Jesus’ Passion: Our Spiritual Welfare, part 1

The Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the apocryphal texts portray Jesus as an extremely multi-dimensional individual. They show him as concerned about people’s economic welfare, the injustice of the Roman political system, and the corruption of his world’s dominant religious systems. Perhaps above all else though, Jesus is shown to be passionately concerned about humankind’s spiritual welfare.

This time of the year, as the secular world rolls out cute little bunnies (or delicious chocolate bunnies) and Easter eggs, most Christian churches have services that retell the story of Jesus’ last days before his crucifixion. Christians have lots of different ways of interpreting these stories. The majority of them completely miss the point. Few, if any, talk about the passion of Jesus as a story about our spiritual welfare.

In our current era, churches have become sidetracked with a surface reading of “The Passion of the Christ” as literally true stories about Jesus and his last days on earth. We tell stories about the man who suffered at the hands of the Romans, and glorify Jesus the person for withstanding and taking on “the sins of the world.”

As with every story in the Bible though, the stories about Jesus’ last days take on deeper meaning when they are read with the intention of finding the spiritual revelation buried deep within. This is extremely difficult 2000 years removed from the analogy and metaphor the ancient authors took for granted their audiences would understand. We are not an agrarian society steeped in mysticism and mythology, so without an intense amount of research, we miss the metaphorical (and metaphysical) point of these stories.

I don’t think the stories about Jesus’ march to the cross and the events leading to his crucifixion were ever meant as factual history. When we study ancient Rome, it becomes rather hard to believe the Roman Empire was really concerned about a small, unarmed band of zealots running around the desert. There were armed Jewish rebels all over the Judean countryside. Rome had much bigger fish to fry than Jesus.

Similarly, as a historian I find it very difficult to believe that the Jewish leadership of the time had a problem with Jesus. He never preached anything that was remotely non-Jewish (and honestly, other Rabbis wouldn’t have cared if he did). He was, by all accounts both scriptural and extra-biblical, another teacher in another school of Jewish thought, one more interpreter of the meaning of life within a long history and tradition of people who chewed on the meaning of Scripture. Now, Jesus was certainly unhappy with the religious structure of his era, but he was not alone in this. Lots of Jewish people at the time were complaining about the high priestly family, which had essentially become an illegal Jewish monarchy. So Jesus’ complaints about the religious leaders of his day were not grounds for crucifixion, nor were they complaints the Jewish leaders hadn’t heard before—for many generations.

So, if the passion stories are not literally true, what is their point? What is the point of telling a story about Jesus, a spiritual leader, being crucified and resurrected? I think that like almost every other text in the Canonical Bible, the passion stories of Jesus reveal the authors' (and perhaps Jesus’) deep concern for the spiritual wellbeing of humanity. They recognize that something has been corrupted deep within us. The authors of Jesus’ passion stories use the term sin to describe this idea that we have somehow become horribly sidetracked from the true essence of our being. These greedy, selfish, war-loving, intolerant people we see in the mirror are not who we truly are. We have falsely led ourselves to believe this is who we are. So that idea must die—it must be crucified, in fact, because crucifixion is a slow, painful process.

I think the authors of the passion stories understood on a deep spiritual level that spiritual cleansing doesn’t happen overnight. It requires great discipline and mindfulness. It’s painful. We must die to the myth of human selfishness and allow the truth of our spiritual selflessness—a selflessness exemplified in Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross, to completely eradicate ourselves from sin. And yes, it’s our job to do this work, just like Jesus. This work cannot be done for us. The story of Jesus on the cross and resurrected is an analogy meant for every single human being on the planet to take seriously, so that we too can begin this difficult, arduous, often tortuous process of spiritual transformation.

Rise, awake!
Having obtained these boons, understand them!
Like the Razor's sharp edge is difficult to traverse,
The path to one's Self is difficult.
—Katha Upanishad, 1.3.14

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