When conducting a retreat for law school seniors and asking them to contemplate the trials of Jesus prior to his crucifixion, I tell them not to be distracted by what they know about criminal due process. There was no due process there. I ask them to concentrate instead on how Jesus hides his divinity and refuses to use it in his defense and on the important question of why he is undergoing his ignominious trial. But let us look at the trials themselves.
There were two trials, one before the religious leaders and the other before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor.
The trial before the religious leaders was by a “kangaroo court,” one in which there was already a pre-determined verdict. The judges had wanted a verdict that would serve as a basis for asking for his death. They themselves did not claim the authority to impose the death penalty. But they wanted him dead and they wanted a verdict that would convince the Roman rulers to sentence him to death. But Jesus maintained his silence.
He finally broke his silence when his judges decided to place him under solemn oath. "I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God." When Matthew wrote his gospel, the people had already long known that that was what he was. The trial in Matthew reaches its climax when Jesus proclaims to the world who He was. "You have said so. But I tell you: From now on you will see 'the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power' and 'coming on the clouds of heaven.'"
We can imagine how those same religious leaders who were his judges must have felt when finally they appeared for judgment before “the Son of man seated at the right hand of the Power.”
Meanwhile, Peter the Rock melted before those who had accused him of being a follower of Jesus. Three times he denied any connection with Jesus. But he repented and “wept bitterly.” We see in Peter the saints and the sinners that make up the community of the Church.
It is salutary to reflect on how Peter and Judas dealt with their betrayal of Jesus. Both recognized the innocence of Jesus. But on the one hand Peter repented, whereas Judas, while remorseful, despaired.
Next came the trial before Pilate where the religious leaders decided to have Jesus brought. The trial went through a number of phases. Jesus is first interrogated. Pilate asks him if he is the King of the Jews. An affirmation would be a political offense. Jesus answers in an ambiguous manner. “As you say.” What he meant was that He was, but not in the sense Pilate understood him to be claiming.
Seeing the flimsiness of the case against Jesus, Pilate looks for a way of satisfying the people’s taste for blood and escaping guilt for the death of an innocent man, especially after he receives a message from his wife not to trifle with the life of an innocent man. Thus Pilate next offers Barrabas to pacify the crowd. The crowd rejects the offer. When asked what should be done with Jesus, the crowd asks for crucifixion. When further asked what crime Jesus had committed, they mention none, but, egged on by religious leaders, only repeat their demand for crucifixion. The crowd thereby affirms his innocence.
Finally, the final phase. Pilate is convinced that Jesus is innocent. He ceremonially washes his hands as his way of disowning what would happen to Jesus. The religious leaders too had done something similar when Judas attempted to return the thirty pieces of silver. They told Judas, "What is that to us? Look to it yourself." So to, Pilate said, “See to it yourselves.” The religious leaders and Pilate both refuse to own their guilt. But “the whole people,” crowd and leaders, accept responsibility. "His blood be upon us and upon our children."
How is this cry for blood to be interpreted? It is a delicate question which has affected the attitude of generation after generation of Christians towards the Jews. Is the cry only for those who were there at the trial or also for those who would follow them? But as one commentator writes, “There is no foundation in the Matthean formulation for the lamentable extension of the phrase in the Christian tradition to encompass all subsequent generation of the Jewish people to the end of time.”
17 April 2011