Monday, February 22, 2016

At the Trial

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

In his excellent book, Jesus on Death Row, law professor, and United Methodist, Mark Osler, says that the trial of Jesus that we find in scripture is remarkably similar to what we see in capital cases today. At least at the 30,000 foot level this is a story in which we can find some similarities and understanding, and yet at the same time, if we try and apply our understanding of modern day trials, and the right to an attorney, and the right not to testify against yourself, and the presumption of innocence by the courts, then we will also miss much of what is taking place. That the story of Jesus’ trial is very different from what we know, and perhaps from what we also think we know about the trial.

In addition, the people of the passion we encounter at Jesus' trial are, for the most part, very different from those we looked at last week that we found at the cross. At the cross were the ordinary and the common, even the soldiers who are there are not what we would know as commissioned officers, but instead privates and non-comms. Those at the trial are the elites of Jewish and Roman society. While maybe not the 1%, there are certainly in the top 5-10%, and have the power, wealth, trappings and everything else that goes along with that, and that even includes those who are the Jewish religious leaders present, starting with what in Luke is called the council, but which in other gospels is referred to as the Sanhedrin. They not only have religious authority, but there is also a level of political authority they wield as well.

This is not like Congress where people have gotten there because they have been popularly elected, but instead they are more like the British House of Lords, where the positions are obtained through heredity and also through money. This even includes the High Priest, who, although not named by Luke here, is Caiaphas. The High Priest is a position given not to the most religious person, but is a position appointed by the Roman governor of the area, after much wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. Caiaphas' father-in-law is Ananias, who was a high priest himself at one point, and was responsible for getting the last five high priests appointed. Caiaphas also has a fairly long reign as high priest, under several different Roman rulers, so he obviously knows how to play the political game not only in keeping the Romans happy, but also keeping the other Jewish elite happy.

This is not an easy task, and as a result, the ends justify the means, and there are multiple ends, but the primary one is keeping himself in power and keeping himself alive. There are times when we might come into some position of power or authority, and where we might be willing to make compromises, to do things we thought we might never do, in order to stay there, even if we think what we are doing is for the general good, that others will be better off with us there, but once we start making one questionable decision, one potentially unethical move, then every subsequent bad decision becomes easier.

I heard this week about an ambulance company in Mumbai, Indian known as 1298, which is also the number you dial to get them in an emergency. When they were formed in 2005, there were only three ambulance services in Mumbai, a city the size of New York, but the poor rarely ever used them because they couldn't afford it. So this company’s goal was to provide services to everyone whether they had the ability to pay or not. But the real story is how they got their name and the number that people call for help of 1298. They certainly know that most people think of calling 911, or 999, which is what is used in many other parts of the world, and so they contacted the phone company to ask for one of those numbers and found out that to get one of those numbers they would have to give a bride to the people at the phone company, and they decided that was not acceptable. If they were going to operate in a different way, operate ethically and set a new standard for the industry, and perhaps the nation, their first action could not be to bride someone, thereby acting unethically. And so instead, they took the number available, which was 1298.  Every decision we make has an impact on the decisions that are to come after them. They set the standard, create the culture, in which other decisions are made. Which sort of leads us to Herod and Pontius Pilate.

There are three Herod's that are talked about in the gospels. The first Herod is the one who is around when Jesus is born, who talks with the wise men and orders the killing of all male children under the age of two and whose official Roman title was king of the Jews. That's not this Herod, that's Herod the Great. When he dies, his kingdom gets divided between his sons. One of them is Herod Archaelus, who 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. Archaelaus was actually removed from power by the Romans because of his brutality. It is his brother Herod Antipas who is ruler over Galilee that is part of the trial, and so is technically the roman authority who has been responsible for where Jesus' ministry has been taking place, and thus the reason why Pilate sends Jesus to him. This is the Herod who has John the Baptist killed because John had the temerity to question Herod's marriage to his brother's ex-wife.

One of the interesting things is that we are told that Herod had wanted to meet Jesus because he has heard things about him. What he had heard is unknown, but we are told earlier in Luke that Jesus and the disciples are being supported financially by a group of women including 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. We had also been told that Jesus was warned by some of the Pharisees that Herod was plotting to kill him, to which Jesus tells the Pharisees to go back and tell Herod exactly where they can find Jesus, and calls Herod a fox.

We too have to deal with people in our lives who we might say are foxes, as a nice way of describing them. We can deal with them by sinking to their level and living the same way, or we can stand up to them and not change who we are and what we are doing. The second is usually the much harder option, but  nearly  always the correct one.  But Herod doesn't try and kill Jesus,  and now  he asks Jesus for a sign to prove who he is. What that means is that Herod actually hasn't been paying attention, just like the others who have been asking for a sign, because Jesus has been  giving plenty of signs to show who he is and that the Kingdom of God has come near. But here, after mocking Jesus we are told that Herod couldn't find anything in the charges and sends Jesus back to Pilot.  I really doubt the portrayal  that is given of Herod in this telling as Herod had  already killed John the Baptist, and had also plotted to kill Jesus, so why he wouldn't take this opportunity  to follow through on that is a little unknown,  as all indication we have about Herod   is that he would  have no compunction  in having Jesus killed if he had wanted to.

The portrayal of Pilate is also a little hard to believe, in which he comes off as a simple capitulator at best and as weak at the worst, as it too does not match what we know of him. Philo of Alexandria says that Pilate was "naturally inflexible" and full of "vindictiveness and furious temper." Before the trial, 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. Pilate was also accused of stealing money from the Temple treasury in order to pay for the construction of an aqueduct for Jerusalem, which went through a Jewish cemetery, a violation of Jewish law. There is also an account earlier in Luke of Pilate ordering the killing of several Galileans while they were in the Temple and having their blood mixed with the blood of the offering. And several years after Jesus' death, Pilate was ordered to return to Rome to answer to the Emperor for his behavior in ordering the slaughter of a group of Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim, their holiest site, and was replaced as prefect of Judea.

Those stories do 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, or 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. So clearly it was the Roman authorities who ordered Jesus' death, because they are the only ones who could have done so, and it was not because he was a threat to Jewish leaders, or at least not fully, but because he was a threat to Roman authority.

Now the Gospels give this indication, but they want to sort of want to exonerate Pilate and Herod, 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 most 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. 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.

This can 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 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 some manuscript variations, he is actually referred to as Jesus Barabbas, or 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 Jesus Barabbas who uses violence and warfare to get his way, to get what he wants, to gain power, to gain prominence, to gain retribution, to just make ourselves feel better, 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?

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 l 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 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 test 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. And when the wrong answer was given in the group to start, only 25% percent of participants got all the questions correct. In other words by having one person given 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 instead 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 reimagined 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.

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, in a room full of actors, except for one actual volunteer, 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 it 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, of making the ends justify the means, 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, whatever that might be, to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to live into that. We are not called to simply support whatsociety is doing, instead we are called to something higher, we are called to be faithful witnesses to our faith and 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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