The Ponder Effect | Which character(s) in the passion narrative do I most identify with?
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Which character(s) in the passion narrative do I most identify with?

Every Palm Sunday for 4+ decades I have sat through the reading of the Passion Gospel. Different people act out the different parts, and we the congregation take on the role of the crowd who cries, “Crucify him!” That’s always a particularly painful moment of mirror holding. For years, I have also identified with the disciples who fall asleep when they are supposed to be on a critical night-watch mission for their friend and savior. I would definitely have been snoozing on my shift. But the more times I hear the Passion read, the more characters I begin to notice, and they all start to feel, frighteningly or hearteningly, familiar:

…There is Judas who sees an opportunity for personal gain among the “in crowd” of chief priests. We might ask ourselves: Have I ever turned in, or turned on, a friend to gain favor with others?

…There are the Chief Priests themselves who fear the loss of their own power and hear what they want to hear. Have I ever wanted to take someone else down to preserve my own superiority, perhaps cloaked as righteousness?

…There are the disciples arguing over who is the greatest and then falling asleep while they are supposed to be keeping prayerful vigil. Have I ever fancied myself the best only to slack on a critical job, like prayer or service?

…There is Peter, all talk and no walk. Have I ever talked a big game and then buckled under true pressure?

…There is Pilate, for whom popularity and power are the bottom line. Us, too, ever?

…There is Barrabas, who is guilty of sin and imprisoned. Jesus takes his place, and he is freed. Are we not also the beneficiaries of the ultimate bait and switch this event foreshadows?

…There is the crowd, complicit in Jesus’s arrest and death. Have we ever been swept up in the mentality of the mob and failed to think rightly for ourselves?

…There are the Daughters of Jerusalem who weep for Jesus. Do we, too, weep when we see wrong and feel powerless to stop it?

…There is Simon of Cyrene, who was minding his own business and boom—he was made to carry the cross, which no doubt changed his life. Has this ever happened to you? When?

…There is Criminal 1 who remains nasty and cynical to his death. Have we felt this way?

…There is Criminal 2 who finds hope in the impossible and asks not to be forgotten. Have we ever felt this way?

…There is the Centurion who recognizes the truth and speaks it, maybe too late or maybe not too late at all. Have you ever had an Aha moment with the power to change your whole worldview?

…There is Joseph of Arimathea who refused to go along with what he knew was wrong and did what he could to bring justice and goodness back into the world? Have you been the one good and righteous person amidst a drama of hate?

…And there is, of course, Jesus, who says of all these other people: “Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Are we—am I—remotely capable of this kind of forgiveness?

I love a good self-help book as much as anyone, but literature and scripture are excellent tools for helping us see who we are. The characters we read about are the characters inside us. Who in this story feels most familiar to you for where you are right now in your life? What is there to be learned from that?

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4 Ponderings
  • Anonymous

    April 15, 2019 at 10:34 am

    What is interesting to me is the way that you have broken up these characters is that only 2 made active choices to do the right thing: Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus. The rest were passively doing good or on the wrong side of Christianity as we know it. So then I think about the 2 “good” choices or role models here. Jesus has this capacity of love and forgiveness that we can all aspire to but we cannot achieve. Joseph on the other hand acts in a way that we as human beings can relate to. We can do the right thing and stand up for what we believe in. How do we become Joseph? First we have to know who we are and what we believe. Second we have to have the courage and conviction to stand up. These are hard things. The good news is that we all have the capacity.

  • Anonymous

    April 15, 2019 at 12:19 pm

    Your break down of the people in a story that we have read or studied numerous times really made me think about making choices under pressure and what makes people have flexible ethics. I read one of the commenter’s thoughts about the only two people who made the right choices as well. Very astute. Joseph of Arimathea, who unlike Jesus, is human is really the only one who ACTIVELY chooses well. (Daughters of Jerusalem and Criminal # 2 were passive in the story, but honored Jesus.) While we may not choose the worst course of action, like Judas, inaction also is a choice no matter what our motives. How do you make sure when you are under pressure, you become a diamond and not just remain a lump of coal? I think it is important to be clear about what your “absolutes” are in life so that you make a choice that is in keeping with who you are (and want to be). I am in awe of those that live their convictions no matter what the pressure (internal or external) – like the Mennonites that cared for the family of the man who shot their children or the Non-Jewish Danes (including their King) who wore the Star of David during WW2 to protect and show solidarity for their Jewish citizen. I think the only way to not flex your ethics is to decide where you stand and then plant your feet. (Paraphrase of a famous quote by Abraham Lincoln – who freed the slaves in our country despite public opposition to doing so and was eventually murdered for that choice.)

  • Anonymous

    April 19, 2019 at 7:37 am

    I have been thinking about this question all week: it has really helped me engage with the events of Holy Week in a new way. I can relate to Simon so well. He is strong in Spirit but weak in flesh. I hate to admit it to myself, but I am sure I would have denied Christ, too, no matter how much I may have promised–and believed–that I wouldn’t. I also relate to the women who watch and weep. Every day, I feel like watching and weeping. It is a position of powerlessness but it is also one of compassion. Weeping itself is action. Mary Magdalene isn’t included here, but she is an important figure. She tends to the body of Christ. Somtimes I do, most of the time I don’t.

  • Anonymous

    April 20, 2019 at 7:12 pm

    I have been thinking about this question each day as I has been reading through the prayer book for Holy Week. While I could and do see myself in many of the people surrounding Jesus, I would be part of the crowd calling “Crucify Him,” I would have been judgmental, forgetting once again that there could be things I didn’t know or things I didn’t understand. So, no doubt, I would have been swept along joining the voices of all those who didn’t know the whole story either.
    As for being able to forgive as Jesus did and does, I can’t even imagine such selflessness. I can hardly get over a minor hurt and even when I think I have truly forgiven it pops back up again in my words or attitude or actions. His forgiveness flows from His inestimable love.