Opening the Word: Questions and answers

When hearing a passage as dramatic as today’s Gospel, what do you focus on? The answers depend on several factors, some of which are unique to each reader. The beauty of sacred Scripture is that it reveals greater depths and poses new challenges every time we hear it with faith and humility.

Re-reading today’s Gospel, I was drawn to certain questions asked by three people: Judas as he betrays; Jesus as he prays; Pilate as he strategizes; and Jesus again as he gives up his spirit on the cross. These four questions are simple and surprising; the answers are both direct and confounding.

“What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” Judas finally realized he could not shape Jesus into his own image, and so he decided he would rather do away with Jesus altogether. And, really, what other options are there? It brings to mind the quote by Pope Francis in his first papal homily: “He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.” It is also true that those who refuse to walk with the Lord will walk with the devil. Judas, wrote St. John Chrysostom, “did the devil’s deed.” Anyone who tries to manipulate Christ only breaks himself on the rock of salvation, having refused that very foundation of mercy (cf. Mt 27:3-10).

“So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?” Jesus asked the disciples as they drifted off to sleep in the garden. “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?” He urged them to “watch and pray” so they would “not undergo the test.” What test? Ultimately, the test of faith. If they could not stay awake with Jesus during the darkest hour, what would it reveal of their resolve and fortitude? “The spirit is willing,” Jesus said, “but the flesh is weak.” Judas had succumbed to the flesh, to his passion for power. Would the others do better? Peter soon denied Jesus and the others would disappear in the darkness of the world, bewildered and shattered.

Pilate had asked Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” However, a later question reveals that Pilate was not a philosopher but was, like Judas, given over to his own ambitions: “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Christ?” Pilate was a practical politician, constantly seeking an edge and then an easy out. He conversed with the incarnate Word, declared him innocent and then gave him over to be executed. “I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood,” he told the roiling crowd. No one, however, is innocent of the blood of Christ. We cannot wash our hands of his blood; rather, we must be cleansed by being washed in his blood (cf. Rv 7:14).

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words have perplexed many, and understandably so. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “God is forsaken by God because of man’s godlessness.” It is a mystery, for the Incarnation escapes our comprehension. Yet Jesus cited the beginning of Psalm 22 to draw attention to David’s lament as a righteous man unjustly persecuted. That psalm concludes, “And I will live for the Lord; my descendants will serve you.” Jesus, in fact, spoke on behalf of sinful mankind — not as a sinner, but as a perfect man condemned. Having thus established Jesus in solidarity with sinners, God “did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all,’ so that we might be ‘reconciled to God by the death of his son’” (CCC Nos. 603, 2572).

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report.