Thursday, July 2, 2009

Crucify him!

Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.’

Then they all shouted out together, ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!’ (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’ A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’ But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

- Luke 23:13-25

Reading this passage, one gets the feeling of a packed meeting room where the sympathizers of one side have invited all and sundry - so long as they raise their voices on one side of the issue. Pilate continues to say that he has found Jesus guilty of none of the charges brought against him. He goes so far as to note that neither has Herod found Jesus guilty of the charges. Indeed, one wonders how such an incredibly meek-seeming prisoner could possibly be the least threatening to the political leaders Herod and Pilate, and the power that they wielded and how it was wielded in the name of Roman rule.

Nevertheless, the leaders of the community continue to besiege Pilate, insisting that Jesus be crucified and rid from their midst. Pilate insists he will flog and let the prisoner go (to flog in this case means scourging), but the assembly has come there for a purpose and will not give up its desire to get rid of Jesus so easily. Barabbas is a prisoner widely-known for his political crimes of insurrection against the Romans, and for murder. The crowd calls for Barabbas' release instead of Jesus', and so Pilate capitulates. This is a failure of both Roman justice and Jewish justice. It is a system that is working simply for the purpose of oppression, not for justice and not for finding the truth. So, for Jesus, there is every form of injustice that is possible in this situation; even by human standards of the time, his life is in the hands of those who are bargaining politically, who must rule and keep order and control above all else. One could ask, why does Pilate give in to the Jewish leaders and the people they've brought with them? I think the answer is simple: he relies on this council to help him keep order in the community and does not want a full-scale insurrection. In time, (70 A.D.) we know that Rome will eventually decimate Jerusalem and the temple in response to the political unrest of those like Barabbas. For now, it is easy to understand how political rule works, trading favors in return for stability and control, an uneasy "peace." How ironic!

So we have the example of man's justice perverted in the name of rule and order - a kind of peace that comes from political horsetrading. The truth is known and understood: Jesus is innocent of the charges brought against him. But "special interests" will out here. Not only is there the contrast of justice and power on spiritual and worldly terms (see yesterday's commentary), but here the great contrast is between a worldly notion of peace and a spiritual notion of peace. And I think we must ponder that strongly, because the key here is the relationship to truth each has. And so we wind up in important theological territory here, a great piece of the puzzle in understanding the nature of Christian perspective on these central concepts.

Is peace really coming to terms by hook or by crook? Do we make peace through political maneuvering, ignoring inconvenient truths, covering up injustice? Should peace be the result of a search for truth? When we think of peace in spiritual - or even specifically Christian terms - has it got something to do with truth, with a reconciliation in truth or to truth? Do either of these things exist apart from justice? No, they do not. They cannot. Neither is personal salvation a kind of gerrymandering to come to an acceptable conclusion. And if spiritual judgment does not rest on truth, then where is its merit or its value?

In our world today, we'd do well to pay attention to the lessons of this story, and to think about "the things that make for peace." I don't think this story has lost its relevance in any way over the course of time - especially with regard to the guidance inherent in it regarding justice, peace, power, and truth - and how we think of each of these important ideas. The relevance of the spiritual teachings in this gospel to our daily affairs is not something separate and apart, but something that offers us wisdom and guidance. Christ himself will sit on that seat at the "right hand of the power of God" - so he has been quoted by our evangelist during his trial. We have a savior, a Lord, a Judge whose experience as "Son of Man' familiarizes him very well with what hardships we face as human beings, what pawns we can become in the service of expediency, how we are deprived of freedom in the name of keeping peace. There are all sorts of hidden conflicts represented here for the important notions of how we live our lives and conduct ourselves in this world, not least of which is freedom and its relation to truth. Without an honest search for truth - on every level - we don't possess the quality of life we'd choose, or that our highest institutions are meant to serve.

Christ as Logos is witness to it all: the reversal is nearly complete. The author of the law is counted as lawless, the purveyor of truth is denied an honest hearing, he who'd set us free is bound for crucifixion, the Judge is judged. Can we call this peace? Do we remember the lessons here today when we pray for peace or justice? Do we ask for either without an honest search for truth?

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