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An Unlikely Cast of Characters

March 27, 2023

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the Passion—the last week of Jesus’ life, beginning with his entry into Jerusalem and ending in his Crucifixion.  The events of the week are filled with high drama.  Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, hailed by joyous people who lined the road greeting him with joy and enthusiasm.   It was just as the ancient texts described the Messiah’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Zechariah 9:9).  Then, after his final teachings came the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ arrest, the kangaroo court trials before Caiaphas and Pilate, and finally Jesus’ Crucifixion between two criminals.

This week’s gospel lesson picks up the story with the events that occurred after Jesus was arrested, taken to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest to appear before the religious leaders, who took him to Pilate, who referred him to Herod, who sent him back to Pilate for judgment.[1]  Many events are described in Sunday’s gospel text (Matthew 27:11-66): Pilate judges Jesus; Pilate finds him guilty of treason (for claiming to be a king, thereby causing civil unrest);  Pilate gives into the crowd’s demand that Jesus be crucified; Jesus is beaten and mocked before he is crucified; several people are converted; four miracles occur; one person outs himself; and enforcers were assigned to secure the tomb to prevent a “last deception” (v. 64). 

I knew from my Bible studies that the events of that Friday occurred within a very short distance of each other in Jerusalem—basically the equivalent to a neighborhood.  But walking the streets in Jerusalem in recent years brought a new understanding of the proximity of the locations that played key roles in the story.  When Jesus was arrested at the Garden of Gethsemane, he was marched about a mile to the house of the high priest, Caiaphas—roughly the same distance from our house to our small village.  It was in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times as predicted by Jesus (See photo at end of this blog taken in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house in Jerusalem).

Jesus was then taken to the Antonia Fortress[2], where Pilate was located—a little over half a mile or about the distance from our house to our church on Sunset Boulevard.  Pilate sent him to Herod’s Palace, about a half a mile away—who sent him back to Pilate at the Antonia Fortress.  He was bounced back and forth in that half mile between Herod’s Palace and the Antonia Fortress, in the space of a few hours, because neither Pilate nor Herod wanted to get involved in what was essentially a Jewish religious issue.  Jesus was mocked and beaten by Pilate’s soldiers at the Antonia Fortress before he was taken to Golgotha to be crucified.  The Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) is a winding street, about a half a mile long, starting near where the Antonia Fortress was located and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the last five stations of the cross are located, including the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion (Golgotha) and burial. 

We will examine the events involving an unlikely cast of characters as they appear in Matthew’s narrative.  

The Judge

The charge that the Sanhedrin lodged against Jesus for blasphemy was not a capital offense under Roman law, so they had to make it appear that Jesus posed a threat to Rome. They bound Jesus to give the impression that he was a dangerous criminal, and reported to Pilate that Jesus called himself the “king of the Jews” who posed a political threat to the Romans, whose “king” was the emperor—Tiberius Caesar.  Jesus did not deny the charge. Under Roman law, one who did not put on a defense was considered guilty.  

Despite his own suspicion that Jesus was innocent and despite pleas from his wife, and his attempt to encourage the people to vote to release Jesus, Pilate went along with the crowd, found him guilty, and sentenced him to be crucified.  

The basic statement of Christian beliefs found in the Apostles’ Creed, used by Christians for centuries, confirms that Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate because it was Pilate’s decision to find him guilty when he knew he wasn’t.  It was Pilate’s decision to cave into the crowd’s demand that he be crucified.  And it was soldiers under Pilate’s command who mocked and beat him before taking him to Golgotha. 

The Mockers

The crowd mocked Jesus: “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself. Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 27: 39-40).  Similarly, the head priests and elders mocked him; one of the criminals crucified with him also insulted him.  Why did those who had welcomed him into Jerusalem as their great hope a few days before now mock him?  

One explanation is that the crowd around the cross were a different group of people than those who had witnessed Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead and other miracles in the days leading up to the confrontation.   

Another possibility is that like mockers of our day, these people hadn’t grasped who Jesus was, despite what he told them, and despite the miracles he performed.  Instead of viewing the big picture from an eternal point of view, these folks expected the Messiah to be a great military leader who would lead Israel to victory.  They expected the Messiah to overthrow the Roman emperor, and when he didn’t even try, they rejected him as their long-awaited Messiah.  Also, the fact that Jesus was condemned by the religious leaders and favored by their oppressor, the Roman governor, may have partially accounted for the change of heart. 

The Messiah

Jesus, who was fully man as well as fully God, expressed his extreme anguish just prior to his death, when he felt the full force of taking on the sins of the world, and the consequential separation from his Father: “‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabach-thani?”—which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27: 46).  He had been on the cross for some six hours, from approximately 9:00 am until his death at approximately 3:00 pm.  Jesus wasn’t questioning the Father in his statement.  He was expressing the pain of his separation from the Father.  The physical pain was overwhelming, but the spiritual pain of separation from the Father was worse.  Jesus experienced this separation from the Father on the cross so that we will never have to endure it.   If you confess your sins and accept Jesus as your Savior, you will never be separated from God.  Jesus did it all for us.

The Newly Converted

Some of the mockers were paying attention to what was unfolding before their eyes, and became unlikely converts.   Four miracles are historically attributed to Jesus’ crucifixion.  The darkening of the sky from noon until his death at 3:00 pm was the first extraordinary event.   The earthquake was another extraordinary event that put into motion two other events.  The tearing of the curtain separating the Holy place from the Most Holy place in the temple symbolized the removal of the barrier between God and the people.  People are now free to approach God directly. The opening of the tombs may have also resulted from the earthquake. 

The centurion and the other soldiers standing watch who had mocked Jesus just a few hours before, were aghast at these miracles and said “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54b).  Also, before Jesus died, one of the criminals repented, and Jesus promised that he would join him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43).

The Women

All of the male followers of Jesus except John fled at the first sign of trouble (Matthew 26: 56b); but the women stayed with Jesus: “There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” (Matthew 27: 55-56).  The women were undoubtedly the ones who gave the gospel writers the eyewitness accounts of what transpired during the hours that Jesus was on the cross.  

The fact that the women were the key eyewitnesses not only to his death, but were also the first witnesses on the scene after the Resurrection was remarkable.  Women in Jesus’ day couldn’t even testify in court, because they were considered unreliable witnesses.  Yet God chose women to witness the most important events in human history.  That women were chosen as the key witnesses is a very strong proof of the authenticity of the truth of the gospel accounts of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.  Anyone making up such a story would never have chosen women to report it.

The Outed

 One man had been a secret follower of Jesus—a secret servant.  After Jesus’ death, he was even more convinced of his authenticity, and threw caution to the wind.  He outed himself.  He was Joseph of Arimathea, a highly respected member of the Sanhedrin who had been afraid to speak up against the religious leaders who condemned Jesus.  Most of Jesus’ followers had fled, but this brave Jewish leader went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body so that he could bury it.  In doing so he identified himself as a follower of Jesus—a very dangerous position to be in at that time.  It is highly unlikely that he would claim Jesus’ body for burial if he didn’t truly believe him to be God.

The Enforcers

 The religious leaders remembered Jesus’ teaching about his Resurrection, and were afraid of what would happen if it occurred, or if the disciples stole his body to make it appear that he was resurrected.  As they put it: “The last deception will be worse than the first” (Matthew 27: 64).  To avoid “this last deception,” Pilate told them to make the tomb as secure as possible.  “So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard” (Matthew 27: 66).  Despite the best efforts of these guards, the tomb was opened, and the body was gone on Sunday morning, providing more proof of the Resurrection.

Where do you see yourself in this line-up?   Do you, like Pilate, ignore the truth to go along with the crowd?  Or are you a mocker, a loyal follower, a new convert, or blind enforcer of unbelief?  Wherever you are in this line-up of unlikely characters, the truth is that mockers became converts, followers were eyewitnesses, and we still have the naysayers among us.

We know the end of the story—that the death of Jesus on the cross was the beginning of our salvation, and a joyous event was to follow on Sunday morning.  As one preacher put it: “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!”[3]  But even during the Passion, we see hope in the completion of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and in the conversion of the criminal and the guards upon Jesus’ death.  These are people who were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah before the Resurrection.  

We even see hope in Peter’s denials and in the fear that caused the disciples to scatter, because we can identify with them.  We too have failed Jesus, yet Jesus died on the cross for their sins and omissions and ours as well.   We who have the benefit of all of the historical accounts of the Crucifixion and Resurrection have no excuse for unbelief. 

Prayer:  Gracious Father, we are so grateful for the events that occurred on that long week-end so long ago in a small neighborhood in the Middle East that transformed the world and that continue to transform us today.  As we make our way through Holy Week keep us ever aware of your suffering for us at Golgotha.  Be with us in our re-reading of the Passion Week Scriptures and during our private meditations and prayers.  Keep us ever aware of those around us who are in need at this time so that we may help them weather the storm.  In this time of difficulty for our country and for all around the world, we remember Christ’s suffering and death for us on the cross.  Amen.

[1] The Scripture texts for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion are Psalm 31:9-16; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2: 5-11; Matthew 27:11-66.  Another version of this blog was published on this site in April 2017.

[2] According to Josephus, the Antonia Fortress, located on the north side of the Temple Mount, was placed there to watch over and guard the Temple grounds to prevent civil unrest: “For if the Temple lay as a fortress over the city, Antonia dominated the Temple and the occupants of that post were the guards of all three.” 

[3] Tony Campolo

Photo of Statue in Caiphas’ house depicting Peter’s denial of Jesus (St. Peter Gallicantu), Jerusalem (DCR 2020)

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