‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.’
On Wednesday, the Church’s order for Morning Prayer gave us these words from the Book of Wisdom as our first reading. I don’t recall ever having read them before, but how appropriate they were, and are…for today, Good Friday. The day when we read the Passion Narrative and hear of how the leaders of the people conspired against Jesus and ensured His death, and of how Pontius Pilate (no less) – one of the most brutal of Roman Governors, was powerless before their fatal onslaught against Jesus.
Normally I’d focus our thoughts on the cross on this day: but this year it is the trial before Pilate that has grabbed my attention. In John’s Gospel the events move in and out of the Governor’s headquarters, they shift from the public sphere into Pilate’s more private rooms; we have the elders and their police but we are also given details of Jesus’ exchanges with Pilate.
Throughout, it seems that Pilate wanted nothing to do with the Sanhedrin’s verdict of death for the prisoner. The story unfolds with Pilate, at every turn, seeking to find a way to release Jesus. Jesus arrives before him early in the morning having been condemned before Annas and Caiaphas, from the High priestly family, in a trial that has taken place in the dead of night – no due process here at all!
We are then party to a vicious battle between Pilate – who has nothing but contempt for the elders and their religion – and those whose absolute focus and intent is the death of the man, Jesus.
Firstly, Pilate tries to fob them off, to get them away from his front door with the phrase ‘Take Him yourselves and judge him according to your law’. He knows that the Jews don’t have the authority to carry out a death sentence. They don’t budge. We have a standoff.
After a conversation with Jesus in Pilate’s headquarters Pilate ‘goes out to the Jews’ (for they are ritually unable to enter Pilate’s buildings – an insult to him, of course, but something that also reveals just how twisted their concept of God’s Law has become) . He ‘goes out to them’ and clearly pronounces ‘I find no case in Him’ – indeed, he tries to find a way to release Jesus by offering the possibility of an ‘amnesty’ being granted to him as was customary. That door is shut. ‘ Not this man’, they shouted ‘ but Barabbas’. Voices are being raised and the atmosphere shifts from contempt from each side for the other to fear on Pilate’s part and bloodlust from the Jewish leaders. Pilate tries again. He has Jesus flogged: perhaps he thinks ‘surely this will be enough to satisfy’ the desire for punishment. And yet again, he brings Jesus out to the chief priests and the police saying ‘I found no case against him’.
In John’s version of the story there is no crowd, Jesus’ persecutors are the authorities and their henchmen. The general populace is left out of the judgement. But Pilate’s room for action becomes ever more limited. Again, he speaks to Jesus ‘Don’t you know that I have power to release you or to crucify you?’ Jesus reply? You would have no power unless it had been given to you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin’. Still Pilate tries. We’re told ‘From then on Pilate tried to release Him’ – He and Jesus are now locked together – his name will forever be attached to that of his prisoners: ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’ we say everytime we recite the creed.
And then comes the coup de grace from the priests: ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the Emperor’. They have him boxed into a corner. He thought he was the one in charge. He thought he could out-manoeuvre these religious fanatics but power has shifted away from him, they have the upper hand. Who would have thought that these people, who hated everything Rome represented, would claim that their actions showed support for the Emperor: ‘We have no King but the Emperor.’ The battle to save Him is lost. He is handed over to be crucified with Pilate left trying to get something over the Jews through the inscription he places over Jesus’ head – but it’s hardly a victory. He leaves the story asked to ensure that those crucified that day were dead…and then willing to grant Joseph of Arimathea’s request to give Jesus a reasonable burial.
This year I surprise myself as I read the story: I actually feel for this hated Roman leader. He was a murderous brute– you might recall from the gospels the story of him having some Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem killed (‘their blood mingling with their sacrifices’) – but John’s Gospel (at least) shows him giving time and attention to this man, Jesus. In just a few years Pilate will be removed from his post because of the complaints against him but what we are shown here is that neither the Jewish (Divinely given), nor the Roman Law can protect the man who most perfectly reflects the image of God. Everyone is found wanting except Jesus who, simply through His presence, shows us up in our true colours: hatred, lawlessness, contempt, manipulativeness, deceit, weakness, lack of moral courage, cruelty, disdain, envy, care-less-ness – these things and more send Him to the cross where they are judged, condemned and ‘finished’, ultimately done with. We are here in this story: shamed by our actions, disappointed by our inaction, but for now, we wait, for a new day is coming, a new way is offered.
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