Politics Influence Judgement: Good Friday
John 18: 28 – 19: 20
John’s Gospel provides a lively account of the trial of Jesus. It reveals the enormity of evil and the splendour of love. It reflects the complexity of truth telling and the dark art of compromise.
Today’s sermon is more like a re-telling of John 18: 26 through to 19: 42, which is set in the Common Lectionary for today. I will add commentary and be political. So let’s go.
We pick up John’s account of the Gospel of Jesus just after Jesus was the arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had been betrayed by one of the twelve disciples, Judas. The night is dark, soldiers boisterous and the atmosphere poisoned with betrayal and fear. Jesus is taken to the Jewish court – the Sanhedrin. It was made up of priests, Pharisees and Sadducees. We know for certain Peter followed and gathered with the guards and spectators in the courtyard. There Peter denied knowing Jesus three times before the first morning cock crow. Betrayal and fear were joined by denial, but at least Peter was there. The others had run off.
The Jewish court questioned Jesus about his work. Jesus pointed out that his ministry has been an open book. There was nothing done in secret. Many could tell them what he had done. Jesus is slapped about the face and sent off to Caiaphas. Jesus provided no incriminating responses for there were none to make. Caiaphas then took Jesus to the house of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. But Caiaphas and company would not enter the Governor’s residence. The Jewish rules stated that for a Jew to enter a Gentile residence would render them ritually unclean and unable to worship for 24 hours or so. They wanted to celebrate the Passover that evening. How contradictory? How untruthful? The Jewish authorities want to honour God and do the religiously correct thing, but they were happy to eliminate a perceived enemy of their religion collaborating with the unclean Gentile, who incidentally was their sworn enemy.
Pilate goes out to them because Rome had made compromises with the Jews. They were the only group within the Roman Empire who had won religious independence. Some small compromises were made with them to keep the peace. The Jews had proved to be very troublesome. In fact they were the most troublesome ethnic-religious group in the whole empire.
The ensuing conversations between Pilate and the Jewish leaders and Pilate and Jesus revealed the Jewish leaders’ real intent, and the innocence of Jesus. The Jewish leadership wanted the Roman administration to execute Jesus, so that the people wouldn’t blame them or defile the religious practices. Jerusalem was a political boiling pot. The Jews had never become Roman citizens. The religious leaders had made compromising arrangements with the Roman occupiers. The population at large expected God to rescue them. Part of the population wanted to bring that about sooner. It is not surprising that some 38 years later the Jews effectively chased the Romans out of Jerusalem. The Romans regained the city after two years of fighting and destroyed the temple in AD 70. Not surprisingly Pilate spoke to Jesus about whether he was a king. Evidently the Jewish leadership must have spoken about Jesus claiming to be a king. Jesus’s response to Pilate made certain things clear. Firstly, he would not talk about himself as king as others do. Secondly, his kingship comes from God; otherwise his followers would have defended him using the world’s methods of violence. Thirdly, Jesus said that he had come to ‘give evidence about the truth’.
Two issues stand out – kingship and truth. Pilate’s response was that Jesus did not present a problem. The Jewish leaders had other ideas. They threatened Pilate by saying that if he did not execute Jesus they would tell the Emperor that Pilate had refused to punish a man who claimed to be king. Such a claim was treasonable and punishable by death.
The truth is twisted through these compromises and manipulations that political power held onto. To retain power each party played the game of compromise using half-truths. The religious leaders wanted to retain power. Pilate wanted to ensure his position of power as Governor. Rome and the Jewish leaders made their little compromises too. Jesus is the supposed pawn in this dark game of holding onto political power using untruth, fear and compromise. However Jesus was there by choice, confronting this evil with truth and love, because he not only spoke the truth but also was the truth. And he did it for love’s sake. Jesus was there because he knew that perfect love alone could destroy this evil. Jesus is absolutely right that his kingdom is of heaven: that is, Jesus is the king of God’s Kingdom. In this scene we see not only the darkness of human desire for power and human willingness to tell half-truths and compromise but the struggle between two fundamental ways of being: God’s way and fallen humanity’s way. Jesus represents God’s way and Caiaphas and Pilate represent the way of the world.
Jesus did not die because of some spiritual truth contained in the notion of personal forgiveness of sins. Jesus died to destroy by love the fundamental flaw in humanity where power is held onto at all costs and where fear and love of power drive our actions.
Jesus’ death was brought about by untruth, compromise and the desire to retain power. Throughout we see compromise of standards creating political arm-twisting. This whole exercise lacks any sense of truthfulness.
Jesus was a threat to the Jewish leaders. He was popular. Some people thought he was the Messiah sent to free the Jews from Roman rule. That was troubling in itself. But there were other things even more troubling. Jesus had threatened the Temple organisation. His teaching and practice strongly implied that the people did not need the Temple. Jesus’ teaching threatened the power and control of the Jewish leadership. His teaching undermined the sacrificial system.
Let’s unpack this a little more. If Jesus took people away from the Temple system the economy of the Temple and Jerusalem would suffer. There were so many animals sacrificed and so many people involved in the Temple sacrificial system that many people would be out of jobs. Now you know how important jobs are, don’t you? Jobs are everything! Well, that is true. But do we need to retain jobs just for the sake of jobs regardless of the cost to the wider benefit of society and the nation? The Jewish leaders couldn’t see beyond their own needs and desire for power, so they didn’t even see the issue.
Now we are reading this Scripture in the context of our own political context of an election. Do you see some parallels? Think of the leadership issues and the unquestionable desire for power. Think of the political parties and their desire to rule or play an increased influential role in the political arena. Do you not see the desire for power, the use of the half-truth, promises made on projections of future incomes rather than a firm budget, and compromises made to ensure that our party would benefit and be in power? Must we have jobs regardless of the cost of those jobs to the future and the environment? I can see how at the local level the Adani coal mine will benefit business during the start up period with much work provided, but once established the highly automated mine will require far less workers and there is the cost to the environment and our children’s future to consider. I can see how the Jewish leaders could see that Jesus’ teaching would dramatically change the economy of the temple, but at what cost would this be? Well we know. The Jews lost city and temple. We have the benefit of hindsight.
Politics is the art of the possible they say and compromise and half-truths are the tools. No wonder Pilate asked to Jesus who said he had come ‘to give evidence about the truth’, “What’s truth?” Exactly, what is truth when our political system is played using fear, half-truth and compromise? We’ve dealt with half-truths about climate change. We are currently presented with ‘we’ll make health care more affordable’, ‘more jobs’, lower taxes and the ‘economy is better than before’. The world economy is growing very slowly and the Australian economy is not too badly off, but we need stronger growth to be able to provide more jobs and pay for an improved health system and lower taxes. None of the main parties are offering us a better country if we vote for them, just we will be better off as individuals. To be honest not all will be better off and we should be mindful of the weak for they need as much care if not more than the strong.
Jesus was killed because of the desire for power and the use of untruth, fear and compromise. Jesus the Truth confronted the untruth and overcame it through the sacrifice of his life, because he knew that only the Truth expressed in love would save the world. The Cross of Christ is not about personal salvation but about the salvation of the world – this world – and the establishment of God’s Kingdom.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 19/04/2019