Three Hours Devotion - Holy Week Addresses 1975
Good Friday: No 4
It is both tragic and ironic to reflect that after centuries of faithfulness to God on the part of the Jews - centuries which involved them in endless suffering, endurance, and disappointment - when their long-awaited Messiah came to them they handed him over to the pagan authorities, the much hated occupying power, with a plea that he should be killed. Taken before Pilate, Jesus, who was already bearing the sin of Judas, the sin of Peter, James, and John and the disciples, and the sin of the Chief Priests, the scribes, and the elders, shouldered the sin of the secular State as well.
On the face of it, Pilate held all the trumps. He was the representative of Caesar who was, in a very real sense, the ruler of this world; the ruler of the known world. Governing a troublesome colony, he had at his command a large garrison of the best troops the world had yet known. Moreover, in the case of the trial of Christ, he had the support of the native Jewish authorities whose influence on the highly inflammable people of Judea was great. What chance did Jesus stand against such odds, deserted by everyone, entirely alone? Yet in John’s gospel he had said to the disciples before their desertion, “the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me”. It was a direct confrontation between the power of this world and the weakness of God; and just as the Chief Priests had shown themselves up for what they really were when confronted with Jesus, now the power of this world was about to do the same thing.
Pilate does not seem to have been a monster of evil by any means. The gospels present him as a very ordinary Roman governor trying to do a difficult job in difficult circumstances. He seems to have seen quite clearly that the charges against Jesus were trumped up and false. “I find no fault in this man”, he said at one point. Later when the crowd began to cry out for Jesus’s death, he replied, “Why? What evil has he done?” At the beginning of the trial, he could not understand the silence of the man in front of him who refused to defend himself. It is difficult to blame him for being puzzled; but Jesus was not interested in defending himself. Self-preservation did not enter into his calculations. He was interested only in doing the will of God, and if the Will of God was for him to suffer and die, suffer and die he would. But he didn’t defend himself for another reason too. “Have you no answer to make?” Pilate said to him. “See how many charges they bring against you”. But the charges were false. No accusations of any truth or substance had been brought against him - there was in the most literal sense no case to answer: so Jesus remained silent. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as sheep before his shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth”. Prophecy was coming in. It was all within the over-ruling providence of God.
But like any other governor before or since, Pilate had the peace of the province to think about; or so it is represented. “He perceived that it was out of envy that the Chief Priests had delivered him up,” says St. Mark; but rather than risk a riot, “wishing to satisfy the crowd” he released Barabbas and condemned Jesus to death. In doing so, the by-now familiar pattern repeated itself. Appearance are turned upside down. Pilate looked like the judge, and Jesus the man on trial. In fact, Pilate was on trial and by his actions judged himself.
He connived at the murder of an innocent man, and thus - by his own Roman law made himself liable to the death penalty. But it was Jesus who died. He bore the sin of Pilate too, and paid its price. It was the pattern of things to come often enough down history. Were the Inquisitors the judges in heresy-hunting days, or did they judge themselves as they gathered faggots for their autos-da-fe? When the Eichmanns and the racial theorists of forty years ago condemned the crowds of tattered and bewildered Jews to death because they polluted the earth, who was really being judged to be unfit for human society? Are the law-makers and law-enforcers in South Africa judging the black men, when they make their repressive laws, or are they revealing their own fear, their desire to maintain their own precarious position of privilege, even if it is socially and economically unjust? The answers are obvious enough. But don’t let us fail into the same trap by going on to judge the judges in a fine fury of liberal rectitude. That’s a bit too easy.
In the release of Barabbas, the surface skin of events became transparent to the underlying truth of what was really going on. As a name, Barabbas means - son of the father: Bar, son of; Abba, father. Thus it is an omnibus name. We are all sons of the father. His condition, too, was an omnibus condition. For he was one of some rebels in prison, who had committed murder in an insurrection; as all men were rebels against God - involved in an insurrection against him - and as all men, by Jesus’s standards, were murderers by thinking evil of their fellow men and hating their neighbours in their hearts. All men are prisoners too; prisoners of their past, of their circumstances, of their compulsions and obsessions, of their greed and lust and spite and sin, and of their selfishness. Barabbas, then, stood for all men; and Barabbas went free. Jesus, the obedient son of God, died on the cross prepared for Barabbas, the rebellious son of the father. “The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. The first life to be ransomed was Barabbas’s. It was a beginning, a sign, a pointer, a clue, an image of things to come.
Having played his part in the drama, Pilate handed Jesus over to the soldiers; the men by whom, in the last analysis, his own authority and position were secured: the men by whom the whole Roman Imperium had been fastened upon the known world; the men by whom and through whom the power of this world lorded it over the Jews and gentile alike. In doing so, Pilate was very typical. he had tried sweet reasonableness first as the world always - or nearly always - does. Forgive it it’s due, it tries to reason; it sits at the conference table; it talks of peace, and longs for it. But when all these things fail, as they failed when Pilate tried to make Jesus see what the world calls sense, the world does what Pilate did. it calls in the soldiers.
As men, soldiers are no better and no worse than other men; but there is a sense in which they typify the world, for they are the instruments of its kind of power. Their job is to do precisely the opposite of what Jesus tells his disciples to do. Disciples must turn the other cheek, must forgive not seven times but seventy times seven, must give their cloak to him who steals their coat; and must love their enemies. Soldiers must not turn the other cheek, but fight; they must not forgive, but exact retribution and revenge; they must steal other men’s countries and freedoms; they must not love their enemies, but destroy them. “the purpose of war”, said my battalion commander in 1940, “is the destruction of the enemy forces.” In plain language, he added “that means that our job is to kill Germans”; and so it was. Thus, soldiers typify the condition of man in this world; under orders to use force; bound blindly to execute the will of the destroyers; the tools of those who set themselves up in God’s place as having power, to whom all power belongs. “God spoke once, and twice I have also heard the same: that power belongs to God”. They are the people whom Jesus warned his disciples not to fear; the people with power to destroy the body; and they duly proceed to destroy his. It is the upside-downing of the old passover time: of the first miracle of release of God’s people from the power of the rulers of this world. During the first passover, the people had been released out of the hands of Pharaoh’s soldiers, and it was the soldiers who were destroyed in the waters of the Red Sea. Now, Jesus is delivered into the hands of the soldiers, and it is he who is destroyed in the red and redeeming sea of his own blood. The old passover was a time of salvation from death; the new is a time of salvation through and beyond death.
But Jesus is not dead yet. The events of the day were becoming increasingly transparent to the truth. Even in their brutal by-play, the soldiers illustrate the fact that all power is God’s, fulfil the scriptures, and become the unknowing instruments of his over-ruling providence. They dress Jesus up as a king, putting purple on him, and a mock imperial crown. They salute him as they would salute the divine Emperor. Ave Caesar! They kneel before him, bowing the knee as they would to Caesar. And he was their King. As they bowed their knees, they were bowing them to him to whom every knee one day would bow. Meanwhile they beat him up, as soldiers in any war are liable to beat up someone of the other side. It is all very human. But even in this they act within the providence of God. “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those that pulled out my beard. I hid not my face from shame and spitting”. It had all been written long ago.
Thus the world did its worst to Jesus, and was judged by what it did to be - not just a world - but a murderous world. When Adam walked out of Eden, his children set the pace. Cain clobbered Abel, and by Noah’s day the world was corrupt and full of violence; and so it has remained ever since. It is big stuff with its apparatus of destruction and coercion: its hydrogen bomb and its inter-ballistic missiles. It still goes on its way, gathering power to destroy the body, planning, scheming, rearming, maintaining or not maintained the balance of power, as the case may be, seeking its own ends, and consciously controlling the course of history, as though God does not exist. God is kid’s stuff, not to be taken seriously by practical politicians. You may talk of him in the nursery or at assembly in primary schools. Yo may talk of him in Church for old times’ sake. It would be a pity to get rid of all the quaint customs of the past. But you must not dream of talking about him at the conference table; on the hot line; in real politik.
Yet God over-rules. God turns the sin of the world to his own purpose. God claims the victory as his own, while the world’s apparent victory turns out to be defeat. And this we have been shown in and through the obedience and suffering of Christ. He suffered that we might see and know the truth. He said nothing that we might know everything. He endured death, that we might live.