Our meditations this afternoon explore the different kinds of power used by the people caught up in the events which took Jesus to the cross. What we will find is that all these forms of power are still in use today, that events of Jesus’ crucifixion are not to be lost in the midst of time but remain pressingly relevant for us all.
The Power of the Underdog. Luke 22. 21-34
On the face of it, we may well think the underdog has no power. We would of course be wrong. From a position of being weak and down trodden, many have found positions of great power. History recounts many examples of the oppressed becoming the oppressors. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia saw the peasants take over the country and adopt a kind of authority which was arguably worse than that of the Tsars which they replaced such that George Orwell wrote in his satire ‘Animal Farm’: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ More recently, we have seen a similar inversion has taken place in South Africa. Black rule has not brought about the just and equal society long for by the black majority.
While the gospel writers say little about underground movements at the time of Jesus, we know from Josephus, the Roman historian and other accounts that they existed. In the year 6 AD, Judas, the Galilean had led a revolt against Rome because they were opposed to the payment of taxes to the pagan emperor. His followers were known as Zealots, after zeal shown by those who had contested against the Maccabean King Antiochus VI when had tried to suppress the Jews. It is possible that the disciple named by the gospel writer Luke as Simon the Zealot was a member of this dissident movement. It has been widely suggested that the reason for Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus was that he was frustrated that Jesus did not seem to be fighting the underdog cause in the way he felt he should. Betrayal would mean Jesus putting up or shutting up.
All the disciples argue amongst themselves about who should be the greatest. It seems that they still cherish the view that they are part of an opposition which might establish the independence of their country one day. When this happens, which of them will be in power?
Jesus answers them by saying that for them as his followers, the usual norms will be reversed: ‘the greatest amongst you must be come like the youngest, and the like one who serves.’ (verse 26) To often, the church has sought to be top dog with all the trappings of empire. Occasionally it has sided with the underdog, as in the liberation theologies of South America. Despite the call for Christians to stand with the poor, there are dangers for Christians who side too deeply with revolutionaries. Jesus points his disciples to a time when they will instead share power in the Kingdom of God.
The Power of Religion Luke 22.63-71
You will often hear it said that religion is the cause of many of the world’s wars. The statement is certainly true on one level and is used by many to justify their atheism or agnosticism. It of course ignores the immense good and beauty that religion has brought to the world. In this passage where Jesus is brought before the religious authorities of his day, we do see a blacker side of religion; the intransigence of those who are not prepared to countenance that they may not be entirely right; people using their religious power for their own ends.
Jesus is not well treated by the leaders of his own faith. He is mocked and insulted. He is blindfolded, hit and then asked to ‘prophesy’ as to who struck him in a perverted game of blind man’s bluff. Although Luke does not use the word, he is accused of blasphemy. This is a word which continues to be widely used by those with religious power to put down those who have a religious view with which they disagree. We are most familiar with this abuse of power today from Muslim extremists. But they are not alone. Religious intolerance has characterised much of history and affected all forms of religion including our own.
But there is another issue here, that of Jesus’ identity. ‘If you are the Messiah, tell us’ (verse 67) they scream at him. The question ‘who Jesus is?’ is as relevant today as it was then. If Jesus had presented himself in his life and ministry as a quiet reflective teacher, calling on people do good things and be faithful to the existing Jewish law and authorities, he would probably have attracted little attention and we certainly would not still talking about him let alone worshipping him today. But the evidence of the gospels is that Jesus made clear he was more than that. His words and actions led people to the conclusion that he was carrying out the actions of God; that he was the promised Messiah. Jesus knew full well that his accusers were in no way prepared to countenance the idea that that was his true identity. Hence the replies to their questioning can be described as enigmatic at best…but he certainly does not deny it.
Given the facts in front of them, the assembly of the elders had a clear choice. Either Jesus was the Messiah of God, God come to redeem his people and the fulfilment of the prophesies in their scriptures or Jesus was false, a deceiver on a monumental scale, a blasphemer par excellence. They chose the latter and Jesus paid with his life. Every human being has the same choice to make. Have you made up your mind?
The Power of the State Luke 23.1-16
We come now to the most obvious form of power in the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion: the power of the state. Heads of state may gain their positions through inheritance, the ballot box or by military force. State power may be good bad or indifferent. Yet, Paul calls upon everyone to be subject to the governing authorities; ‘for there is no authority except from God and those authorities instituted by God. (Romans 13.1) In this case the authority is Rome. The Roman Empire brought many benefits such as improved communications and better food supplies, housing and cultural activity, but it could be cruel especially in the use of crucifixion as a means of despatching criminals. It was approaching its high point at the time of Jesus. Judah had been added about ninety years earlier and Pilate was its governor. Galilee on the other hand enjoyed a degree of autonomy from Rome. Today we might say it had some devolved powers. It was ruled over by Herod Antipas.
In Judah, the High Priest, Caiaphas and his council had no right to execute. That power lay with Pilate as governor of the province, so Jesus was brought before him. Luke alone of the gospel writers records how Pilate when he heard that Jesus was a Galilean sends him off to Herod who happened to be in Jerusalem at the time. Herod saw Jesus as a subject of some fascination evidently having wanted to meet him for a long time. It seems as if he regards Jesus as a kind of performing artist. Like Caiaphas and Pilate, he does not have the right state of mind or heart to take on board what Jesus has to say about himself and so we read that Jesus gave him no answer to his questions. He too mocks Jesus and sends him back to Pilate, the two Romans finding a kindred spirit in being unable to understand Jesus.
As is always the case with the state, it can only deal in black and white, whether this or that rule has been broken or not. It cannot comprehend the subtleties which surround religion, even less matters relating to the Kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke. Pilate is floundering. He calls the chief priests back in to tell them that the state can press no charge against Jesus, neither he nor Herod had found any rule which Jesus had broken.
In our democratic society, we often think that one day, we will vote into power the perfect government that will sort out all our woes. That can’t happen in this life. State power has its limitations. God gives states authority for a time just as he provides us with physical life for a season. Jesus spoke instead of an eternal kingdom.
The Power of the Majority Luke 23.18-25
For all the power vested in them by the Roman Empire, neither Pilate nor Herod could decide what they should do with Jesus. Pilate instead turns to the Jewish leaders and to the crowd which by this time had assembled around the court house. All of them shout for Barabbas, a notorious criminal, to be released instead of Jesus. That would be like shouting for the release of John Warboys, the taxi driver rapist recently denied release by the parole board after intense public pressure. When Pilate again tries to free Jesus, they shout for the cruellest penalty of all, crucifixion.
Public opinion is far from straightforward. The hymn ‘My Song is Love Unknown has this verse:
Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Is all their breath,
And for His death
They thirst and cry.
Many preachers have picked up on the fact that ‘Holy Week’ begins with Jesus being received into Jerusalem by a rapturous crowd shouting Hosanna and by Good Friday, they are calling out crucify. Whether or not it was the same people, we cannot be sure. We do know from the gospels that the chief priests incited the crowd to shout for Jesus’ execution. (Mark 15.11) Whatever, it is the voice of the majority which wins the day. After the death of Jesus, we learn that the Jewish council were not completely unanimous in their pressing for Jesus’ death. Joseph of Arimathea, though a member of the council had not agreed to their plan of action. (Luke 23.50)
Sometimes the power of the majority wins out because it shouts loudest, mounts the most effective campaign, intimates those who do not share the same view and galvanises the opinions of others to win the day. At other times, public opinion seems to swing to another view because it has become bored with what is perceived as old fashioned and outmoded; they need to be ‘liberated from the forces of conservatism’ as one politician once put it. (Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference 1999) Then, again, the majority can simply be motivated by self-interest; the ‘not in my back yard’ mentality.
Jesus was only one. His disciples were not there to speak up, to call for his release, to mount a media campaign on his behalf. Was he right or wrong? Do the majority always have our best interests at heart? We put much store by democracy in this country, but does it always deliver the right result? How ready are we to listen to minority voices?
The Power of Christ Luke 23.32-49
Jesus gives up his life on the cross. This is surely the moment of his defeat. The different kinds of power we have talked of have now done their worst. Sensing defeat, the disciples and other followers of Jesus who hoped he was the one to redeem Israel (Luke 24.21) have all departed. They have not spoken up for him or the cause. The religious authorities have refused to countenance any talk of Jesus being Messiah. Instead they consider him a blasphemer and use all their powers to see that he ends up a condemned criminal on the cross. The state powers have no legislation or category in place to understand Jesus, so they go with the flow. That flow is generated by the majority view, those who shouted loudest at the time, the crowd.
So how on earth can we talk of Jesus having power? There is just one person in all this which recognises that power, just one who is in the right place to have some understanding. It is not a member of the resistance, nor a religious leader, or a member of the government, nor even a good upright responsible voter. It is the other criminal. One of the two crucified with Jesus continues the same mocking taunts that we have heard from the other characters in the story, but this criminal, the penitent thief as he is known, says to his fellow felon: ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus affirms this man in a way that he could not do for all the others who questioned him: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
In John’s gospel, Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world. (John 18.36) Jesus’ kingdom, his power base belongs in the heavenly realms, it belongs to God. It is the power that flung stars into space which is surrendered to cruel nails. (Graham Kendrick ‘Servant King’) It is not the power of the underdog fighting back against the oppressor, nor the power of a religious movement. It is not state power or majority rule. It is the power which allows all the other forms of power to exist, the power which both gives and takes physical life.
In the life of Jesus that power not paraded around for its own ends. Jesus has the power to lay it down and the power to take it up again. (John 10.18) That is exactly what he does on the cross. In the mystery of our wonderous God, that power is laid down and three days later taken up again so that justice and love might truly meet and humanity reconciled to God for eternity.