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Visions from The Catacombs, Week before March 20, 2016

Luke 23:1-25

23Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. 2They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” 3Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” 4Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” 5But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.” 6When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. 9He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. 12That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.

13Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, 14and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16I will therefore have him flogged and release him.” 18Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” 19(This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) 20Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; 21but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” 23But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. 24So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. 25He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

What I am Learning:

Things are not quite what they seem here.

If we read the text without historical context it makes Pontius Pilate look like the reasonable "nice guy" who was forced by popular demand to crucify Jesus. This interpretation has been the basis for many racist toward Jews to conclude that the duly selected members of the Jewish nation, and thus most Jews at the time, killed Jesus.

I doubt that first century people would have read it this way because they knew two things: The Chief Priest was chosen by the Roman governor and the vestments for the Chief Priest were held at the governor's quarters. If the Chief Priest did not keep the Jewish people quiet that person would not be the alive to be the Chief Priest very long.

In other words, the Chief Priest was basically an agent for the Roman Empire, and one that would take the fall when something went wrong. They were like a political circuit breaker.

So when the story says that Pilate argued for Jesus to be released, first century Palestinians would have known the ugly truth - this was only a part of the drama of politics and that the Romans wrote the story.

Herod played a similar role. He was what is called a "client king" who served at the whim of the Roman governor, in consultation with Rome. The client kings would often do much of the dirty work for the Roman governor, who could then play the role of the "good cop" and come off as more reasonable.

The Romans also set the rules. They reserved crucifixion for revolutionaries.  It was a powerful deterrent. Victims of crucifixion could suffer for days before dying of blood loss, exposure or asphyxiation. They also were often crucified naked, which in that culture shamed the ones who saw the naked person as well as the family of the crucified. They were often branded as thieves to further shame them.

Barabbas was one such revolutionary. The word "bandit" really means "violent revolutionary." Barabbas was released on this day because the occupying Roman government saw Jesus as more of a threat than Barabbas. They recognized that Jesus was doing something far more powerful than violence. He was reminding his people of their dignity as a people as bearers of a promise of another way to be human beings for all nations of the world. He practiced a nonviolent way of challenging the status quo of his day in which the hearts of his enemies were being won over.

Many Christians in the US think of Jesus as some wandering wise person who teaches people to live in the world with more inner peace. Others see him as an afterlife insurance broker. This story shows something more complex and more concrete than that. It shows a Jesus whose spirituality and theology led him to public leadership which challenged an unjust social order. He understood that he was so beloved, that all people were so beloved that he could not stand by while humans were being crushed by injustice from domination culture of the Romans - including the Romans themselves.

By raising Jesus from the dead God affirmed him and his attempt to live out God's love for everyone. By raising Jesus from the dead God inspired all of us to live out such love in our lives by challenging whatever injustice we are called to work on.

We tend to think of spiritual practices, theological reflection and public leadership as being separated from one another - like different dishes at a potluck. You can take one or two but skip the other.

I think Jesus would not have understood this. I think what he was trying to say to us is that the healing and liberation of our inner lives, our imagination intellect and the healing and liberation of the larger society all happen together. The kind of Christianity that attracts me is one in which spiritual practice, the critique of worldviews (theology) and public leadership all form, inform and support one another.

The reason Jesus engaged in public leadership was because his spirituality and theology gave him the strength and imagination to do so. The reason his spirituality and theology continue to inspire us is that they were deepened through and expressed in his public leadership. They are a part of one another.

In The Catacomb Churches we are trying to create an environment in which we are all invited to all three, within the flow and seasons of our lives as God's beloved ones.

We don't do this because it will make us better Christians, but because it will teach us to be human, even as the Fully Human One (Jesus) loves us as we are.