The Church holds up this story as uniquely important. This death, and what follows, are our core story, The Story. But its power, its uniqueness, comes from who Jesus was, from his first followers’ experience of God present in Jesus in a way unlike any other person in history. That as the author of the letter to the Philippians says, in Jesus, God set aside infinity to join us in mortality.
The death itself – and the events that lead up to it – were far from unique. Indeed, there’s much in this story that’s too familiar. There are no monsters in this story. Only ordinary people, driven by ordinary motives, ordinary fears, ordinary resentments.
Start with the leaders. Leaders bear a special responsibility for what happens on their watch. So surely we can point fingers at the leaders in this story, and say, There. There are the monsters. The chief priests, the scribes, the elders – they are the institutional and moral leadership of first-century Judaism. They are the leaders and teachers of the faith. They knew it was wrong to kill an innocent man; how did they let this happen? Well – Jesus was not actually innocent. I know there’s a lot of talk about Jesus as an innocent victim, but he’d basically done the stuff they said he did. Stirred up the people. Spoken dismissively about Sabbath-keeping and other practices. Busted stuff up in the Temple. And worst of all, blasphemed, by claiming a uniquely close relationship with God – a fundamental challenge to the core of Jewish faith, that there is only one God. They’re genuinely afraid that Jesus is sparking a popular movement that will dilute or even destroy the faith they’ve sustained for so many centuries. And these religious leaders weren’t only responsible for the faith, but also for the wellbeing of the people. They are legitimately afraid that the unrest swirling around Jesus will turn into a rebellion that will inevitably lead to a violent crackdown by the forces of Rome, the great empire occupying and ruling Judea. The high priest Caiaphas says, It’s better for one man to die than to have the whole nation destroyed. He’s not wrong – although that doesn’t make it right.
What about Pilate, the Roman governor of the province? There’s some scholarly speculation that Pilate must have been out of favor in Rome to have been sent to Judea, a miserable, impoverished backwater full of religious zealots. Why would a governor representing the greatest empire in the world, backed with all the superior military force of Rome, bend in the face of a scrappy crowd of Judeans? Because he feared a riot – that his soldiers would have to put down, violently, which might spark other riots, and would definitely mean having to write some awkward letters to Rome. Pilate is a man with great power, true, but he’s also part of a system, and others have power over him. Pilate’s interest is in stability and peace, even if it’s an unjust peace, a cruel peace. Can we call him a monster?
What about the soldiers and officers? There are two different groups in this narrative. First, there’s the armed group that comes to arrest Jesus, probably a mix of Temple guards and some irregulars. Jesus shows a kind of wry compassion for them – they are, after all, his people. It’s the Roman soldiers later, the soldiers of the governor, who are truly cruel, hurting and mocking Jesus. And yet as much as we’d like to find monsters there – there are seventy years of social science research, sparked by the desire to understand the Holocaust, that has shown again and again and again that it is all too easy to get a group of human beings to start thinking of another group of human beings as less than human. We hate each other so easily. To call these Roman soldiers monsters is to deny our innate capacity to dehumanize and destroy.
What about the bystanders, the crowds in the story? One minute they’re so excited to see Jesus, shouting Hosanna! and waving palms; the next minute they’re shouting that he should be crucified! Well – those events were actually several days apart, and they weren’t the same crowd, even though in our liturgy today we treat them as if they were, as we take on their voices. The crowd greeting Jesus at the city gate was full of those who had heard about this man and hoped he would bring about a new era of freedom and prosperity. The crowd before Pilate was probably the kind of crowd that gathers for executions and bloody accidents. But let’s be honest: I’m sure there were many people who were part of both crowds. Because it’s not that hard for us to turn on someone, especially someone who disappoints us. Who turns out not to be the savior we’d hoped for. We see that dynamic most clearly in Judas, whom I can’t help but pity. He wanted change – big, immediate, transformative change. And when Jesus’ agenda turned out to be slower and subtler, he turned against him – and then turned again, and was overcome by deadly remorse.
And then there are the disciples, Jesus’ friends and followers. If it were only up to me, this is the voice I’d have us read together in the story. It’s tradition in many Episcopal churches for the congregation to be the voice of the crowd that shouts out, “Crucify him!” And that’s important to some of you, so I have left that custom be; but if I were to locate contemporary Episcopalians in this story, it would be as the disciples. The disciples, who follow him – but only so far. Who believe in him – but often really don’t understand him. Who love him, truly – but not as much as he needs them to. Who are right there with him, ready for action, while they’re all seated around the table together, with a good meal and a glass of wine inside them, but when it comes to taking to the streets – well, a lot of us have to think twice. We have jobs and families and reputations to protect. This discipleship thing can get to be more than we anticipated, real quick.
There are no monsters in this story. And yet the story reminds us, every year, how quickly and easily resentment and reluctance, complacency and fear, can make us part of something monstrous.