"No Grounds for the Death Penalty"

Palm Sunday Year C

Luke 23: 1 25

(Selected passage from Luke 22: 14 to Luke 23: 56)

Introduction

Our reading for meditation this week is part of the long Gospel reading for Palm Sunday. For those Christians accustomed to the three year international scheme of Sunday Gospel readings, this proclamation of the Lord's Passion will be very significant and moving. For those Christians who do not formally celebrate Holy Week and Easter, do feel welcome to participate by reading and reflecting on our Lord's Passion (i.e. his great suffering). All the saints over the ages attest to the power of meditation on Christ's sufferings and death in the pursuit of true holiness.

Here we take just one part of the solemn proclamation to sample the whole. Throughout the week before Easter Day you might read a portion of Luke 22: 14 to Luke 23: 56 each day.

The method we follow is really very old. It is a reflective, meditative way of feeding on the text. You will find, if you have not already done so, that when we express what is happening in our own language it is always so very contemporary and therefore not distant in time and space.

Meditation has been called the link between attentive listening and effective performance. Meditation, therefore, as the Scriptures so clearly proclaim, gives spiritual understanding. We have only to read Psalm 119 to know that.

In the case of this particular reading, we could go through it, noting our personal observations and focusing on Jesus as he quietly confronts each new situation. He might seem a powerless pawn thrust backwards and forwards. Prayerful insight shows us much, much more.

Some Notes On Our Text

Since his arrest the previous evening, Jesus had been kept up all night, slandered, mocked, and physically abused. Our text opens as the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Court) has just decided on the guilt of Jesus.

Verses 1 and 2

In Pilate's presence the accusers of Jesus recite a list of offences carefully crafted to rankle the Governor. They claim to have witnessed Jesus:

  • subverting the nation
  • opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar
  • claiming to be the Messiah — King.

Verse 3

Pilate is immediately suspicious of their sudden flush of loyalty to Rome. This "old fox" is not easily fooled! He therefore asks Jesus a question, which is both polite and neutral.

"Are you the King of the Jews?"

Our Lord does not answer with a direct "Yes" but "You (emphatic) say so; not me". He thus implies that there are more important questions to be asked if he is on trial.

Verse 4

The highest Court in the land reaches one of its fastest ever verdicts!

"I find no basis for a (i.e. any) charge against this man."

Pilate who is shrewd and cold-blooded, could execute Jesus with just one word, but he declares the prisoner, "Not Guilty".

In actual fact, Pilate sees Jesus as some small time village preacher, harmless even if a little eccentric.

All Pilate wants to do is to get such trivial matters out of the way so that he can attend to the grand affairs of representing his divine Emperor and the almighty power of Imperial Rome!

Verse 5

The leaders however, are not prepared to take that sitting down. As Luke's original text records, they "persisted strongly".

"He incites disloyalty all over Judea with his teaching (implying it is a dangerous threat to good order). He started in Galilee — now he's here!"

Verses 6 and 7

Pilate's ears prick up: "Did you say Galilee?" This was music to his ears. He is worried by the fanatical determination of the accusers of Jesus to get him convicted. He jumps at the chance to off-load the problem on to Herod, a puppet King used by Pilate to keep the Jews suppressed. Herod is in Jerusalem at the time, and this is a chance to get rid of the tiresome religious authorities who have become a pest (not for the first time!).

Verse 8

Herod is delighted to have a chance to meet Jesus, having heard so much about him back in Galilee. Although he feared Jesus was John the Baptist returned, he could not resist a chance to see a miracle.

Verse 9

As soon as Jesus is brought before him, Herod asks a sea of questions — silly questions.

But Jesus, with commanding dignity, gives no answer, and does not utter a word. This is the only time the Lord reacted in this way to any person.

Verse 10

Meanwhile the same mob of leaders performing in front of Pilate have arrived at Herod's residence and turn on the same act, "vehemently accusing him".

Verse 11

Herod and his armed guard appear to ignore the charges being made against Jesus. They are only interested in playing with him and ridiculing him. As soon as they become bored with their childish behaviour, they throw an elegant looking robe around Jesus to add further insult to injury, and march him back to the Praetorium.

Verse 12

Although this is bothersome to Pilate who thought he had got rid of Jesus, he takes pleasure in Herod's act of politely deferring to the higher Court of the Governor. In fact, Pilate later reacted very warmly to this act of obeisance.

Verses 13 15

This time Pilate takes the initiative and actually calls together the senior Jewish authorities. He is keen to terminate the ridiculous nonsense which is gathering momentum.

  • He addresses them very firmly:
  • "You brought him here to me.
  • I listened to your charges.
  • I have found no basis whatsoever for the charges you are making against him.
  • Herod likewise can find no case against him.
  • He is totally innocent".

Verse 16

Jesus has been found innocent. It is therefore all the more horrifying for Pilate to order Jesus to be "chastised". In Luke's original Greek, this is a euphemism for a brutal scourging. Only slaves are normally subjected to this cruel beating with thongs of leather studded with sharp objects and barbs which bruise and tear away the flesh to expose the bone.

Pilate is a ruthless Governor, but in his own strange way expects the clamouring leaders to back off if Jesus is punished severely and then released.

Verse 17

Modern translations omit verse 17 as it was added to the text as an explanatory gloss. It reads: "He (Pilate) was under obligation to release one man for them every feast day (i.e. every major festival)". 

Verse 18

The rabble step up their pressure as well as their odious remarks. "Take him away — we want Barabbas!"

Verse 19

Pilate is well aware that this pathetic mob (as he sees them) are up in arms that Jesus was supposed to have subverted Israel, yet now they want a convicted murderer and insurrectionist released!

Verse 20

Pilate despises them and, for his own reasons, does not want them to have their own way. He continues to try and do a deal with them to release Jesus, but they will not hear a word of it.

Verse 21

Instead the Jewish leaders start shouting in a mob-chant: "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

Verse 22

For the third time the ruling Roman Governor pronounces Jesus entirely innocent. Again he tries his stunt about having Jesus scourged in the hope that this will be enough to get them to back off. He is a military strategist and he can think on his feet.

Verse 23

But even Pilate, with all power and experience begins to become unnerved by their blood curdling demands for nothing less than the crucifixion of Jesus. St Luke records: "……and their shouts prevailed." (There is something very contemporary about that!)

Verse 24

Suddenly Pilate gives in and agrees to do exactly what they demand. In all of the annals of Rome, there is no other record of such a humiliating defeat of a presiding ruler.

Verse 25

Pilate orders the immediate release of the violent convict they are calling for and surrenders Jesus, whom even he recognises as a gentle man of peaceful ways, into the hands of his rabid opponents.

Jesus is then led away to be crucified.

We Take Our Leave

The drama continues, but we must take our leave here. As we approach Easter. We would do well to reflect on this reading and its sequel, keeping our focus on Jesus and his extraordinary self-control. As we revisit these scenes we observe our Lord in full control at every moment as he allows events to unfold. We are left pondering: why on earth would he go through all of this for us?

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