Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Politics of the Crucifixion

                As we race towards Good Friday, and the marvelous liturgy of the Church to commemorate the Passion and Death of the Lord, I find it necessary to make note of the political circumstances that led to the death of Jesus. 
                While Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor, the leaders of the Jewish people were the Sanhedrin and the Priests.  They were constantly at odds with Pilate, whose task was to keep the peace and keep the taxes flowing to Rome. Not too long before the days of the Passion, there was a slaughter by Pilate of some Galileans who had been causing civil unrest.  Pilate was a brutal governor, no doubt, yet he had the obligations I mentioned.

                The priests and the rest of the Sanhedrin, which consisted of Pharisees as well (Pharisees were not of the priestly class, but laymen who were considered experts of the Law of Moses), needed the support of the people, even if they may not have held their hearts.  For someone else to arise and captivate the people was a threat to the authority of the Sanhedrin.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem amidst pomp and excitement, though meek and humble, riding on the foal of an ass.  For his part, obviously Jesus was deliberately fulfilling the prophecy repeated in the Gospels.  As a preacher from Galilee, he was particularly scorned by the leaders in Judea.     

                It is important to remember that the term “Jews”, used quite often in the Gospel of Saint John, is often misunderstood.  Jesus is never called a “Jew” in that Gospel, until his crucifixion.  In fact, John takes pains to contrast Jesus with the Jews, some of whom believed in him; many others did not.  Why?

                As a Brit might call all Americans “Yankees”, to the consternation of a guy from Mississippi, so all Israelis are called Jews by many non-Gentiles.  Yet the term in the Gospel of John refers to those who lived and were from the province of Judea, the remnant of the Kingdom of Judah which had been exiled to Babylon around 586 B.C.  Galilee was not in that Judea.  Judeans (read: Jews in John) were the city people, the cultured ones who lived around the Temple and the environs of Jerusalem.  They would view Galileans as unlearned and “sinners outside the law”.  Not knowing the ancestry of Jesus, they considered him an upstart from Galilee who was upsetting the tense but business-as-usual situation in Jerusalem between the Sanhedrin and Pilate.  He was also more popular than the Pharisees and Priests, often criticizing them openly in his teachings.  They viewed him as a threat to their own power.  “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. These words were spoken by Caiaphas, the high priest that year, as he and his cohorts decided that Jesus had to die.

                When Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem, they became even more afraid.  Having wanted to arrest him on various occasions, they were unable to do so, because he had the support of the people.  Then Jesus came into Jerusalem amidst the praise of the people, leading the Pharisees to remark, “You see that you can do nothing; look, the whole world has gone after him.”  Somehow they had to get rid of him, but were afraid of what the people would do.  Somehow they had to get to him in secret, condemn him, and hand him over to Pilate. 

                Since the people were awaiting the Messiah, they found Jesus the likely candidate, but the general sense was that the Messiah would be a powerful political leader as David had been, laying low the enemies of Israel.  Jesus had the charisma and the powerful words and deeds, surely it must be he.  But how could the enemies of Jesus break this hold Jesus had on the minds and hearts of the people?  Get him condemned to the most shameful death of crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. 

                Here Judas steps in, and gives them the opportunity.  During the day, Jesus was teaching in the Temple, surrounded by crowds of people.  By evening, he would slip out of the city and remain at Bethany, a short distance from the city walls.  The leaders of the Judeans could not find him.  Jesus was careful to keep his whereabouts secret, even to the point of surreptitiously arranging the Last Supper, telling only how to find the house; not the actual address.  Jesus knew of Judas’ betrayal, and would not let his schemes disrupt the plans of the Eucharistic banquet.  Once Judas had agreed to hand Jesus over, he had to find the right time and place. 

                Once the Eucharistic banquet was complete, and Judas had gone out into the night to fulfill his plans, Jesus completed his final words and left for the Garden of Olives, a place of prayer known to Judas.  I can only imagine Judas bringing the soldiers to the house of the Last Supper and being surprised that he was not there.  The owner of that house is a hero in my mind, since he was obviously a friend of Jesus, though his name remains unknown to this day, apart from some pious traditions.  That place being vacant, Judas had to think of where to go.  That it took him a few hours to figure it out tells me he was not a fan of praying along with Jesus, but that’s my opinion. 

                The nighttime arrest and trial of Jesus was contrary to the law, but his enemies continued on nonetheless.  Having “gotten” Jesus to admit to his claim to being the Messiah, they held him for the rest of the night in a cell underneath the high priest’s house.  I’ve been in it. It’s a pit dug into a rock, with a small hole through which they would lower the prisoners.  Once morning came, and most people were still unaware of the arrest of Jesus, they rushed him to Pilate after a hasty “legal” trial. 

                Pilate knew of Jesus, but does not seem to have been too bothered about him.  He is struck by the anger of the high priests, and discerns that they were envious of him.  He was correct.  Their charges against him during their own trial were religious.  When they bring him to Pilate they level political charges against him; that he was making himself out to be a king, and thus opposed to Caesar.  They make the charge that Jesus was opposed to paying taxes to Caesar, a false charge.  Pilate gives Jesus every opportunity to defend himself, but is struck by the otherworldly words of Jesus.  Pilate is a bureaucrat, whose only goal, as noted above, was to maintain the peace and keep taxes flowing to Rome.  But he was not stupid.  Though brutal, he had a sense of justice, and found no reason to condemn Jesus.  That he is not concerned about “truth” means he wants a quick, painless resolution to the situation, especially since the high priests were riling up the crowd.  Knowing also that Jesus was popular Pilate figures he can give the people a choice.

                Before doing that, he decides to scourge Jesus as a punishment, and hopes that this will quell the bloodlust of his enemies.  The soldiers take it further, using Jesus as a prop in a Roman game called “king”, during which they take a prisoner and mockingly dress him up as a king to show their superiority as Romans.  On the pavements stones in Jerusalem there are carved markings of the symbols they would use for this game.  I’ve seen those, too.  The crowning of thorns was part of this game.  Pilate figures that bringing Jesus out so brutalized will make the people feel sorry for him and demand his release.  Yet the high priests know differently.  They were hoping for some form of brutalization, and got what they wanted.  When Jesus is brought out scourged and crowned with thorns, their desire for his death only increases.  In addition, the crowds who had been for Jesus when they thought he might be the Messiah are turned off by this, and go along with the request for his death.  The plan of the enemies of Jesus is almost complete.  The choice between the violent revolutionary Barabbas and the brutalized Jesus dramatizes the plan. 

Pilate is nonplussed by their vehemence.  “What crime has he done?”  The final political element is near completion.  “Shall I crucify your king?”  The high priests lose it completely:  We have no king but Caesar.  One wonders if Pilate was trying to force them to this point.  He was a cynic, after all.  When he washes his hands, it was a mockery of the justice he had formerly espoused.

Once Jesus is crucified, the plans of his enemies reach their fulfillment.  The supposed Messiah has been mocked and put to death by the enemies of Israel.  The people are disillusioned by all of this.  To whom can they turn now?  To the leaders who had “exposed” the false Messiah.

Yet Pilate would have the last word.  To rub it in to the leaders of the Judeans, he has the familiar tile placed above the head of Jesus:  Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Judeans.  The priests object, saying, “This man said, I am the King of the Judeans.”   Quod scripsi, scripsi.  This is a final insult.   Remember, Nazareth was not just in Galilee; it was a Podunk village, almost unknown, and certainly not in Judea.  For the Judeans, the idea of being preached to by a Galilean was bad enough; to think of one becoming their king was far worse.  Pilate knew what he was doing.  The mockery, in other words, goes beyond the plans of the high priests.  Jesus has exposed not just the hypocrisy of the high priests and Pharisees.  By the hands of Pilate, he has exposed their political expediency. 

Such were the conditions of Passion and Death of the Lord.  Human beings have their plans.  God Who knows all has His own plans. What the world considers success, God abhors.  The tragedy of the Crucifixion of Jesus was so only for those who do not see in faith.  The Blessed Mother was told by the angel that the kingdom of her Son would have no end.  Standing at the foot of the cross, and seeing the title above the head of Jesus, I’m sure she remembered these words.  As she conceived in faith, she gazed upon the dying Jesus with the same, and even stronger, faith.  The world changes its mind from truth to error, from support to hatred.  Only those who have eyes to see will remain strong, and stand with the Virgin Mary in faith through to the resurrection.