On Sunday, Christians celebrate Easter, the greatest day in the Christian calendar – yes, more important than Christmas – for this is the day Christians believe Jesus conquered death.
But we will not be able to grasp the full significance of the day if we do not look at the real reason Jesus was executed on Good Friday.
Something happened in the run-up to Good Friday that changed the course of history: Jesus’ collision course with the Temple authorities and the powers that be.
The chief priests had a cosy if slightly uneasy arrangement with the Roman military occupiers of the Holy Land, in which both sides benefited – at the expense of the vast multitude of peasants, farmers, fisherfolk, artisans and the destitute, who broadly made up 90% of the people.
Passover was a sensitive time for the Romans, as this was the religious feast to commemorate national liberation from slavery in Egypt. Unfortunately, the tens if not hundreds of thousands of Passover pilgrims would have been acutely aware that they were still under occupation, this time by the Roman Empire.
The Passover festival was a huge money-making season for the Temple, with religion turned into a business from which traders, money changers, those selling livestock for animal sacrifice, and even the temple authorities profited handsomely. The selling of the livestock had even been moved from the marketplace near the Temple right into the Temple forecourt, turning it into something of a pasar malam or bazaar.
Not only did the peasants have to pay an annual temple tax, they had to pay for the money changers’ profits and the cost of buying a lamb or a dove for animal sacrifice (though they were given some of the meat after the sacrifice). This was on top of a host of other taxes they had to pay at other times of the year. All in, the taxes could amount to 30% – 40% of a peasant’s income. No wonder life was so tough for them.
The Temple itself functioned as a central bank of sorts and even kept debt records of loans extended to those badly in need of funds. Within its vaults, it stored valuables deposited for safe-keeping.
When Jesus entered the Temple premises, he immediately saw through this racket. He must have had ambivalent feelings: although he regarded the Temple as a house of God, he also saw how it had been turned into a “den of thieves”.
In a flash, he overturned the money changers’ tables. (Incidentally, the word bank has its origins from the Italian word banco, which refers to money changers’ tables or benches). In a sense, the money changers were the frontline personnel of the enormous Temple ‘banking institution’.
By overturning the money changers’ tables, Jesus struck at the heart of the cosy collaboration between the chief priests and the Roman occupiers. The contingent of Roman soldiers at the Antonio Fortress at the northern perimeter of the Temple would have spotted the commotion in the crowd. So too the Temple authorities on the opposite side of the Temple forecourt where the money changers had set up shop. From then on, Jesus was a marked man.
Much was at stake. The economic system was an extractive one where the Roman rulers and the religious and economic aristocrats presided over a system of top-down domination.
Wealth was being extracted from the countryside. The peasants grew increasingly impoverished as they lost their land. When they couldn’t afford to repay loans due to poor harvests, their land was confiscated and fell into the hands of wealthy landowners. These landed gentry, who lived lives of luxury and comfort in upper-class towns and cities, consolidated these confiscated lands, turning them into large estates for the cultivation of cash crops for exports across the region.
Meanwhile, many of the independent farmers who once could grow their own food and survive with dignity were now landless and forced to take up jobs as day labourers, casual workers and fisherfolk. But even the fisherfolk had to work in cooperatives to acquire fishing rights from fishing syndicates that operated under the Roman tax collection system.
The less fortunate peasants fell into destitution after losing their lands following a poor harvest.
So who really killed Jesus? In the end, it does not really matter who exactly was responsible – the Temple hierarchy or the Roman rulers – for Jesus’ execution.
The crux of the matter is that Jesus saw that religion and power had been corrupted in the service of selfish profit and wealth for a few. The religious elite meanwhil3 had a fastidious obsession with religious rituals, but the core of the faith – justice and mercy and compassion for the poor and marginalised – had gone AWOL.
And when Jesus tried to make a powerful statement inside the Temple, the die was cast. He was seen as a rebel and had to die at the hands of those helming the machinery of power and profit. And not any kind of death. It had to be death by crucifixion – an excruciating and barbaric penalty – a sentence reserved for rebels and slaves.
But God had the last word. Jesus’ struggle to establish a new “kingdom of God” founded on compassion, love, justice and a preferential option for the poor and the oppressed was vindicated on a glorious Easter dawn.
This is the real meaning of Easter, and it gives hope to all those working for a new, more just world where no one will be left behind or excluded from the banquet of life.