Last week, we read about Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin council. He was found worthy of death for speech the high priest, Caiaphas, found to be blasphemy. Today, the text follows the story from the house of Caiaphas to Jesus’ judgment before the governor, Pontius Pilate. It seems a long time ago that Jesus celebrated the Passover with His Disciples, but it has just been one long night.
Jesus was moved from Caiaphas’ home to the palace where the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, usually stayed when he was in Jerusalem. We should remember that Caiaphas was the high priest of the Temple but he was also appointed by the Roman governor. By changing the venue of Jesus’ judgment, the matter becomes a political one; whereas, in Caiaphas’ home it could have been believed to be a religious one. Still, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin were trying Jesus because He seemed to be a zealot ready to cause unrest. Any unrest coming from a man who preached in the Temple could threaten the Temple’s right to religious freedom. Either in front of the Sanhedrin or in front of the governor, Jesus was being tried for the political act of treason.
Jesus was moved to Pilate for judgment, because the Jews didn’t have the authority to execute someone. Only the Roman governor had that authority. The Sanhedrin could deem Him worthy of death, but only Pilate could officially hand down that judgment. Pilate needed to discern whether this was a religious squabble or a legitimate political matter. If Jesus was being charged with treason, that was a matter worthy of Pilate’s attention.
To begin the interrogation, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replies with the same reply He gave to Caiaphas when He was asked the question. “You have said so.” Caiaphas, the chief priests and the elders voiced their accusations to Pilate, but Jesus didn’t respond. Pilate reminded Jesus of the serious accusations being made against Him. He didn’t defend Himself. He didn’t make accusations of the Temple leaders. He remained silent having the courage to face His judgment. There were no witnesses, only His testimony, and He remained stoic. Pilate was amazed by His silence expecting Jesus to defend Himself or plea for mercy. Jesus remained unwavering and stood strong in His faith and trust in God.
Pilate decides it is time to release a prisoner as was custom in the festival. The Bible says it was a custom, but many wonder if it was so. Why would the Roman governor release a prisoner found to be guilty of crimes against the Roman empire when there were so many Jews in Jerusalem for the Passover festival? It does seem an odd practice (The Last Week, Borg and Crosson, p. 2172.). But, the Bible says so.
Pilate offered the choice between 2 prisoners, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah. Jesus Barabbas was a noted rebel imprisoned for insurrection (The Last Week, Borg and Crosson, p. 2172.). Both men were named Jesus. Jesus from the “Hebrew name Joshua, which means ‘God saves.’” If both men are a reminder that God saves, the choice is between violence and nonviolence. The crowd must make a choice. Barabbas offered the way of violence in attempting to overthrow the Roman empire. Jesus the Messiah offered the nonviolent way to the Kingdom of God. Will they choose violence or nonviolence? Will they choose the Kingdom of Israel or the Kingdom of God?
Pilate’s wife interrupts the scene to make known to her husband that she has been troubled about this trial. She knows Jesus is innocent and means to persuade her husband to let Jesus the Messiah go free. “Christian tradition gives Pilate’s wife the name Claudia Procula and eventually gives her the status of saint for her attempt in saving Jesus from death.”
The temple leaders have stirred up the crowd to ask for Barabbas instead of Jesus the Messiah. Pilate asks, “which one do you want me to release?” The crowd incited against Jesus yells the answer, “Barabbas.” Pilate asks the crowd, “so what would you have me do with Jesus?” The crowd responds, “Crucify Him!” I suspect it was difficult to read those words in our responsive reading of the Scripture. I meant it to be a call for reflection about what we would do if in that crowd. Do we believe our sin is any less than that of the crowd asking for Jesus’ crucifixion?
Pilate gives the okay for Jesus to be crucified, but not before washing his hands of His blood which the crowd willingly takes upon themselves. Pilate resolves that he can do nothing but give into the crowd. I suspect that he didn’t want to release Jesus and wanted to keep Barabbas, but he couldn’t do that without further inciting the crowd and risking a riot. So, he gives in to the crowds command. This is yet another odd moment in this story. It seems absurd that the Roman governor would succeed his power to the unrelenting crowds. It seems absurd that he would release a man who had been found guilty of treason over a man that he presumed innocent. Pilate was the one with the power, but he easily gives it over to the crowd.
We began Lent with the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. There were 2 parades in town. In one parade, Pontius Pilate is preceded by the imperial calvary and soldiers. The whole production represented the Roman empire’s oppressive rule over Jerusalem. It was meant to remind the Jews gathered for Passover that there was an army of Romans to ensure that their festival remained peaceful. The Temple leadership and the aristocratic Jews would have gathered for this parade to pay homage to the Roman empire that allowed them to maintain their wealth and prominent roles.
The other parade was for the peasants and King Jesus rode in on a donkey. The crowd chanted, “Save us! Blessed is the Son of David! Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord!” Jesus’ parade was a political protest against the Roman empire and Temple leadership showing that He was going to introduce a new social order. Jesus came to Jerusalem to confront the powers of the Temple and Rome that exploited the peasants.
Jesus’ proposed new social order has not been well received by the chief priest, scribes and elders. Jesus is suffering the consequences of His protest. The Temple leaders have arrested Him, found Him worthy of death, and beaten Him. The Temple will not accept Jesus and His coming Kingdom of God, because His continued presence could threaten their religious freedom and prominent roles in Roman Jerusalem.
The Palms at the beginning of service this morning and the Scripture we read today remind us of the full journey we have taken through Jerusalem during Lent. We have placed ourselves in each text through Lent. We have imagined ourselves standing in the crowds cheering on Jesus as He enters Jerusalem. We have imagined ourselves gathered around a table with Jesus the last time He celebrated the Passover with the Disciples. We have imagined ourselves singing hymns and praying with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. We have imagined what the Disciples felt as they were disappointed that Jesus was not going to fulfill their expectations and Jesus’ disappointment in His Disciples as they betrayed Him and fled. We have imagined ourselves hidden in the crowd gathered in Caiaphas’ house watching Jesus beaten. Now, we have to imagine ourselves in this crowd gathered before Pilate in the palace.
We ask ourselves, “Which Jesus would we choose?”
Are we going to choose Barabbas and the Kingdom of Israel or Jesus the Messiah and the Kingdom of God?
Are we going to choose God or nation?
In the context of one nation under God, can we discern the difference between God and nation?