Jesus, at the moment of the Triumphal Entry, appears to be about to win the Game of Worldly Success. The Prophet rides into the Big City to thunderous applause. “From Humble Manger to National Religious Leader” scream the headlines in the Palm Sunday edition of the Jerusalem Herald. The Galilean is a sensation! Rumor has it he’s healed the sick, walked on water and even raised the dead! God himself smiles on him. Not only that, the crowds are wild for him. Polls indicate he is among the Most Admired Jews for the week of April 3, 30 AD. By general consensus, he is already being hailed as the Son of David. A word from him in this atmosphere and he could muster an army (and who knows what sort of exciting supernatural phenomena). The Romans would be out and a new Davidic Golden Age upon us. Jerusalem is on tip-toe waiting to see how this will play out.
But Jesus blows his chance to Win the Game. He is rude to Top People in the Jerusalem intelligentsia. He trashes the nice little shopping mall in the Temple Court. Even worse, he appears to be making nice with Roman centurions, as well as painted ladies and weasely tax collectors. And in the middle of it all, he utters some spooky mumbo-jumbo about destroying the Temple in three days and raising it up again.
By mid-week, polling results show a distinct drop in numbers for the Galilean and Leading Spokesmen for the Jerusalem establishment are decrying “extremism” from “certain so-called prophets”. Some pundits are wondering aloud about the Nazarene’s sanity. Meanwhile, Jesus’ “support base” begins to break down and a certain Judas Iscariot goes to the Authorities with an offer to help them “deal” with this threat to regional stability.
From there, collapse happens with breathtaking speed. Jesus is betrayed and arrested on vague charges of being a public nuisance. Friends either stab him in the back, run off into the night or chicken out lest they be exposed as his acquaintances. One by one, every escape hatch is closed, sometimes by malice, sometimes by Jesus’ own mysterious disregard for the political delicacies of the situation and sometimes by what appears to be exasperatingly bad luck. Witnesses use his remark about destroying the Temple against him, but there is some confusion about the accuracy of their testimony. So Caiaphas gives Jesus the chance to disavow it all and go back to the carpenter’s shop. He instead reiterates his messianic claim and ups the ante by acting as though they are responsible for a rather serious injustice (not a sharp political move).
Pilate looks for an out too, but receives no help from Jesus who seems to be agreeing with the charge that he is some sort of rival King in competition with Caesar. Pilate’s superstitious fears of Jesus (inflamed by his wife’s creepy dreams about this strange preacher) look as though they might get Jesus off the hook, but this goes sour when Pilate’s appeal to the Wisdom of the Voters results in Barabbas’ polling numbers shooting above those of the star-fallen Messiah.
And so, five days after being lionized as the Son of David, an improbable complex of events and personalities (who look worrisomely contemporary) winds up voting a two-bit hood the Most Fascinating Person of April 8, 30 AD and crucifying the Son of God.
But Jesus, “though he was in the form of God,/did not regard equality with God something to be grasped./Rather, he emptied himself,/taking the form of a slave,/coming in human likeness;/and found human in appearance,/he humbled himself,/becoming obedient to death,/even death on a cross.” In other words: Christ betrayed, denied, seemingly outmaneuvered and crucified was not the Loser of the Game. More wonderful still, Jesus was not the Winner of the Game. Rather, Jesus ended the Game of self-seeking strategy and conniving. So far from running to save his skin, he ran to save ours and enfleshed the words of Isaiah: “I gave my back to those who beat me,/my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;/My face I did not shield/from buffets and spitting.”
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.