Mark 14:53-65; 15:1
March 16, 2014
2nd Sunday of Lent
When the Worship Committee decided to do a Lenten worship series that focused on the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, I immediately knew what source would become my guide. The definitive scholarly treatment of the subject is The Death of the Messiah by Raymond Brown. And it just so happens that my mom has a copy which, since she now lives with us, means I have a copy.
Indeed, I have a copy of both massive volumes, complete with a table of contents for the introduction. There is a section titled “The Marcan form of the Sanctuary Statement,” which is a discussion Mark 14:57-58: “Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against [Jesus]: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’”
As Brown begins this section he writes, “I forewarn the reader that what follows . . . will be a long treatment.” And he’s not kidding. There are 21 pages about these two verses.
There is so much to say about the Gospel stories of the crucifixion–often referred to a the Passion Narratives–because there are so many theories to cover. No one is 100% sure about the historical details; for example, when looking at this small section about the trial before the Sanhedrin, we don’t know to what extent Jewish leaders had the authority to carry out the death penalty; we don’t know who exactly made up the Sanhedrin or if the Sanhedrin was a group of particular people or a more general term for a gathering of various religious leaders; we don’t know if the Sanhedrin used procedures similar to those found in second century rabbinic sources (from the Pharisees) or if, because this was a first century Sadducee-led body, they used distinctly different sources.
This latter point matters if we want to know whether the trial depicted here was legal or not–really whether it was even an official trial or not. If the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day was supposed to follow roughly the same guidelines as we find in second-century sources, then this trial was most definitely illegal. The trial is held at night, the witnesses act as judges, the high priest is the first to pronounce judgment–all of these aspects, and several others–are illegal under 2nd century rabbinic law.
How we interpret this scene can affect our judgment of the Jewish authorities of Jesus’ day. And most of you are probably aware that the Passion Narrative has provoked a great deal of anti-Jewish sentiment throughout history–some of it terribly, terribly ugly. In an effort to move us away from such antisemitism, some scholars have gone so far as to say that this trial before the Sanhedrin is a completely fabricated aspect of the narrative–that the Jewish authorities had nothing at all to do with the death of Jesus.
It seems to me, though, that we can affirm kind and loving treatment of Jewish people without resorting to some sort of odd revisionist history regarding the life and death of Jesus. It is most likely that the Jewish authorities did have something to do with the death of Jesus. Brown goes into all the supporting factors, but even if we just look at the Gospels themselves it is pretty clear. Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, while the details are slightly different, does appear in all four Gospels. And throughout the Jesus story we see him coming in conflict with the religious authorities: insulting the Pharisees and Sadducees, healing on the Sabbath, and not long before this trial, turning over tables in the Temple courts.
Beyond all the questions of historical accuracy, there is the question of why. Assuming that we take Mark’s story it is presented, why would the religious authorities have been so concerned about this 30-year-old rabbi from Nazareth?
As Brown notes, even if we acknowledge that the Jewish authorities had a hand in condemning Jesus, we cannot simply dismiss them as evil hypocrites. There might have been a few among them who were simply power-hungry and cruel, but most of the religious leaders were likely genuinely concerned for the greater welfare of the Jewish people; they deeply loved the Law and did not want to see it diluted by some fly-by-night miracle worker.
Most of the religious leaders gained their positions not through political manipulations, but through sincere study of and love for the Torah; through obedience to the commandments of God–as best as they could understand them.
Jesus was a threat to the faith they loved. He hung out with sinners–and even forgave them. He healed and blessed people for no good reason–even women and children and non-Jews. He broke the Sabbath regulations. He implicitly and explicitly criticized the religious authorities. He threatened the Temple–the very heart of Jewish worship.
Jesus gave the Jewish leaders plenty of reason to be upset–even afraid. Brown, who, in addition to being a well-regarded biblical scholar was also a Catholic priest, points out that self-consciously religious people rarely appreciate it when someone comes along and tells them they need to change their minds. He writes, “[Jesus] would be offensive on any religious scene if he told people that God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.”
The early Anabaptists certainly found out how offensive it could be to suggest that religious leaders had it wrong. Infant baptism was a foundational practice for Catholics and protestants in the 15th and 16th centuries. Those religious leaders most certainly did not appreciate a bunch of people telling them that the Bible actually did not condone infant baptism and that their sacrament would have to be done again for adults. This suggestion of religious error was enough to get many Anabaptists banished, and even killed.
This resistance by religious leaders to change within their faith is not merely a phenomenon of the distant past. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, did not just have run-ins with the secular legal authorities, he also faced opposition from other Christian leaders. There were pastors who wanted churches and society at large to remain racially segregated–to be sure. And there were also pastors who, while claiming to support racial equality, told King that his methods of peaceful–though confrontational–protest were “unwise and untimely.”
Several white pastors leveled this charge of “unwise and untimely” in an open letter titled “A Call for Unity.” King’s response was his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he wrote, “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership.” He writes that, as he has traveled through the South and looked upon the church buildings:
Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
While there were certainly church leaders who supported King, for the most part these were not words that endeared him to the religious establishment.
I will admit that I have also been thinking about Brown’s assessment in relation to the current conversations–and threats–in our denomination related to Mountain States Mennonite Conference licensing Theda Good–a woman married to another woman–for ministry: “[Jesus] would be offensive on any religious scene if he told people that God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.”
In essence, that is what Mountain States is doing, what the Western District Conference did when they upheld my credentials, what our congregation does by being open and affirming of sexual minorities–we communicate to the broader church that, in our understanding of scripture and the way of Jesus and the movement of the Holy Spirit, “God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.” We should not be surprised that people are offended. We should not be surprised that authorities call us up for hearings and trials.
Now, I do not want to foster a persecution complex; and I do not want to equate my arduous journey to Newton, Kansas, for the Leadership Commission review with Jesus’ trials and beatings and crucifixion. They are very different things.
We also must consider that it is dangerous for us–or anyone who is not Jesus–to assume that the beliefs we hold represent the heart of God merely because we hold them. When speaking and acting in opposition to others within our faith family, we may be in the role of Jesus, but it is also possible that we slip into the role of the Sanhedrin from time to time. As people of faith we are called to accountability in community, to prayerful study of scripture, to an openness to the Holy Spirit.
Still, as we walk toward the cross through these days of Lent, it is good for us to consider the whole story of Jesus’ death; to acknowledge that it is not just the secular world that opposes the way of Jesus. Resistance to Jesus can be strong within the religious community as well.
In the first Century, the religious leaders–the Sanhedrin–condemn Jesus as worthy of death. They spit on him, mock him, and beat him . . . but they do not kill him. When the sun comes up, they bind Jesus and hand him over to Pilate. Maybe because they do not have the legal authority to execute a prisoner. Maybe because they want to see Jesus killed in the particularly brutal and public and symbolic manner of crucifixion–which was a method of execution reserved for use by the Roman government. Maybe because they want to pass the buck and avoid the full anger of the many Jewish people who support the ministry of Jesus.
If Raymond Brown could not figure out their reasons in 1600 pages, we’re not going to figure them out this morning. We don’t know why the Jewish leaders pass Jesus off to Pilate. But we know that they did pass Jesus off to Pilate. And so the story continues.