In his seminal work Jesus of Nazareth, Part 2: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, Pope Benedict XVI (2011) offers a profound analysis of the most important time frame of Jesus’ earthly mission. While Benedict XVI follows on the insights of his first book in avoiding excessively theological narratives, his discourse is nonetheless informed by certain theological concepts that may have great importance for understanding of “historical Jesus” and the notion of ‘kingdom of God’ as the guiding ethical and spiritual principle of the Christendom.
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Benedict XVI’s treatise may be critically compared and indeed contrasted with We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, the seminal oeuvre by Gustavo Gutierrez (1984), a famed proponent of the Latin American liberation theology. While one may argue that Benedict XVI’s allegedly conservative approach to the issue of Jesus’ mission and its relationship with social concerns is totally incompatible with the liberation theology ideas, a further analysis may show that such a notion may be partially contributed to the misunderstanding of Benedict XVI’s theological concepts.
In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI defines ‘kingdom of God’ as basically connected with the idea of “littleness before God that is necessary in order to pass through the ‘eye of the needle’” (Benedict XVI, 2011, p.22). He affirms that Jesus clearly contrasted children’s joyful humility to the arrogance of both “priests and the scribes” and “a rich young man” which are judged unworthy of entering the kingdom of God (2011, p.22). Unsurprisingly, such analysis may find its parallel in Gutierrez’s (1984) emphasis on the parallel between the poor that are found to be the natural heirs of the future kingdom of God, and the community of the believers that exists in perpetual state of “wayfaring that embraces all aspects of life” (Gutierrez, 1984, p.91). However, Benedict XVI’s use of children’s imagery, rather than that of the poor, indicates that his theological concerns are connected more with the notions of individual purity and obedience to God, in contrast with Gutierrez’s emphasis on the role of community in ‘encounter with the Lord’ (Gutierrez, 1984, p.52).
Furthermore, Benedict XVI and Gutierrez are in disagreement on the issue of connection between the notion of ‘kingdom of God’ and any possible political repercussions of this idea. Benedict XVI goes to great length in denying that kingdom of God would have anything to do with “violent revolution” or the possible struggle against foreign rulers or invaders. In his interpretation, ‘kingdom of God’ becomes a synonym for “a new universality in which the world finds God’s peace and is united, beyond borders of any kind” (Benedict XVI, 2011, p.27). The kingdom of God is thus interpreted as being ultimately predicated on Jesus’ “vicarious self-offering” that simultaneously attests to God’s “unconditional readiness to forgive” (Benedict XVI, 2011, p.105).
In contrast, Gutierrez lays the emphasis on the active and conscious search for “encounter with the Lord” (Gutierrez, 1984, p.35). This spiritual journey is characterized as “a passage through a desert; testing and discernment” (1984, p.19). While for Benedict XVI, Jesus’ sacrifice is enough to warrant salvation for all Christians and, ultimately, for all humankind, Gutierrez views salvation as a dynamic process that is predicated upon the willing participation of its human subjects in their drive to fight against “the situation of injustice and marginalization” (Benedict XVI, 2011, p.7) that the world currently finds itself in. Unlike Benedict XVI, for Gutierrez, the story of humanity’s search for salvation is not yet finished; it has barely begun.
However, both authors’ perspectives on the essence of salvation are basically similar. For Benedict XVI, the latter is intertwined with the notion of an expiating mercy of Lord God that is expressed through Jesus’ sacrifice to relief humans from the burden of primordial sin but requires humans’ readiness to face up to this forgiveness’ implications (Benedict XVI, 2011, pp.105-106). For his part, Gutierrez demonstrates his confidence that any collective spiritual efforts on behalf of the faithful are only a reflection of “divine initiative that creates an impact of gratitude” which conditions all good works (Gutierrez, 1984, p.107). In this, the two authors seem to be largely of the same mind.
In the latter part of his book, Benedict XVI focuses on the historical specificity of Jesus’ mission. Here the Pope offers his personal perspectives on such issues as the Feast of Atonement, Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, and his crucifixion and death. Given the utmost importance of these aspects of Jesus’ mission, it is necessary to consider Benedict XVI’s views on these matters.
Benedict XVI regards Jesus’ high-priestly prayer on Day of Atonement as a virtual codification of the totality of Christian doctrine on salvation. In his opinion, the key elements of the latter may be reduced to the upholding of the possibility of eternal life, which Benedict XVI construes as not merely “a life after death” but “as life itself, real life, which can be lived in the present age” (Benedict XVI, 2011, p.78). One may compare this idea with the similar perspective by Gutierrez (1984), the work of whom is permeated with the notion of striving for the experience of eternal life in our times. Furthermore, Benedict XVI points to the inherent connection of this “real life” with the recognition of the existence of God and Jesus Christ’s earthly mission. By “uniting himself [sic] to the immortal”, a human being may transcend its bodily limits in this life, not in the other (Benedict XVI, 2011, p.79).
In analyzing Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin and his subsequent sending to Pilate for ultimate judgment, Benedict XVI emphasizes the utterly politicized response of the Sanhedrin chief priests and the Pharisee scholarly elite in their relation to Jesus and his spiritual movement (2011, p.144). In this interpretation, Jesus’ challenge to the accepted truths with regard to the functioning of the Temple and his messianic message were taken by the Sanhedrin authorities to defy both religious and political foundations of traditional life of the Jewish people. At the same time, the condemnation of Jesus is viewed as ultimately conditioned by Lord God’s will, as both Caiaphas and Pilate are regarded as little more than God’s instruments.
Finally, the event of the Crucifixion is construed as both universal event pertaining to the changes in human history and as a symbolic destruction of the traditional ways of the worship of God, as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Benedict XVI lays specific emphasis on the shattering of the veil between the inner Temple that separated the Holy of the Holies from the mundane world, which is reported by the Gospels to have taken place after Jesus’ Crucifixion (Benedict XVI, 2011, p.175). In his view, this was the very destruction of the Temple that Jesus promised to his followers.
In total, Benedict XVI’s narrative blends of a historical Jesus and Jesus the savior and divine messenger. Through this interpretation, the Pope attempts to extract a more comprehensive understanding of Jesus’ mission that either traditional theologians or critical-historical Bible researchers may have strived to attain.
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