Jesus is Tried

Reading: Mark 15.1-15
How many of you here this morning can remember castor oil? There was no way to disguise its smell or taste. And if it did successfully "get down" to do its good, it might well "come up" again any way. Is that your memory of it? "Castor oil for tummy ache" was the slogan. I am not suggesting it didn't help in a number of cases, but there were many children sure that the cure was worse than the complaint.

Mary Poppins tells a more recent generation that "a teaspoon of honey makes the medicine go down". Mostly now, of course, the medicine is in the form of a sugar-coated tablet or a tasteless capsule.

Of course, if sickness is no problem, why not have sugar right through - in other words, a lolly? For many people, a lolly is the picture of the ideal life - all sweetness, nothing bitter at the centre, nothing particularly nourishing, nothing challenging - only sweetness.

And when it comes to the Christian faith, similar preferences come through too. We want Christmas more than Easter - a Christmas without the violent bits about Herod and what he did, perhaps even a Christmas without Jesus, with only Santa, greeting cards and gifts…

Of course, babies don't stay babies and if we start asking questions we discover it leads us on to Easter. All right, but let's focus mainly on the risen Lord and keep off the gruesome bits about the crucifixion. In some way Jesus gave himself with a level of commitment that none of us would dare to exhibit. So we may recognise Good Friday - what he did was noble, if nothing else. But keep it low-key.

It is difficult to imagine a pharmaceutical company - or a confectioner - with a product which was bitter and repulsive on the outside, but sweet and heavenly within.

Yet we want Christmas without the grim warnings of why Jesus came. We want to celebrate a risen Jesus without grasping that he had to die for our sins. And we want to be his followers without repenting of our sins, denying ourselves and taking up our cross.

Today is Palm Sunday, and we recall how Jesus was greeted by the crowds when he rode the donkey into Jerusalem. Our Bible reading, however, takes us on a little further to the trial of Jesus before Pilate the governor. As I was reading through this story again, I was impressed by three phrases which say a great deal about the significance of what was happening.

Jesus refused to say a word… (v.5)

The Jewish Council had determined that Jesus was worthy of the death penalty and they had put Jesus in chains and handed him over to the Roman governor, Pilate. Pilate was questioning him and the chief priests accused him of many things. "Aren't you going to answer? Listen to all their accusations!"

"Again Jesus refused to say a word, and Pilate was amazed."

What are you like at saying nothing when you are falsely (or justly) accused? I suspect that we speak up in our own defence. And why should anyone deny us what would be our right in a court of law?

It was Jesus' right too in that trial before Pilate, but he refused to say anything in his own defence. Of all accused people, he had God and right on his side. He could have spoken in such a way as to show up their arguments for what they were. Why, even without any words of defence from Jesus, Pilate himself could see that their charges were fraudulent. And Jesus could have spoken in a way to convict each one of them of their jealousy and sin!

Falsely accused of many things, the future Judge of the world said nothing in his own defence. At the end of time unrepentant accusers will appear before his judgment seat. But for the present he was opening the possibility of forgiveness and salvation for all who would respond to him with repentance and faith.

And throughout this time of grace the Judge of this world continues to "refuse to say a word". He does not speak that final word of judgment, only the gospel invitation, "Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest" (Mt.11.28).

Pilate wanted to please the crowd… (v. 15)

Pilate was in a corner, looking for a way out. He was convinced that Jesus was innocent. We read, "He knew very well that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him because they were jealous" (v. 10). The custom of releasing any one prisoner at the people's seemed at first to give the possibility that Jesus could be released. Surely, confronted with the choice between Jesus and Barabbas, a rebel who "had committed murder in the riot" (v. 7), the crowd would choose Jesus.

Pilate was swayed by crowd pressure - "he wanted to please the crowd" (v. 15). He failed to act with justice towards Jesus - or even compassion towards Barabbas!

Edward J. Malley comments, "Pilate's own complicity is thus clearly stated, even though the involvement of the Romans is played down. Thus Pilate, 'naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness' (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 8 § 301), yielded to the will of a cynical crowd that did not respect him." (The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1968).

We love popularity. We thrive on it. We don't readily make choices which might appear quaint or foolish or old-fashioned. Even as a Christian church we face the pressure to please other people rather than God. To what extent are we ourselves tempted to be crowd-pleasers rather than do with integrity what is right in the sight of God?

Crucify him! (vv. 13-14)

"What, then, do you want me to do with the one you call the king of the Jews?"

"Crucify him!"

"But what crime has he committed?"

"Crucify him!" (vv. 12-14).

John D. Grassmick comments, "During the trial proceedings a sizable crowd had gathered in the palace forum (cf. v. 16). The people approached Pilate's elevated judgment seat and asked him to grant the annual Passover amnesty (cf. v. 6). Many of them were probably supporters of Barabbas.

"Pilate saw this as an opportunity to show his contempt for the Jews, especially their leaders. He offered to release to them the King of the Jews (cf. v. 2). He recognised that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to him not out of loyalty to Rome but out of envy and hatred. Pilate hoped to achieve Jesus' release and thus undo the religious leaders' scheme.

"But Pilate's plan did not work. The chief priests incited the emotional crowd to pressure him into releasing Barabbas instead of Jesus. Apparently they knew that the Sanhedrin had already condemned Jesus (cf. 14.64). Strangely, Pilate failed to consider that the crowd would never side with him against their own leaders (cf. John 19.6-7).

"Since the crowd had rejected Pilate's offer and requested the release of Barabbas, he inquired ('again') about what they wanted done with the one they called the King of the Jews. Pilate did not accept this title for Jesus but his question implied he was willing to release Jesus also if they wished. But without hesitation they shouted back, Crucify him! The punishment that once awaited Barabbas was now thrust on Jesus.

"Pilate challenged them to state the crime which made Jesus guilty enough to be crucified. But they persistently cried out all the louder, Crucify him! Pilate considered the clamor of the crowd an acclamation, legally indicating a decision by popular demand. Thus Jesus must be pronounced guilty of high treason, a capital offense normally punishable by crucifixion in Roman provinces" (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 1985).

This case wasn't straightforward. It was no simple matter of whether they liked having Jesus around, whether they liked his style of relating to people, whether they apreciated his miracles or his teaching… Jesus was, as someone has put it, the person no one could ignore. He spoke with an authority no one else had ever exercised. It was not just a question of what they might want to do with him, but what he might want to do with them…

His presence was an embarrassment. His talk about the Kingdom of God raised questions and demands that went far beyond being what it meant to be Jewish. It was all getting too deep, too personal for them. Better to get rid of him now, before this goes too far, before it becomes too complicated… Crucify him!

We are so quick to reflect on mob psychology and the barbarism of the Roman death penalty… But isn't there something very modern about this part of the story too? We have become masters of the art of terminating relationships, of removing ourselves from uncomfortable situations, of walking away from the real issues… We want a life that is sweetness through and through!

And Jesus, on trial in today's reading, is the future Judge. He wants us to know him now as the loving Saviour. He gently calls us to repent and gently leads us on in faith. He knows that, like Pilate, we succomb all too easily to the pressures of pleasing the crowd and fail to live with integrity. He is aware that, like the crowd, we pull back all too often from the pain of repentance and possibility of a new life.

But he went through that trial without answering back, without calling divine judgment down on his accusers or on the weak-willed judge. And right now he does not speak his final judgments, but seeks us and calls us. What do you want to do with the one who was called the King of the Jews? Eternal consequences hang on our response to that question.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, Palm Sunday 23 March 1997
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.

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