Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Are you the king of the Jews?

Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ Then Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ He answered, ‘You say so.’ Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, ‘I find no basis for an accusation against this man.’ But they were insistent and said, ‘He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.’

When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.

- Luke 23:1-12

In this passage, the notions of power that are displayed act in completely different ways, and the notions of judgment expressed through that power will vary also. We first have the quite obvious power of the authorities: both the council (the Sanhedrin) and of Pilate and Herod, two who rule in the name of Rome. And then we have the power of Christ, which is also reflected in his words (of yesterday's passage) as the power of Judgment. Notions of power and judgment are here in sharp contrast, through behavior and actions of sentencing and accusation.

We first have the idea of the council, the assembly, who bring Jesus before Pilate, the Roman ruler (procurator) of Judea. They bring charges before Pilate against Jesus - he is "perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king." Jesus, we know, has done no such thing in any case of the three charges. Neither has he forbidden anyone to pay taxes, nor stirred up the nation politically, nor has he declared himself a political Messiah, a political king. These, therefore, are fabricated charges. Pilate himself seems to be aware of this, as he takes none of them seriously. Indeed, one suspects that Pilate - with plenty of Roman soldiers and Roman power at his disposal - has his own ways of keeping tabs on what is going on in Judea, and whether or not such things are happening. Given the political unrest we already know that stirs Judea and gives the Romans plenty to keep watch over, to threaten their sense of power and control over their colony, one would think it was the chief duty of Pilate to be aware of precisely which "criminals" stir up the population and seek political power.

Yet Pilate seeks to disabuse himself of these persistent charges of the assembly - most likely they are useful to him if they keep rule and control over the people and have some form of cooperative (albeit uneasy) relationship with him. So he finds a way to take Jesus off his own hands, although his pronouncement to the council is that he finds nothing against Jesus and the charges unsubstantial. After all, Pilate's acts convey, we do know whose power is real here politically, who holds the political power over the land. So Pilate, on finding that Jesus is from Galilee, sends him to the jurisdiction of Herod. Herod is quite grateful for this sign of political largesse, as we could imagine issues of jurisdiction in any political system with which we're familiar today would work. Jesus becomes a kind of political pawn that works to show favor to Herod, to cement a relationship between Herod and Pilate that had heretofore been uneasy, and to rid Pilate of a problem he doesn't wish to deal with. We can relate to this sort of political power; governments most likely must deal with such types of problems every day.

Herod, although also a ruler in the name of Rome, is a slightly different sort than Pilate. This is the same Herod Antipas who was reproached by John the Baptist for his divorce from his wife in order to marry the wife of his half-brother; and subsequently executed John the Baptist. He wishes to see signs of miracles or magic by Jesus. But Jesus, the other type of power in this picture, does not oblige Herod by performance. So far, Jesus has refused participation in these hearings; he allows them to proceed via the crooked actions he understands are taking place. So Herod, upon hearing the vehement accusations of the council, treats Jesus with the same types of contempt and mocking Jesus was subject to while held awaiting the council. He and his soldiers ridicule Jesus by putting him in a robe befitting a luxurious ruler (as he is accused of proclaiming himself king) and send him back to Pilate. This new reciprocal action among political appointees with different jurisdictions seals the newfound friendship between Herod and Pilate.

Yesterday's passage notes Jesus' declaration of his own power before the council, 'From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.' This is a power denoting and suggesting the power of Judgment. We have, in these scenes of today's reading, a dual definition of power and a dual definition of judgment. We see spiritual power and judgment at work, and earthly power and judgment at work. Jesus chooses not to use his power to stop any of the proceedings against him; this indeed is the will of the Father, as we have been told. But nevertheless he has stated his power clearly, he has taught daily in the temple clearly. The charges against him are false as they are intended to create political censure; the spiritual ideas Jesus has taught, even his naming himself the Son of Man and declaration of spiritual power are not the issue here. But they are completely unacceptable to the council; incomprehensible to the Roman ruler. So we have parallel systems of power and judgment at work here; one worldly, the other spiritual. One fails to comprehend the other, while Jesus' understanding is clear and yet he allows all to proceed against him. He doesn't cooperate in the sense that he does not honor false proceedings, with false and perverse intent, by putting himself on the defense as he has not been granted the right of questioning. In a similar way he never defensively answered the charges put against him in the temple either - but rather taught in his own way in response. So he does not honor the power at work here - but is himself a witness to what he will eventually judge at that "seat of the right hand of the power of God."

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