The Resurrection is depicted in Christ Risen from the Tomb, a painting by Italian Renaissance artist Bergognone. The artwork is from the Samuel H. Kress Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. CNS photo/courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Who is this man?

  • April 17, 2014

Palm Sunday this year began with the fundamental question being asked in Matthew 21: “And when He entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, ‘Who is this?’ ”

In Holy Week everyone from the crowds to Pontius Pilate must answer the question — Who is this?

In the history of Christian apologetics, it has been proposed that there are three answers to that question, given that Jesus unambiguously claims that He is God. Either Jesus is a bad man, lying about who He is, or He is deluded, not understanding reality, or He is, in fact, divine. This argument for the divinity of Christ was most famously summarized by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity.

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God,” wrote Lewis. “That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

Peter Kreeft, using Lewis’s argument, says either Jesus is a liar, a lunatic or the Lord.

Many apologists have pointed out that Mohammed and Confucious and Buddha point to a way. Jesus alone says “I AM the way.” The great figures of Jewish history, Moses and Elijah, taught the truth about God. Jesus alone says “I AM the truth.” Every age has teachers, both secular and sacred, who attempt to guide us to a better life. Jesus alone says, “I AM the life.”

In St. Matthew’s passion, read on Palm Sunday this year, all three options are presented to us in the arrest and the trial before the Sanhedrin.

The first option Jesus offers to those who have come to arrest Him: “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to seize me?”

Is Jesus a fraud, a danger, against which the power of the state must be employed to constrain Him? That view is not rare today.

The second option is presented by two of the witnesses called in the trial before the Sanhedrin: “This man said, ‘I can destroy the temple of God and within three days rebuild it.’ ”

Is Jesus deluded, speaking nonsense? How can He rebuild in three days what thousands of men had worked on for years? Is Jesus simply a fool, and is it foolish to follow Him, a resort to the comforting delusions required by the simple-minded? That view too is not rare today.

The third option is put directly to Jesus by the high priest: “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God, whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “You have said so. But I tell you: From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.’ ”

This high priest immediately understood the reply, that Jesus was applying to Himself the vision of the prophet Daniel, when God Himself comes in glory, appearing as one like a Son of Man.

Is Jesus then who He claims to be: The Eternal Son of God, equal in glory to the Father, as St. Paul’s words teach us, also on Palm Sunday? Is Jesus God? That view, mercifully, is also widely shared today.

That first Holy Week shook all of Jerusalem. This Holy Week is meant to shake us. It is meant to shake us out of the complacency, or apathy, or indifference that can sometimes creep upon us. We are meant to answer the same questions this week that shook all Jerusalem.

The crowd in Jerusalem gave one answer on Palm Sunday and another on Good Friday. Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Jerusalem gave its answer. Now it is our turn to do the same.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life:

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