Jesus, and every other devout Jew, was in Jerusalem for Passover. Jerusalem was a prosperous, cosmopolitan metropolis and the lavishly restored Temple was a world-renowned wonder. Jews were obligated to make sacrifices at the Temple during the festivals of Passover, Succoth, and Shavouth. The population of Jerusalem swelled to an additional 100,000 to 250,000 during these religious festivals.
While many pilgrims camped on the hillsides of Bethany and Bethphage, Jesus always stayed with his very close friends who lived in Bethany. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (yes, of raised from the dead fame) were siblings that were early followers of Jesus. Their home became a place where he could rest and be refreshed after long days with crowds.
Jesus was popular…or not…everywhere he went. He drew crowds wherever he went. His message of a God who cared, illustrating theological principles through stories got through when rules and laws seemed remote, and just being among them spoke to people’s hearts. Many of the pilgrims in Jerusalem for Passover were seeking him out as it might be the only opportunity they had to hear and be in the presence of this man whose fame had spread throughout the region.
No doubt Jesus knew the authorities were keeping a close watch on him. John, who was with Jesus later wrote this:
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.
So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death (John 11:45-53).
Most of us have some inkling of how miserable it is when people are after us. Maybe it’s a boss or colleague at work. Maybe it’s someone in your family! There are brothers and sisters all around the world whose lives are in daily danger because of their convictions that are threatening to those in power. The Arab Spring wasn’t anything new.
John added this:
Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him (John 11:55-57).
I think we can pretty much guess what the topic of conversation was at Martha, Mary, and Lazarus’ dinner table! News would have been brought back from anyone who ventured into Jerusalem. Jesus’ friends would want to protect him and there was probably no shortage of advice.
But what was Jesus thinking? How did he cope with the stress knowing he was being hunted and that the leaders of his own faith wanted him dead? What about the stress of those around him? How did he deal with that? What’s his responsibility to those truly seeking him out? His own obligations for Passover against the backdrop of the unrest being stirred up against him?
Suffering comes in many ways and often we’re not fully aware of how we are impacted by peripheral events and people in our lives. If it’s something concrete that we can easily identify, we have a head start. But what if it’s illusive and you’re not sure where it’s coming from or what it is? Then what? Who are your Martha, Mary, and Lazarus?