partially written, traditions.

John's Gospel is radically different than the others, so different that while the other three are called "synoptic," that is, they can be "viewed together," John's is called simply "the fourth Gospel." There is no evidence that John relied on any of the other three Gospels in the composition of his Gospel, although it is likely that he had access to Mark's and, perhaps, the other two as well.

But John, even more than the other three Gospel writers, was consciously and very intentionally writing a theology of the Christ, and his emphasis is on discerning who Jesus was, what Jesus' relationship to the Father was, and on what Jesus said and tried to teach us as that relates to God's intention for Jesus here on earth.

Jesus' ministry in John is three years long, not one or one and a half as in the other Gospels; three Passover feasts are celebrated during his ministry, not one, and he makes three trips between Galilee and Jerusalem, not one. In fact, in John most of Jesus' ministry is said to be concentrated in Judea and Jerusalem, not in Galilee as in the other Gospels.

The chronology of the trial and crucifixion is quite different as well, including saying that the Friday of the crucifixion was not the Passover, but the day of Preparation for Passover, thus John has no Passover meal in the upper room (which becomes the first Eucharist in the other Gospels), but rather an ordinary supper after which he washes the feet of the disciples and proceeds to make several lengthy speeches to the disciples, speeches the other Gospels know nothing about. And there are many other differences about the last days of Jesus in John's Gospel.

But, as different as these Gospel narratives are, we must be clear about one vitally important truth that people, particularly critics of the Gospels, do not seem to understand. None of the Gospel writers was trying to write history. All were writing documents of faith, kerygma, proclamation, filtered through the eyes of faith. They were writing theology, not history.

History as we know it today, based on careful gathering of the physical facts, was not on the agenda of these writers. History writing as we know it was simply unknown to the writers of the Gospels. They wrote to tell us the Good News of Jesus, not to nail down the precise facts of his life.

Theirs was a labor of love, of revelation, of faith. They were not trying to write a nice text book that could be adopted for use in a college history course. Please try to get that fact into your understanding. It will save you enormous heartburn in the future.

So, where does this leave us? Well, if you believe as I do, that the Bible is not just another book; that it is something more than, say, the writings of Shakespeare, or Plato, or Martin Luther; if you believe that the writers of the Bible were divinely inspired, anointed by the Holy Spirit, as I do, to write what they wrote, then, with me, you must conclude that the differences in the four Gospel accounts of the death of the Messiah were intentional. And the differences will, I believe, never be reconciled by us, or by anyone else.

I believe that God gave us four Gospels, not one, on purpose. And I believe s/he expects us to read all four of them and to learn from them, content to let them be for us what they are: divinely inspired books for educating us about the great mystery that is our God, and about his/her Son, Jesus Christ.

We will, later in this series, explore two of these Gospel accounts in some detail. We will note some of the places where the Gospels do not agree on the details. Where that is the case we will try to see if we can determine why that is, or if it makes any difference at all.

But that will not be, and should not be, the primary focus of this Lenten series. The primary focus will be to allow us to see the Jesus that each writer saw, the Jesus that the Holy Spirit inspired them to write about, the Jesus that we need to know, but, in Philip Yancey's term, who, in fact, may be "the Jesus we never knew".

The next Reflection will spend some time looking at why it is good that we have four different portrayals of the death of the Messiah.

God bless you all.


The Fear of Death Paralyzes Us

First published on Open Salon, MARCH 8, 2010 9:04PM

As a retired pastor one of the fears I have seen in the faithful that at first surprised me was the fear of death.

I think that the fear of death is more prevalent in church going people than they admit, but I do not believe it is a major issue in the lives of the majority of Christians. At the same time I also think that it would be impossible to find out how many practicing Christians fear death as a significant issue in their lives because they assume that if they believe that there is a "heaven" they think that they should never admit any fear of death. Further, people, myself included, change how we feel about death over time.

I wrote about this issue in a post entitled "Bound by Death" on September 24, 2009. If you have not read that essay I urge you to do so because it lays out the fear of death in terms of its theological and psychological hold upon us. It explores Ernest Becker's masterful discussion of this issue in his book, "The Denial of Death," from his non-believing point of view. And it also explores the Christian answer to the issue of death. This post is an extension of those ideas, as applied to my own life.

What that essay does not explore is how a believer can have a strong and hope filled faith and still have doubts, still think about death now and then, and still have those fears invade his thinking in weaker moments. I know that feeling is possible because believers are only human, and believers have doubts about the unknown, just like everyone else. Besides, I have had those feelings.

I am 71 now, with lots of debilitating medical issues that make each day very hard and painful. I am at that point where some days it could be very easy to let doubt ruin my life. So that is where I am in my life journey. But doubt does not hurt my faith like it did when I was younger, and even if I start to feel the chill that comes with thinking about my death I now can turn away from that obsession to something living and hopeful. Let me tell you a little about how I got to this place.

When I was young everybody told me that when I was 40 years old it would be the big slap in the face, but I ran right through 40 without a thought about it. But 50 became my big brick wall. I ran into that wall at full speed, and it knocked me silly. It left me doubting and fearful of death, not death in the abstract, but my own death.

Suddenly at 50 I realized how very mortal I was.. I spent time thinking about how there was no way I could any longer see my life as only half over. It was all downhill from there. And I obsessed about my death. It used to make me shudder and cringe.

This went on even when I was in seminary, and I would lie in bed thinking about it. But it got less and less as time went on. I still think about it from time to time but I am able now to turn my thoughts to other things. And that works now. At 50 it did not.

It would have worked sooner if I knew that I was the one God was expecting to change. I had to learn that for myself because I did not turn to anyone who had been through it. I did not even turn to God about it. It was my big, hidden, shameful secret. How could I really believe my faith was true and yet have those fears?

At 50 I did not really accept the way God made the world. I did not want to accept that death is part of the way God made it. I did not want to believe that I was going to die. Yet dying is part of life. We all do it. I could just not get my head wrapped around that.

Nor could I get my heart wrapped around the idea that God would love me if I had such doubts. Keep in mind that this was during full time seminary for three years. I kept asking myself: "Was I a hypocrite? Was I just one of those Christians who are not planted in solid soil but planted in the stones who would wither away at the first dry spell?" I worried that I was.

Yet if any faithful person is honest with him or her self they will admit that at some point in their lives they all go through fear and doubt. Doubt is part of the human condition. It is built into us. To be human is to doubt. Not just about the hereafter, but about almost every important thing in our lives.

We do not have to be faith based people to doubt. We all doubt ourselves and others, and faith minded people often doubt God. That is the truth that most faith based people fail to tell us, and often even refuse to admit to themselves. But that is the first thing we have to accept. We have to understand that to doubt is to be normal.

We also have to accept that we all will die. It is inevitable, built into the fabric of the cosmos. It will happen. We will die.

So the question is not that people of faith have the doubts that often include the fear of death. The questions are what will we do with those doubts and who will we turn to when we have them?

For a long time the questions I asked myself about my own death paralyzed me. I did not turn to God and ask that they be relieved. I was too embarrassed. Rather, I turned into my fears, wrapped myself in them and suffered. And they just got worse. I thought about death all the time.

I found that my obsession with death was stealing first nights, then whole days, then weeks and months from my life. The very life that I yearned to keep was being stolen from me, and I would lose to death days that could have been filled with life. And I would never get those days back. They were gone.

I was killing myself emotionally, submitting myself to death while my body was still alive. This was not conscious. I was too busy worrying to think about the why of what I was doing, let alone think about what I was doing. I just wanted the emotional pain and the bad thoughts to go away.

But I finally realized that we can't "make" bad thoughts go away. In fact, when we try we make it worse. We can't think about not thinking about something and do anything more than reinforce the very thoughts we want to get rid of.

The only way to make bad thoughts go away is to fill our heads with good thoughts, allowing the good to absorb and overwhelm the bad so there is simply no room in our lives for the bad thoughts. It works. It does not work instantly. But I found out that if we focus on God instead of focusing on ourselves, and if we focus on serving others it can happen.

When we obsess about death we are allowing death to win. I think that is why St. Paul called death the "last enemy" because death can steal our lives from us while we are still alive. I believe that Paul was not just talking about physical death.

He was also talking about the death we bring into our lives by not living them fully. Keep in mind that there was no reason for Paul to bring it up if it were not something that the people in the church he was addressing were concerned about. They were concerned with whether the promises of the resurrection of Christ were true.

So, in addition to asking God to help us push those thoughts of death away with good thoughts, we need to also be asking God to show us the things in our lives that we can do and feel that makes us happy, that give us pleasure. That pleasure can come in loving him and others.

But there is nothing wrong with seeking out things to do and think about that give us pleasure for their own sake. Some people think that if we do that God will think us selfish. And if that is all we do, I would agree. But doing things for our own enjoyment does not take from God. Actually, those things please God, because one of God's great hopes for us is that we will choose to be happy.

I have things that fill my life and still give me pleasure that are not directly connected to what I consciously think of as "pleasing God." Motorcycling has been my great passion all of my life and while I can do far less of it now I still can do some of it. And I look forward to the next ride no matter how short it might be.

When I got this illness and the loss of mobility that confines me to a Lazy Boy most of the time, with guaranteed pain for several hours every day I wake up, and often more than that, I had a crisis again. I was 69. I could not work. Forced retirement for medical reasons is no fun.

And I started thinking that my life was dirt. It happened so suddenly I had no idea what to do with my life. The medical issue consumed me for a while, and I was very worried that it was caused, as it can be, by life threatening diseases. That is still possible but I no longer dwell on that.

So, once again, I had to find things that I could do to help myself and help others. I had to believe that God was not done with me yet. I had to believe that I could still enjoy life and still make a difference in the lives of others.

So, after a few months, I found OS and started writing, researching and learning again. We are never too old to learn. The world is full of things we don't know, wonderful things. And a computer gives us access to so much of that world we never had before.

I became a political junkie as the election kicked into high gear and wrote about politics almost exclusively when I first came to OS. It was immediate and timely and fit my mind set at that point because I could not concentrate on any one thing very long.

And I love to read novels and learned to fill a lot of the winter with that. I upgraded my internet access to cable high speed and joined Netflix so I could watch on the computer movies or TV series that I missed. The streaming of movies is something I enjoy.

And I have learned to throw myself into whatever I am doing. I let them involve my consciousness so there is no room for bad thoughts. And if the bad thoughts try to take over, I concentrate on the good.

Now that it is over a year since my replacement has come to the last church I served I want to begin to reconnect with my friends from the church by phone, listening to their joys and troubles, and when I can, let them know that they are loved.

My medical issues won't let me go to church anymore but I can still care about them and pray for them. I missed doing that and now that our new pastor is firmly established in the position I look forward to doing that again.

All these things seem trivial. But they are not. I am determined to believe my faith and to practice it. It has gotten me through many rough years and through much pain and sadness. It is literally my salvation day to day. And it drives thoughts of death away.

But I have to be an active participant in that. I can't sit back and let my idle brain just fill up with all the fears and self pity I could so easily dwell on. I have to exercise my will power and focus on the good, on living this day the best I can. One day at a time; one hour at a time if necessary. That is how our lives come to us and we need to recognize that fact.

The older I get, and now with this illness, I am finally coming to realize why so many old people that I visited did not feel that panic I felt when I was 50, even as I sat by their bedsides when they were terminally ill and said prayers for them even as they died. They had come to terms with their lives, and, yes, with their death long before I did in my own life. They were looking forward to going home to be in the closer presence of God.

They were still human, still had some doubts. But their faith held and they were willing and ready to take the risk of faith: that what they believed was true. And I am increasingly willing to do that as well. Had anyone asked me 20 years ago if that would ever be possible I would have said "no."

But I know now that our doubts do not in any way affect God's ability to bring us to a beautiful home beyond the bounds of this mortal life, a home so beautiful we cannot even comprehend it. God's promises to us are not changed or even shaken by what we think or what we feel about death. It is what God thinks that counts. And he loves us in spite of our doubts. Paul says that "Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus...." I believe that. I did not always.

In the end, each one of us has to decide: are we willing to give these wonderful days we have now over to death? Is that what life should be about? Are we willing, as I was for a time, to let fear and death steal these days that God has given to us?

Few things in life are easy. Many are incredibly hard. Some, like fear, are literally paralyzing. We have to fight the fear. Fight it by doing things we enjoy. We need to spend time with others. even when we would rather just curl up in bed with our fears. We need to involve ourselves in helping others. Have we forgotten that there are dozens of things we have never done, places we have never seen, people we have neglected who would love to spend time with us?

We need to recognize that no matter how bad it seems, there are millions who have it far, far worse than we do.

The vast majority of old people who have faith fear death very infrequently. They are too busy living to dwell on something that they know is coming and can't do anything about. And those who are completely worn out physically have no desire to stick around in a failing, often pain wracked body when they know that God has something far better awaiting them beyond that portal to our eternal home.

Doubt and fear with always be with us. The key is not that we feel those things, but that we have the faith and hope to overcome them.

Fear of death can lead to paralysis, ruining us, killing us hour by hour, bringing death into our lives, stealing our life long before this physical life is over. I pray we shall resist that temptation with all that is in us. And with God's help we can.

Blessings and Peace,