Two Noble Deaths

Texts:

Plato

When he had done speaking, Crito said: And have you any commands for us, Socrates?”

“If you take care of yourselves you will serve me and mine and yourselves, whatever you do, even if you make no promises now; but if you neglect yourselves and are not willing to live following step-by-step, as it were, in the path marked out by our present and past discussions, you will accomplish nothing, no matter how much or how eagerly you promise at the present.” – Phaedo 115b-c

John the Evangelist

Early in the morning, Jesus was taken from Caiaphas’ house to the house of the Roman governor. The clergy did not go inside. They wanted to feel decent and respectable, so they could share the festival meal. So Pilate went outside to meet them. He asked, “What have you got against this man?” They answered, “We wouldn’t have brought him to you unless he were a trouble-maker!” Pilate said, “You had better deal with him according to your own rules!” The clergy replied, “We’re not allowed to carry out the death penalty

Pilate went back inside and ordered Jesus to be put in front of him. He asked Jesus, “Are you the rightful Leader of the Judean people?” Jesus replied, “Was it your idea to ask me that question, or have other people been talking to you about me?” Pilate said, “Not being a Judean I can’t understand what this is all about! Your own people, your appointed leaders have brought you to me. What have you been up to?” Jesus said, “I have responsibility for a different sort of world from the one you hold power in. Otherwise my followers would put up a fight to save me from the hands of our leaders. No, I’m not after your sort of power.” Pilate said, “But you’re some kind of leader, aren’t you?” Jesus said, “That’s your way of putting it. My life’s work has been to make people aware of the truth. People who are interested in the truth listen to me.” Pilate said to Jesus, “Truth, what on earth is that?” – John 18: 28-38, Good as New translation


You will have noticed already that in keeping with the plan of action for this Lent of walking with Jesus through Holy Week, one day at a time on each of the six Sundays of Lent, that we’re starting Palm Sunday with readings about Good Friday.  You will have also noticed that we’re going to read the Palm Sunday story again.  My intent is not to take away Palm Sunday, not to do away with the fanfare and the music of the liturgy for the day, but to hear the liturgy again as though for the first time.  That is a tall order, no doubt.

Nevertheless, my proposal, in presenting Lent this way — is that Jesus’ death is not something God ordained for our salvation, on the contrary, I have suggested, Jesus’ death can only really be understood from the perspective of his life and ministry.  Jesus followed God not to the cross, but life.  For Jesus the experience of God trumped all other claims upon him even if to ignore them meant certain death.  This was so, because the God of Jesus encompassed life itself. To remain loyal to the God of his deepest trusting, was the expression of ultimate freedom — and to get swept up into that loyalty was ultimately transformative.  

Not only do I want you to think of Palm Sunday a bit differently, I hope to dispel some of the gloom associated with Good Friday.  I am not sure that Jesus would look with pleasure on the gloom of Good Friday, and the veneration of the cross.  I offer another tradition, the tradition of the Noble Death as an alternative.

To do this, I’m going to switch things around a bit.  I’m going to start with the reading from Plato, move to the reading from John and we’ll conclude with the hymn, Ride On!  Ride On in Majesty.

II.

First then, let me read a tiny portion of one of the most beautiful bits of philosophical writing that has even been written.  The Phaedo was written by Socrates’ most famous student, Plato.  Philosophy, said one 19th century British philosophy, is all a footnote to Plato.  That’s in part because the form of his writing is wholly adequate to the function — to express a love of wisdom.  Plato’s philosophy is no dry affair — in fact, I remember well the experience of reading the Phaedo for the first time, now perhaps twenty-five years ago.  I remember it because it provoked my tears, not from sadness but from beauty, not from gloom but from nobility.

The idea that a human could be so fine in his or her moral character, so dignified before an unjust sentence and so loving and humble to the very end, was not new to me.  I’d heard a similar story in the death of Jesus.  But it was here for the first time that the positive moral impact of a the death of a single individual made sense. The story of Jesus’ death as the story of God’s requirement of him in order to do justice to the world perverted the moral impact of Jesus’ death for me.

A careful reading of the post-crucifixion texts of Christianity, especially Paul, reveal that it was the life and death of Jesus that held the power. The ideas behind his death were part of a broader tradition circulating from before the time of Socrates known as the Noble Death.

The best example of this time-honored tradition comes from the hand of Plato, writing about his teacher’s death in 450 BC.  Socrates was condemned by the Greek authorities for teaching ideas that were also perceived as seditious.  He spent his time in the public streets and squares telling stories, wondering what the world was like and encouraging his followers to be more conscientious, that is, encouraging them to think for themselves.  Like Jesus, Socrates has devotees and he has enemies, people encouraged by his example, and people frightened by it.  In the end those frightened by him arrest him, and sentence him to death.

Our reading from the Phaedo is the story of his last day.  It is the Good Friday of the Socratic tradition.  As his disciples arrive at the prison on the day of his execution, he is with his wife.  She bursts into tears at the sight of his followers, at the reminder, yet again, of Socrates’ character that invites such good friends and the wrath of authorities alike.  Socrates asks Crito to see to her needs as she is led away with their child in her arms.

The narration tells of long conversations that day.  Socrates discusses how to endure pain and suffering so as to be able to face death.  He talks about the nature of the world, and he teaches that the purpose of philosophy is to prepare oneself to die. Otherwise is to exist is to exist as a struggle.  At the end, the hemlock is delivered, as they knew it would be.  One of his disciples suggests that he need not take it for several more hours, that others have prolonged the taking of the poison even beyond the prescribed final limit.  Socrates responds that to do such a thing would further no good cause.

When he had done speaking, Crito said: And have you any commands for us, Socrates?”

“If you take care of yourselves you will serve me and mine and yourselves, whatever you do, even if you make no promises now; but if you neglect yourselves and are not willing to live following step-by-step, as it were, in the path marked out by our present and past discussions, you will accomplish nothing, no matter how much or how eagerly you promise at the present.” — Phaedo 115b-c

Socrates inquires of his jailer how best to drink the poison.  His jailer explains that it is best to walk around until your legs go numb and then to lie down, whereupon the numbness will steadily climb until it reaches your heart and you will die. His jailer then says, “Socrates, I shall not find fault with you, as I do with others, for being angry and cursing me, when at the behest of the authorities, I tell you to drink the poison. No, I have found you, in all this time, in every way, the noblest and gentlest and best man who has ever come here . . . Now, for you know the message I came to bring you, farewell and try to bear what you must as easily as you can.  Then his jailer bursts into tears and runs out of Socrates’ cell.

The aim is is to live, and not just breathe and take nourishment, but to live nobly, to live the examined life, to follow  “step by step in the path marked out by our present and past conversations,”  to live according to the truth.

III.

The story we tell during Holy Week is a story of peace and integrity in the midst of those who would take the peaceful by force.

In the otherwise great musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, Pontius Pilate comes off as officious, but not really totalitarian.  He’s more like the poor jailer in Plato’s story of Socrates’ death.  This caricature is not historical.   When Pilate’s brief stint a the Roman Precurator of Judea began, he infuriated the local Judeans by hanging images of Augustus Ceasar throughout Jerusalem.  This was a blatant display of power by disregarding the religious prohibition against public images.   Pilate reign ended in 36 because he was dismissed for being too brutal.

So, while Pontius Pilate is usually portrayed as an innocent bystander in the crucifixion, this is likely the result of the very power he wielded such that the story was told that the Jews killed Jesus in order to avoid more trouble with the Roman army.  The translation from the Good as New Bible, at least does justice to the Jews and puts Pilate in his more likely role.

Early in the morning, Jesus was taken from Caiaphas’ house to the house of the Roman governor. The clergy did not go inside. They wanted to feel decent and respectable, so they could share the festival meal. So Pilate went outside to meet them. He asked,

“What have you got against this man?”

They answered, “We wouldn’t have brought him to you unless he were a trouble-maker!” Pilate said,

“You had better deal with him according to your own rules!”

The clergy replied, “We’re not allowed to carry out the death penalty

Pilate went back inside and ordered Jesus to be put in front of him. He asked Jesus,

“Are you the rightful Leader of the Judean people?”

Jesus replied, “Was it your idea to ask me that question, or have other people been talking to you about me?” Pilate said,

“Not being a Judean I can’t understand what this is all about! Your own people, your appointed leaders have brought you to me. What have you been up to?”

Jesus said, “I have responsibility for a different sort of world from the one you hold power in. Otherwise my followers would put up a fight to save me from the hands of our leaders. No, I’m not after your sort of power.” Pilate said,

“But you’re some kind of leader, aren’t you?”

Jesus said, “That’s your way of putting it. My life’s work has been to make people aware of the truth. People who are interested in the truth listen to me.” Pilate said to Jesus,

“Truth, what on earth is that?”

Now, of course, no one was present in that room to have recorded this conversation.  It is a made up — hook, line and sinker.  That fact need not dismay us.

If we remember, as we must anytime we are dealing with scriptures, that the people who wrote the passion narrative, who recorded the story of the last week of Jesus’ life, did not begin with the question, “What really happened?” but with the question, now that Jesus was dead, “Were we right about him?  Were we right to follow him?”  then we are dealing with the text on its own merits and not as someone else might like us to see it.

The writer of the Passion story answered these questions, for himself, with a “Yes!”  He had come to believe that Jesus was not an insurrectionist, that he was not a criminal and that he was a victim.  So this author tells a remarkable, memorable story of Jesus’ last week as one who died true to his convictions.  And in so doing, verified the claim that others had made about him — that he was God’s righteous one.

In a few moments we’ll read from John’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  His, like all of the others features crowds of people waving branches cut from trees by the side of the road and laying down their cloaks for him to ride upon.  And they were shouting – calling him their leader.  Calling him their prophet from God.

IV.

We began Lent, six weeks ago, by asking what Jesus’ journey through the first Holy Week was like.  Was the traditional proposal that Jesus was directed by God into Holy Week to die a saving death for God, credible?  I hope we have seen that it is not, and that it does not address the many shades of the passion narrative that present Jesus as facing a Noble Death — that present him as thinking about and living life not out of fear of death, but even in the face of totalitarian forces, with peace.

The question that faces us, in a culture saturated with violence, in a culture more interested in preserving the wealth of the hard earned dollar, than in providing for our common good through social safety nets, is can we walk the walk to Jerusalem with Jesus, in a living that says No to such cruelties.  Which is of, course, just another way of saying “Yes, of shouting “Hosanna!” of crying “Freedom Now.” It is another way of saying to the church — God acts on the way into Jerusalem, and on the roads into religious and economic and political powers of the day.

This is the large and loving God of the Holy Week. Saying do not hole up your religion to be a merely personal affair — but let truth be truth in the halls of government as well as the great cathedral halls, let truth ring out in Wall Street as much as it must in your home.  Amen.


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