Jesus didn’t have to die.
Until I stood there in the Garden of Gethsemane and looked across the narrow valley to the Temple Mount, I didn’t understand the strategic location of Jesus’ choice. Our guide pointed up the Mount of Olives.
“That’s a ten-minute walk to freedom, right there,” he said. “Where you are standing is like the county line. Jesus could have gone over the mountain and been out of the jurisdiction of the Temple Police.”
The rest of that week 2000 years ago, Jesus had been overnighting in Bethany, just outside the grasp of the Jerusalem elite. They dared not arrest him during the day, because they feared a riot, and with a riot, a Roman crackdown.
So when Jesus chose to wait in the garden after dark, it was deliberate. He was far enough outside the city that there wouldn’t be trouble, but not so far that he couldn’t be arrested.
I can hear the edge in his voice when he addresses the lynch mob indignantly. He sees the clubs and swords in their hands. “Really? Now you bring night sticks with you, as though I were a bandit? Day after day I’ve been teaching in public and you haven’t had the guts to arrest me “(Matthew 14:48-49). He resists calling them cowards. He picked this spot to avoid violence. He’s incensed that they came to instigate it.
Some people speculate that maybe he and Judas had arranged it together. I don’t buy that completely, but it’s clear Jesus chose his prayer spot deliberately. He stood at the edge of town where nobody would get hurt and said, “Come and get me.” When they showed up in riot gear, hoping that his disciples would start something—some things never change—he pointed out their bad faith. He knew the stakes. He wanted to protect innocent lives. He did not want a single one of his followers to be lost, or even his enemies to be hurt. In spite of his careful preparations, in that moment when one of his followers pulled out a weapon, everything could have been lost. It all depended on his commitment to nonviolence being absolutely clear. He choose the time and place for the maximum effect and the minimum harm.
I don’t know what you believe about Jesus. I don’t know if you believe he had supernatural powers, or that he was the Son of God, or that he rose from the dead on Sunday. But this is what I want you to know today, on this Maundy Thursday:
He gave himself up.
He could have chosen escape. He could have chosen violence. But he chose to confront religious and political violence with nothing but his voice and his body.
Whether you believe in God or not, I want you to understand what I understood, standing there in that place. If there is a God worth worshiping, this is what God looks like.