April 13, 2014
“Off the Hook”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.”
22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”
25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Today can be a confusing one, liturgically speaking, as we observe both the triumphant entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday and the suffering Jesus endures just before his death.
It feels like winning and losing all at the same time. But really that’s how the drama of the gospel plays out – what appears to be the greatest loss of all, God defeated, evil and death win, is transformed into the greatest moment of victory on Easter morning – Love wins, forevermore.
Let’s imagine this story we just read as a painting in front of us. Pilate stands to one side, the governmental keeper-of-the-peace, and collector of the taxes. The religious leaders of the occupied people have brought him a prisoner, a man they accuse of crimes against their faith, but what does that matter to Pilate?
So they say he claims to be our king – and that is a political problem for Pilate who must protect Roman authority. In Luke’s account Pilate is told: “We found this fellow subverting the nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (Luke 23:1–2). In John’s gospel the angry mob warned Pilate, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12).
Pilate is perhaps looking baffled at this prisoner, who denies none of the charges hurled at him. He asks him, “Are you the king of Jews?” If he would only answer no, he would be off the hook. Pilate could hand him back to his people and let them deal with him. But Jesus answers cryptically, unhelpfully as far as Pilate is concerned. In the painting we see him glancing at Jesus with some bewilderment, wondering, “Why don’t you do anything to save yourself?”
Stephen Marsh is a Lutheran bishop who writes about growing up as an African-American male in the civil rights era, and becoming an addict. He writes, “I have recently had the blessing of being able to do some concentrated personal healing work on my disease of addiction.
My healing work helped me to discover that one of the core issues of my addictions could be traced back to my own internalized fear, anxiety and confusion concerning the societal racism that I have been submerged in all my life.
Different people respond to internalized anxiety in different ways, and becoming an addict was part of the way I responded. I also discovered that surrender is the primary move that needs to be made before actual healing from addiction can begin.
That posed a new dilemma for me, because as an African American male in a country where discrimination against African Americans is one of its founding tenets, it is not in my nature to surrender. My nature has been honed to resist, to fight, and to hold on for dear life, by whatever means necessary! I had to painfully have many of my own psychological layers peeled back to finally learn that it’s not always holding on that makes one strong; sometimes it’s letting go.”
Pilate, looking at Jesus, doesn’t understand the strength of surrender. In our painting he is holding up his hands to say “this is out of my hands now” but also to say “what can I do for a man who will not even defend himself?”
On the other side of our painting stands another Jesus, Jesus Barabbas, another political prisoner. We are told from other sources that he was a murderer and an insurrectionist, although all we know from Matthew’s account is that he was famous, or perhaps infamous.
We don’t hear Jesus Barabbas speak, but if he did we could imagine him yelling – here was a man with some fight in him – here was a man who would not surrender.
And he is the one the crowds think that they really want — someone with hatred in his heart and blood on his knife. He is a bandit, a terrorist. This custom of releasing a prisoner is recorded nowhere in ancient literature outside the New Testament. It seems a strange thing to do with the streets of Jerusalem flooded with pilgrims and tensions running high between the occupiers and the occupied.
But perhaps it just for that reason, to appease and win over a raucous crowd, that the governor would do something to increase his popularity. So the crowd is offered a choice, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ. One is defiant and one says nothing. One fights and one surrenders.
And then in the foreground of our painting is the crowd. This crowd just days ago welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem like a hero, like a winner. And now swayed by the religious leaders they would prefer to have the Jesus who acts like the savior they expect.
And here is the irony of the atonement. Atonement is God’s act in Jesus Christ to draw humanity back to God – to mend the great tear in the relationship – to win us back to himself. God in Jesus Christ, through an act of love so great that it basically cost the life of God, saves us, for himself. And the irony is, that Jesus did this willingly for people who did not love him back, he chose people who did not choose him back.
And at the center of the painting is Jesus, who throughout this whole trial, speaks only once, and will speak again only once before his death when he utters on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He is perhaps thinking back over the past several days to the height of his popularity as he rode into Jerusalem with the crowds shouting his name.
But between Palm Sunday and this trial on Good Friday, Jesus’s disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest, Judas betrayed him and then committed suicide, Peter denied ever knowing him, and all his disciples fled (except for the women).
After three years of itinerant preaching, teaching, and healing that focused on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and all who were oppressed, his family declared him insane, the religious establishment hated him, and the political authorities had had enough.
He is innocent of the charges being brought against him, that has been made clear to us through Pilate’s wife. The charges are false – which tells us that the religious leaders were desperate to get rid of him. And we are reminded that Jesus wasn’t killed because he was a nice guy or a good teacher or a moral man – he was dangerous.
Dorothy Sayers writes passionately about this in an essay in which she describes “the Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man.” She writes about incarnation, that God became in every way a genuine living man, not so good as to be like God, he was God. And she writes, “Now, this is not just a pious commonplace; it is not a commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he [God] had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile. So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. If this is dull, then what in Heaven’s name is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet . . . . He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either.”
As we stare at this painting we can ask two different questions: “Why was Jesus killed?” and “Why did Jesus die?”
Why was Jesus killed? The short answer is that people colluded to have Jesus killed. The most certain fact we have about Jesus as a historical person is that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, just as we say in the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus had no intentions of being an earthly king, but he was perceived as a threat to the power of just about everyone who had any. His crucifixion was a political act by the Roman government, but an act brought about by the Jewish religious leaders who persuaded the crowds to see things their way.
Why did Jesus die? This is where we, again, enter the realm of atonement – to what lengths did God go to demonstrate his love – and the answer is all the way to death. Imagine standing before a judge and receiving the sentence you deserve, and then watch in surprise as the judge leaves his seat walks down and takes your place, and not because you asked for it or deserved it, but because he loves you. God sent his Son into this world to reveal what God himself is like. He is a God of love, grace, and reconciliation. He is a God who seeks to have fellowship with us. He sent his Son among us to live, teach, preach, and gather disciples. But he sent him among us also to give his life for us.
Jesus took upon himself the sentence and punishment due to us for our sinfulness. It is just like winning and losing at the same time. The suffering and death of Jesus on Good Friday and the hope and joy of resurrection on Easter Sunday – this is all part of the good news of Jesus Christ for us.