The most macabre way we track our citizens is through the death certificate. If you die in the developed world today, your death is documented on a single piece of one-sided paper. It lists your legal name, gender, social security number, last known address, where the death occurred, who pronounced the death, and most importantly, the cause of death. The cause of death is the whole point of the death certificate; it’s the information that the public health system wants so they can figure out how to best allocate research and resources toward the diseases that are affecting the greatest number of people. When governments started tracking deaths like this, back in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were about 80 generally recognized causes of death, although many of them would look a bit odd to us today. In her article, Schultz writes that “you could die of Cramp, Itch, or Lethargy. You could be carried off by Cut of the Stone, or King’s Evil, or Planet-struck, or Rising of the Lights. You could succumb to Overjoy, which sounds like a decent way to go, or be Devoured by Lice, which does not. You could die of, basically, death, either “Suddenly”, “Killed by several Accidents,” or “Found dead in the Streets.”
Today, things are bit more scientific and a lot more complicated. The World Health Organization maintains the list of possible causes of death, known as the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, or the ICD-10. The ICD-10 comes in three forest-green volumes, can be purchased for $562.82 through Barnes & Noble, and runs to twenty-two hundred pages. It lists some eight thousand officially sanctioned ways to die. Unfortunately, this makes the death certificate fantastically difficult to fill out, so there are some two hundred and fifty pages of instructions dedicated to explaining to physicians, most often young interns or residents to whom this bureaucratic task falls, how to account for the cause of death. And the death certificate doesn’t list just one cause. Rather, there’s an immediate cause on the top line, due to another underlying cause on the line below, and so on, with four lines that need to be filled out. So, for example, the immediate cause of death might be the rupture of the lining surrounding the heart, brought on by a heart attack, caused by a clot in an artery around the heart, with the underlying cause of death being heart disease.
All of that information, if correctly documented, provides a sort of explanation for a death, but it also leaves a lot of critical information out, such as the person’s two-pack a day smoking habit, or that they were extraordinarily depressed due to the recent death of a spouse, or refused to take medication prescribed for their condition. Unfortunately, this document which is crucial to proving to banks and various government agencies that the person is actually dead, and which helps drive public health spending in this country, fails to get at the true underlying cause of death as much as 50% of the time.
I doubt whether the editors of The New Yorker planned it this way, but this article about death certificates coming out just before Holy Week got me to thinking about what some young resident or coroner might have written on Jesus’s death certificate. Crucifixion was a brutal method of execution practiced throughout the Roman empire. The condemned was nailed or tied to the cross, and hung up in a public place as a warning to others. Often the victim was tortured beforehand. In Jesus’s case, he was flogged, whipped with bands of leather embedded with sharp glass or metal objects that tore at his flesh. The victim could hang on the cross for days, or could succumb in a few hours. Most often, the immediate cause of death was probably asphyxiation, because the victim would have to hoist themselves up in order to breathe, and would eventually become too exhausted to do so. Others probably bled to death from their wounds, or their heart gave out, or they went into shock, or they died of dehydration.
However it happened in Jesus’s case, he died of severe trauma to his body. But to go to the next line, the underlying cause of death, to dig deeper into the behaviors and factors in his life that led him to the cross, I think we have to look at the two readings from Matthew’s gospel that we hear today, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem we heard a moment ago, and the long and painful account of his passion, his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, which we’ll hear in a moment. We hear both of these very different stories today, jammed up right next to each other, because I think they are intertwined. This Sunday can give us a bit of spiritual whiplash, with our joyful cries of “Hosanna” just minutes later becoming bloodthirsty cries of “Crucify him.” That whiplash can give us some critical insight into why Jesus died and what his death means for us today.
Jesus spends most of his ministry out in the country, in Galilee north of Jerusalem. When he decides to go to Jerusalem, the capital city, the home of the temple and the religious authorities and the place where the Roman governor Pontius Pilate lives and where most of the Roman army is located, he tells a couple of his disciples to go get a donkey for him to ride in on. News of Jesus has reached the city, and everyone wants to see this man who heals people and preaches about the kingdom of God. There is a festive atmosphere in the air because it’s almost Passover, and Jerusalem is filled with visitors from the country side. The Roman soldiers are on alert for any kind of trouble, and the religious authorities who try and keep the peace so that the Romans don’t have an excuse to crackdown are anxious that things don’t get out of hand. Neither the Romans nor the religious authorities are thrilled about this crowd shouting “Hosanna!” about Jesus, because they know how quickly crowds can get out of hand. The smart thing, the prudent thing, for Jesus to do would be to keep a low profile, but instead, he walks around the city preaching and teaching and criticizing the religious authorities. He does this because the kingdom of God will not wait for a safe time; it is not cautious, it is not prudent, it is not careful. This week there was a three-day civil rights summit at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, TX. Johnson of course is most often remembered for his record in Vietnam, a black mark which has overshadowed his landmark accomplishments in civil rights, his work to get voting rights and comprehensive civil rights bills passed through Congress. Shortly after becoming president after Kennedy was assassinated, LBJ spoke to congress and told them that passage of a comprehensive civil rights bill was a fitting and proper tribute to Kennedy’s memory. Most of his advisors urged caution, warning Johnson that civil rights, however worthy it might be, was a lost cause, and that he should go slowly. Johnson responded, and I’m paraphrasing, “Then what in the world is the presidency for?” Jesus knew that convincing the world to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself, was a lost cause, but that didn’t slow him down or make him play it safe. He spoke out for what he knew was important and for what he knew was right, and it got him killed.
The crowds who are so enthusiastic when Jesus enters Jerusalem show up again when he is taken before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. The festival is at its height now, and tensions are running high. Pilate couldn’t care less who Jesus says he is, what he’s been preaching about over the last few years, couldn’t care less what he’s done that has so enraged the religious authorities. As was the custom at the festival, he’d been planning to release a prisoner, Barabbas, a bandit who’d been annoying the Roman army but was pretty popular with the crowds. But crowds are fickle; crowds are dangerous. The chief priests know just the things to say, just the rumors to spread, just the way to get the crowd riled up and to demand that Jesus be crucified. Who knows how they did it, it seems incredible, hard to believe that they could be so easily manipulated. Twenty years ago this week, on April 7, 1994, members of the core political elite in Rwanda known as the akazu instigated a genocidal mass slaughter of Rwandan citizens known as Tutsis. They convinced tens of thousands soldiers, police, and civilians to arm themselves with machetes and clubs to maim and kill their Tutsi neighbors. In a hundred days, nearly one million Tutsis were killed, often by people they had known well and lived next to peacefully for years. Who can explain how that happened? Who can explain the Holocaust, or the genocides in Cambodia or Armenia, or the lynchings by the KKK, or the wartime atrocities around the world? As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” There were good people in all those crowds gone bad, in every crowd that becomes a mob, but they either got swept up in the furor or they were afraid to speak up or their voices were drowned out or they figured everyone else was doing it so why not them. Mob mentality makes it possible to do the impossible, the unthinkable, the awful thing. Mob mentality got Jesus killed.
I can’t help but think that in addition to the physical injuries he received at the hands of the Romans that Jesus suffered from emotional and spiritual injuries he received at the hands of his friends. There’s Peter and the two sons of Zebedee who couldn’t keep their eyes open in the garden and keep Jesus company as he waited for the inevitable. There;s Judas, who betrays him with a kiss, a gesture of friendship. There’s Peter who denied even knowing him when it got too dangerous. None of his disciples were around to help carry his cross, so a stranger, Simon of Cyrene had to be pressed into service. And Jesus was left alone on the cross, surrounded by criminals and the mocking soldiers and bystanders. It would be easy if we could just point the finger of blame at Peter and Judas and the disciples, accuse them of character flaws and cowardice, but it’s not that easy. Craig Barnes, a Presbyterian preacher, reminds us that the Judas chromosome, and by extension, the Peter chromosome, the disciples’ chromosomes, run deep in all of us: we’re still betraying and denying and abandoning Jesus today. We betray him by deciding where we stand when the weak speak the truth to the powerful, by keeping our mouths shut while others are bullied or discriminated against. We deny him by closing our eyes and ears to those in need in our community and around the world. We betray him by failing to speak the truth about our world, and failing to recognize the truth about ourselves. We abandon him by slipping away in the dark, by running from things that are too painful to witness. In some ways, Jesus died of a broken heart, broken because of the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the abandonment of the disciples; broken because we’re still doing the same things, centuries later.
Holy Week is a hard journey. It’s hard because we’re called to witness the suffering and death of Jesus, and it’s hard because we’re called to acknowledge our own complicity in it. Let us not be afraid to face up to the truths that Holy Week speaks. Let us be reminded that the triumph of good over evil requires our willingness to put ourselves on the line. Let us not abandon ourselves or each other in the dark journey this week, or in any of the dark times that may lie ahead.