I’m Martha. I’m the prodigal’s big brother. I’m James shooing the chaotic children so Rabbi Jesus can get on with business, an early-hired vineyard worker, Zechariah. Some days I feel like there’s no room in the Gospels for first-borns. I feel the resistance of the indignant dinner guests appalled at the waste of $50,000— all that bread and medicine— seeping into the dusty floor.
Jesus praising Mary’s stillness over Martha’s industry or celebrating the irresponsible brother’s return has never been a relief to me. On my worse days I resent it, on my worst days I judge the Rabbi for his indulgence and award myself extra crowns for how little need I have for a savior.
There’s always been a place in Jesus’ tribe for sinners—prostitutes like Mary Magdalene, abortion clinic bombers like Simon the Zealot, AIDS patients like the lepers, Wall Street bankers like Matthew. But I empathize with rule-followers, reputation-minders, tradition-keepers and work-within-the-system folk. I won’t defend them, but my sympathies often bend toward the Pharisees. Jesus calls them snakes, accuses them of rotting on the inside. Their cruelty and blindness incite me, but there’s something familiar about educated, rational organizers spending their days debating the finest points of a text.
Being bookish, finding my way into the redemption story is partly about finding my place in the text. My nature is to ask Where am I in this story? but that’s also the nature of these particular stories. Much of Middle Eastern storytelling—particularly ancient, Jewish literature—assumes meaning in the text comes of listeners projecting themselves into the narrative. David B. Gowler notes that in many Jewish texts “the response of the reader or hearer is essential to the process of creating understanding.” When it comes to scripture, finding my place in the story is as much about honoring the text as about honoring my nature.
For decades, my inability to find a place in the Easter story has further complicated Good Friday. I hate Good Friday—but not for the reasons I should. I should hate Good Friday because “it was my sin that held him there” and because it proves we kill goodness even when it lives among us. I recognize myself in the mocking, betrayal, powerlessness, abandonment, anger, denial, abuse, blame, violence, apathy and cynicism of the crucifixion’s characters, but that recognition is symbolic; I identify with the trait—with Mary’s feeling, with the soldier’s action, with Peter’s impulse —but I don’t identify with the character. I’m certainly capable of denial (and have done so), but I’m not a Peter—it’s not who I am in the story. I hate Good Friday because the only place for me in the story is with the Pharisees. But the Pharisees are outside the story of redemption.
This year’s Good Friday service continued my frustration. In annual analogy, the pastor challenged us to imagine Jesus’ experience on the cross—the physical torture, the spiritual darkness. Spiritual darkness has never been particularly difficult for me to imagine and the wars of my lifetime alone affirm how capable the human body is of receiving pain. Receiving pain and being subjected to darkness hardly require divinity or supernatural love—we do it all the time. Imagining the Father’s position only added fury: in what reality is willing abandonment and death on your child a picture of love? Why would I ever want to join that family?
Then the pastor said something as obvious and grounding as a slap: “Good Friday isn’t just about the second person of the Trinity—all of God was involved in the nightmare of Calvary. There is no greater depth of unnatural pain that they could have experienced: it was completely against their eternal nature to be separated from each other. Jesus, eternally united in perfect love with the Father, who had from eternity never experienced one nanosecond of disunity, now experienced separation.”
There was a pain—and a love—I could understand. How much would I have to love someone to endure, for their sake, being separated from my child? How much would I have to love them to balance my suffering? How much would I have to love them to balance the suffering of my child? Almost more than I can imagine—but I can imagine it.
But I still can’t imagine being Peter, or John, or Judas: I wouldn’t have been one of Jesus’ disciples in the first place. I wouldn’t have been pure-hearted enough to be chosen as Jesus’ mother, I wouldn’t have been passionate enough to abandon my job to follow a traveling teacher, I wouldn’t have been political enough to be Pilot, or wealthy enough to donate a tomb, or desensitized enough to gamble for the dead man’s clothes. I would have been following the law—the Roman law, the temple law— keeping my mouth shut, and avoiding the scene all together. When the earth started rumbling and the sky went dark, I would have noticed, but I would have gone where any tradition-honoring Jew would go: to the temple. To do what any fearful human would have done: to pray.
Being there, I would have seen the temple curtain tear. Someone witnessed that. Someone had to see it.
Whoever saw it wasn’t strong enough to watch the death, wasn’t fearful enough to hide, wasn’t political enough to riot, wasn’t cruel enough to celebrate, wasn’t loud enough to be noticed, wasn’t remorseful enough to be hanging, wasn’t selfless enough to be comforting. Whoever saw the curtain tear didn’t have a place at the cross. But they had a place. And while it’s not a place at the cross, it is a place in the story of redemption.