Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Are you the King of the Jews?

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.

- Mark 15:1-11

My study bible has many notes on this text which I find quite interesting and helpful. First of all, it is suggested that the leadership of the temple, the chief priests, elders and scribes, had a consultation with the whole council in the morning because night trials - such as the one that Jesus has been through - were not allowed by law. The Sanhedrin wishes to reach the decision officially in the morning in order to evade the law which has been broken.

Pilate was the Roman procurator of Judea during the years A.D. 26-36. According to Jewish law, the Sanhedrin has found Jesus worthy of death under the charge of blasphemy. But Jewish law does not prevail under Roman rule; therefore the charge is now amended. Jesus is accused of calling himself King - this would be a charge of treason against Caesar under Roman rule. The charge made now by the Jewish leaders before Pilate therefore is a political one, not religious. Pilate asks, "Are you the King of the Jews?" for this reason. Jesus' answer, to my modern American English-speaking ears, is a rather strange one: "You say so." But, my study bible notes, this answer is really an indirect affirmative answer. I read that this is tantamount, in the original understanding, to saying, "It is as you say." However, Jesus is accused of many other things (so we are told) to which he makes no answer whatsoever. The distinction, I read, is between false and true charges: Jesus admits to his identity both in the trial with the temple leadership and before Pilate. To false charges he remains silent.

Barabbas and his fellow rebels, I am told, are Jewish nationalists who have already participated in some local insurrection against the Romans. Interestingly, Barabbas means "son of Abba" or literally, "son of the father." In a variant reading for Matt. 27:16, the name "Jesus" is also attributed to Barabbas. So, we have many shadows - and blacks and whites - in this reading. False testimony and true, false charges and true, culminating in the distinction between the violent rebel who is set free and Jesus who is condemned to die. In a time of evil and injustice, logic and truth are stood on their heads, one substitutes for another and confusion reigns.

Pilate, at least, schooled in the schools of power and politics, is canny enough to understand that the peaceful Jesus who does not make a defense has been handed over out of envy. He offers Jesus to the crowds to be reprieved. But the crowds have been stirred up by the leadership. My study bible notes that most likely this is a crowd gathered in the morning of their own supporters. However, it's important to note how the gospels generally treat the notion of "crowds" (or "mobs"). They are fickle at best and often completely wrong; popularity rarely has much to do with truth. A note in my study bible says, "The crowd follows the crowd. It loves good teaching and prophetic insight, but avoids discipleship, suffering and perseverance." It also notes that most likely this crowd is different from the one that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem, and that it's not the general populace feared by the Jewish leaders. But no doubt some of these same people were ones that praised him days before on Palm Sunday. The cross always comes down to our individual choices, and the reality of what is in the heart. Movements of the masses, of popular opinion or the latest idea are not the center of where we live in the place where God dwells with us. That is a different place of choice and revelation of who we truly are.

Which choice do we make? In a time of trial, of chaos and confusion, of violence and envy, of stirred up feelings false and true, where black is white and white is black, where do we stand and find our center? Where the false mimics the true, and accuses the true of falsehood, where is the center? Where do we find truth?

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