I’ve got to admit, this passage gave me a run for my money. I worked it and studied it and read it and re-read it and reworked it and it did not want to work with me. I kept coming back to it and wondering “Where is the Good News?!” “Where is God at work?” And I wasn’t finding any answers. And beyond that, it didn’t make sense. Logically I understood the story, but there were so many elements that were right. There were a lot of things that weren’t as they should be. And so we’re going to look at those pieces, the ones that don’t make sense, and hope that God uses them to speak to us.
Let’s start with Pilate. The majority of this scene is about Pilate’s interrogation and his repeated efforts to free Jesus because he can’t find him guilty of anything. But the scene STARTS with Pilate having Jesus flogged. Pilate has his men beat him with leather straps, leather straps that likely had broken glass, or spikes, or something equally painful on the end. Pilate has him beaten. Before he’s ever found guilty, something Pilate never manages to do, Jesus is beaten. Pilate repeatedly “fights” for Jesus’ innocence and yet this coward of a man has no remorse about invoking senseless violence. It’s not right.
But the brokenness and the oddities and the insanity don’t stop there. The actions and the arguments of the Jewish leaders don’t make a whole lot of sense either. On the eve of one of the most Holy days in Jewish culture, the leaders in Jerusalem aren’t praying. They aren’t worshipping. They aren’t sharing with family. They aren’t preparing for the holy meal. They are caught up in politics and anger and violence. They’re so hell-bent on getting rid of this Jesus-guy that they are willing to miss all that is sacred and holy about Passover. They’ve become so lost in their convictions about what is right that they’ve gone completely wrong. The Passover story is about God’s providence and God’s provision. It’s about God’s protection and God’s forgiveness. It’s about God fighting for the Israelites so that they might have freedom from the Egyptians. And at a time when all of that is to be remembered and celebrated, the chief priests, THE CHIEF PRIESTS, the religious leaders, are so stuck in their own fear and hatred that they can’t even see the possibility of God at work in Jesus. Let’s set aside the complexity of “fully human and fully divine”, they don’t have to believe in the divinity of Christ to cut him a break. These priests were blinded by rage or fear or malice that they in no way could see anything godly in a man who has taught the scriptures, and healed people. Something is definitely not right.
Sadly, it doesn’t stop there either. Passover is a holy day. That means, for the Jews, that they had to be ritually clean to go to the temple and offer their sacrifices. Once ritually clean, one had to remain ritually clean, which meant not entering defiled places. Defiled places included the homes of Gentiles who didn’t practice Kosher or cleanliness laws. If touched, a gentile’s uncleanliness would make a Jew ritually unclean, which then served as an impediment to drawing close to God. So the chief priests wouldn’t enter Pilate’s home. They knew enough to know the law and stay out of the gentile’s home. Ironically, they didn’t want to become unclean, because that would inhibit their relationship with God; never mind the fact that their hate and malice in their hearts was already blocking them from receiving or encountering God. In supposedly fighting for God, they only end up clinging to the things that are against God. The brokenness of their relationship with God is only underscored by their last statement to Pilate. In his last effort to release Jesus, Pilate asks, “Do you really want me to kill your king?” And the chief priests cry out, “We have no king but Caesar.” That statement only serves to confirm the distance between them and God. For the Jews, God was their king. God and God alone. They didn’t need Caesar as their king. They didn’t need his rule. They definitely didn’t want his men being in control of their lives. Caesar was not their king, not by choice anyway. And yet, here, the phrase seems to roll right off their lips. “We have no king but Caesar.” So much for fighting for God.
The things that are unsettling and disconcerting about this story remind us that when we let hate and anger, and fear and rage take hold in our hearts, it’s hard to find God. It can be easy to convince ourselves that we are following the laws or serving God’s purposes, but what gets lost in hatred and fear is the truth that God is about love and wholeness, truth and compassion. It’s hard to be about God when we don’t allow space for God.
How Pilate and the chief priests act is bothersome. They don’t do what is right. They don’t even do what might be reasonable. But they were leaders and politicians, and leaders and politicians aren’t exactly known for their righteousness. It probably doesn’t stretch our imagination all that much to think about a political leader doing whatever is necessary for political gain or in the name of “justice” regardless of how wrong it might be. But it’s not just them who pose a problem. It’s Jesus, too. He is on trial and his life is on the line. But Jesus does and says nothing. He doesn’t argue. He doesn’t contest. He doesn’t defend. He allows all these things to happen to him, to dictate his fate without calling anyone on the carpet or taking them down a notch. Sure, he reminds Pilate that his power comes from above, but that didn’t accomplish anything. That didn’t fix anything. That didn’t win any arguments or set him free. So then what did it really matter?! It’s disconcerting that he doesn’t do anything. As one who fights for others, who speaks truth to power, who welcomes the unwelcomed, we expect him to DO something. And he doesn’t. It’s not right.
There’s that pretty well-known praise hymn from the 90s, “Awesome God.” It was a staple in praise sets for years, “Our God, is an awesome God, he reigns from heaven above, with wisdom, power, and love our God is an awesome God.” Most of us know those words and most of us are on board with those depictions of God. God is awesome. God reigns from heaven. God is wise. God is powerful. God is loving. Simply stated those describe much of what we expect from God. That song has been in my head a lot as I worked through this passage, not because this passage epitomizes that notion of God, but because it doesn’t. For some reason, I keep looking for the God who is powerful and mighty and this passage does not provide it. Not finding God as I would expect has made this passage problematic for me. I want God to fight injustice. I want God to stand up against corrupt authority. I want God to defend the good and tear down the bad. I want God to restore order to a broken and chaotic world. Not only do I want that, but I expect that. I’ve seen God at work. I’ve read the stories. I’ve witnessed the miracles. I’ve experienced God’s redemptive power at work in my life. And a God who sits idly by and doesn’t say anything does not fit with what I know about God.
And in voicing my complaints and frustrations I realize I’ve joined the masses of Jews in the first century. We expect certain things from God and so did they. We expect God to be powerful and just and mighty, and so did they. We expect God to do something, and so did they. And when God doesn’t, it turns our theology, and sometimes our faith, on its head. We begin to wonder if God is who we thought God was because certainly if God were just God would fix the injustice. If God were loving God would fix the hatred. If God were powerful God would change the unchangeable. But when God doesn’t, it can be easy to question all that we think we know about God.
The hard part is that simply because we don’t hear God speaking in one moment, or acting in another, doesn’t mean God isn’t saying anything or acting anywhere. God, through Christ, may have been silent in the moments before Pilate. God may have “allowed” these awful things to take place, but God certainly was not absent from the scene. God was at work in far greater ways working on a far different type of justice with a much different notion of power. We aren’t there yet in the story of Christ, but we know it’s coming. We have to get through a whole host of unsettling things before we can finally witness the beauty of God’s work coming together, but we know it’s out there. But for today, we have to wait in the absence of God’s work. And that may not be all bad. It’s important for us to be reminded that God doesn’t always do what is expected or hoped for. God doesn’t follow our script. And God sees with much greater perspective. For in our moments where we clamor to hear God and find only silence, it may be that God is working on something much greater and beautiful than we ever could have imagined.
On this communion Sunday, we are reminded that God has done the greatest and most impossible things for us, for each of us. God has conquered the unconquerable and offered us a share in that victory. God has forgiven the unforgiveable and offers that same forgiveness to us if we ask. Let us pray.