Tuesday, February 26, 2013

People Of The Passion: At The Trial

Here is my sermon for Sunday. The text was Luke 22:66-23:25:

Last week we looked at the different people who were found at the crucifixion and while there were some we probably would not want to emulate or to be like, most of the others were people we could learn something from about our own faith lives.  Today’s characters are not like that.  While we have heard of some of them, they don’t really serve as examples of faith or faithfulness.
One of those is Caiaphas, who was the high priest and in charge of the Temple and therefore responsible for the religious life of Jews because Jewish life centered around the temple.  But although this was a key position in the religion it was also a position appointed by the Romans allowing them to hopefully have some control of the people.  Behind the scenes was Caiaphas’ father-in-law Annas who had overseen the appointment of the last five high priests.  As you might imagine, this did not make Annas or Caiaphas very popular with most of the population.  In fact the whole reason why Pharisees arose was in opposition to those who controlled the temple, who were known as the Sadducees and were the aristocrats of society.

Although we see Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees, Jesus had a lot more in common with the Pharisees then he did with the Sadducees, and Jesus had become a clear threat to their power and domination.  Jesus is a sort of populist who is challenging those who are in power and are quite happy with the way things are thank you very much.  In his position as high priest, Caiaphas was also head of the Sanhedrin, the group who makes the initial decision to send Jesus on to Pilate.  The Sanhedrin consisted of 71 members, and while it did contain learned rabbis, it was mainly those with wealth and power.  Rather than thinking of this being something like congress , it’s probably better to see it like the British House of Lords where membership is not based on the will of the people. The Sanhedrin hears Jesus’ testimony, or really lack thereof, and send Jesus off to the Roman authorities to be tried.

They first send Jesus off to Pontius Pilate, but before we get to him let’s discuss Herod.  There are three different Herod’s referred to in scripture.  The first is Herod the Great, who was ruling when Jesus was born, and who had been King of the Jews by the Roman Emperor.  That was his official title, but he dies in the year 4 BCE.  His kingdom is then divided amongst his sons.  One of them is Herod Archelaus, who, according to Matthew, is the one ruling Judea when Joseph, Mary and Jesus are coming back from Egypt, but Joseph is afraid of him, and so is told to go to Nazareth rather than returning to Bethlehem.  Archelaus was removed from power by the Romans because of his brutality, the only Roman ruler that I am aware of to have this done besides for Pontius Pilate.  Archelaus’ brother is Herod Antipas, who plays the role in the trial.

He is the ruler of the area containing Galilee, and so is technically the Roman authority responsible for what Jesus has been doing, which is the reason why Pilate sends Jesus to him.  We are told that Herod had heard of Jesus and wanted to meet him.  We don’t know what he had heard about Jesus, or from whom, but earlier Luke tells us that Jesus was being supported by a group of women which included Joanna, who is the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and in Acts we are told that Manaen, who is a member of Herod’s court, is also a follower of Christ.  So there are supporters of Jesus’ within Herod’s retinue.  Luke tells us here that Herod finds Jesus innocent and sends him back to Pilate.  I really doubt the portrayal that is given of Herod in this telling, as he would have had little compunction to have Jesus executed if he desired, and from earlier accounts it appears that he already had that desire.  Luke tells us that a group of Pharisees have warned Jesus that Herod is plotting to kill him, but Jesus tells them to go back and tell Herod exactly where he can him, but that his plot won’t be successful because it is “impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”  Herod had also already killed John the Baptist, so why he wouldn’t take this opportunity to follow through and order Jesus’ death is a little unknown.

I also discount the story told to us about Pontius Pilate, for whom, surprisingly enough we know very little.  We do know that he was born into the highest order of Roman society and that he was prefect of Judea, which is roughly equivalent to a governor of the region.  He did not make his home in Jerusalem, as Roman authorities lived in Caesarea Maritima, but he, along with at least on legion, or 6000 soldiers, would have come in to Jerusalem to make their presence known and to keep the peace during the Passover celebrations.  Pilate had already offended Jewish sensibilities numerous times by bringing in shields and standards which had Roman imperial images and effigies on them, prompting the Jewish authorities to contact the Emperor to have them removed, which Pilate was ordered to do.  Pilate was also accused of stealing money from the Temple treasury in order to pay for the construction of an aqueduct for Jerusalem.  When this time the Jewish leaders protested, Pilate had Roman soldiers in plain clothes enter the crowd, and upon his word they began attacking and killing those present to silence their protests.

Philo of Alexandria says that Pilate was “naturally inflexible” and full of “vindictiveness and furious temper.”  Several years after Jesus’ death, Pilate was ordered to return to Rome to answer to the Emperor for his behavior after ordering the slaughter of a group of Samaritans, and was replaced as prefect of Judea.  As I said before, he is the only other roman authority that I know of besides for Herod Archealaus who was removed from Judea for their behavior.  That certainly does not match the image of Pilate that is given in scripture, and I think there are some reasons for that.  Only the Roman authorities could order the execution of someone by crucifixion, and the charge of blasphemy would have been meaningless to Pilate and to Herod, because that was a religious charge.  What Pilate would be concerned about was whether Jesus was a revolutionary, or someone seeking to lead a revolt, who was a threat to the empire.  And from the manner by which Jesus was killed, we know that that was how he was viewed by Roman authorities, because, as I said last week, crucifixion was reserved for those who posed a threat to the empire, and for whom the empire wanted to make an example of with their death, and the charge that is nailed above Jesus on the cross is that he is King of the Jews.

While the Gospels tells us that Pilate orders Jesus’ execution, they also sort of want to exonerate Herod and Pilate for their participation in this event, to make it simply an act of the Jewish authorities.  Why might the Gospels seek to do that?  Here is the hypothesis proposed by many and the one with which I agree.  Mark, which is the earliest gospel, was written right around the year 70, which was at the same time that the Romans were violently putting down a Jewish revolt, which led to the destruction of both Jerusalem and the Temple itself, and all the other gospels were written after this event.  This was not a good time to be a Jew, and definitely not a good time to be following someone who was killed as a revolutionary.

One way to counteract this, to say that those who followed Christ were not a threat to the empire, were not like the Jews who were challenging Roman rule, was to make Pilate and Herod proclaim that Jesus was innocent and that the only reason they executed him was because the Jewish leaders pushed them to, not because the roman leaders actually thought he was a threat.  This is a sort of way of proclaiming that Christian’s are not a threat to the Empire, and remember that persecution of Christians, including the probable execution of both Peter and Paul under the Emperor Nero, had already begun.  Just one more indicator that maybe these accounts of Pilate and Herod are not fully accurate can be found in our Creedal statements in which we say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.

It might also be seen in the final person mentioned in today’s passage, and that is Barabbas, the man whom the crowds reportedly cry to have released.  We are told that he is a revolutionary, that he has led an insurrection during which some people were killed.  This is exactly the type of person the Romans would want to crucify, but there is one thing that makes this person unique.  In a Hebrew name, bar means son of, and I guessing that most of you are familiar with the word abba, which means father, so his name is really son of the father.  But isn’t that exactly what Jesus is, the son of God, or son of the father?  In addition, in Matthew we are told that he first name is Jesus, Jesus Barabbas is Jesus son of the father.  Why is this the name that is given?  I think it’s because we have two choices, two ways we can go.

We can worship this Jesus Barabbas who uses violence and warfare to get his way, to gain power, to gain prominence, or we can worship the Jesus who is the prince of peace, who tells us to turn the other cheek, who says if someone asks you to carry their pack for a mile to carry it for two, who says blessed are the peacemakers, who, rather than using violence to bring about the kingdom of God, instead uses the cross, and proves that the cross is more powerful than the sword, that peace is more powerful than violence, that love is more powerful than hate.  We too must decide who we are going to release on the world, who we are going to release into our lives, Jesus Barabbas who seeks violence and retribution, or Jesus the Son of the Father who seeks peace and reconciliation?  I think the gospel writers are saying to us that calling for Jesus Barabbas is the easier decision, but that as Christians we are called to something more, to something higher, and that Christ himself calls us to a different way of life.

But there is one another way in which we also have to decide what we are going to do, or what we would do.  In looking at this passage I know most of us say, you know if I had been there, I would have done something differently, I would have stood up, I would have been a follower of Christ, I wouldn’t have abandoned Jesus, if I had been in power I would have stopped it.  It’s really easy to make those statements from afar, when we are not involved, when we are simply dispassionate witnesses, but it’s entirely something else when you are in the middle of it, especially when we consider the power of group think.

We talk a lot about peer pressure for teens and wanting to give them strategies to go against what the group is doing, and that’s important and we should, but as important as that is, we as adults face just as much, if not more, peer pressure in most aspects of our lives and sometimes the outcomes of just going along, or the penalties for not, are even more extreme than those for teenagers.  If you knew that the company you worked for was putting out a dangerous or unsafe product, or workers were being put in unsafe situations would you speak up?  What if in speaking up you knew that you would then lose your job, and probably your career because most companies in the same industry don’t want to hire whistleblowers.  Would you take that stand?  Sometimes it’s easier just to keep your mouth shut and just go along with the group, not rock the boat, and sometimes there isn’t really anything on the line in just going along, but sometimes, as with Jesus’ trial, there are significant things on the line.

In the 1950’s, a scientist by the name of Solomon Asch did a serious of now famous experiments on conformity.  He asked participants to take a simple quiz in which they had to decide if lines were longer, shorter, or the same length.  When participants were asked to answer by themselves, 95% of participants answered all of the questions correctly.  But when people were grouped together and actors were instructed to give the wrong answer only 25% percent of participants got all the questions correct.  In other words having one person give a wrong answer, caused the participants to give the wrong answer.

In a more recent update of Asch’s experiment, scientists wondered what was going on in the brain that would cause this, and so they ran the same experiment only this time using an FMRI machine to track brain usage.  What the scientists expected to see was that when the group gave the wrong answer that the participant’s frontal cortex would be activated as the brain tried to reason everything out and come to a conclusion that it was better to simply go along with the group rather than give a different answer.  But what they found was that it was not the frontal cortex were reason takes place that activated, but instead it was the visual center of the brain as the brain appeared to change the image in order to make it fit with what the rest of the group was saying.

Or to put it more bluntly, the brain made the image fit the wrong answer so that there was no disease in having to give a different answer.  That might send some chills down your spine about how group think works, and maybe why what happened to Jesus happened to him.  After all we are told that the entire Sanhedrin went along with the decision to send Jesus to Pilate, but Joseph of Arimathea was part of that group, and we know that he at the very least liked Jesus, if he wasn’t an actual follower, but he apparently did nothing.  He went along with the group, and at least I wonder why.

But there is one other study about group think that we must also take into consideration, and that is what can stop group think from happening in the first place.  In another similar set of experiments, a volunteer was put into a room full of actors, although they didn’t know they were actors, and they were again asked to solve a simple puzzle.  When the actors all gave the wrong answer, the volunteer routinely gave the same wrong answer.  But, when one of the actors gave another wrong answer, but one different from the rest of the group, then the volunteers would routinely give the right answer.  By having someone break up the group think by giving another answer, even though it too was wrong, freed up the volunteer, and the entire group to think for itself and to avoid group think from leading to the wrong conclusion.

There is a reason why devil’s advocates can be so important, because they allow for opposing views to be expressed, and when we stand up to provide a different answer, a different perspective, even if we too might be wrong, the entire group benefits.  Now of course it’s not easy to do, and most of the time that group think reigns it’s not a matter of life and death, but if we don’t speak up in easy situations, we won’t speak up in difficult ones.  If there is one thing I think we can learn from the example of the people involved in the trial of Jesus it is the danger of a group mentality, as well as the danger of making politically expedient decisions, rather than seeking to make the right decision.

We as Christians are called to something different, because we are called not to answer to the powers and principalities of the world, we are not called to support the status quo, we are not called to simply support what the majority of people say is right.  We are called not to follow Jesus Barabbas, but Jesus the Christ.  We are called to something higher, we are called to be faithful witnesses to what God has called us to do and to be, and sometimes that will require us to step out of our comfort zone and to challenge, to speak up and to speak out, and we must also be willing to pay the cost that sometimes comes with that, a cost we are called to when Jesus tells us to pick up our cross daily and to follow him.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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