Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”
When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.
(Luke 23:1-12 ESV)
The “action” of Luke 23 is very much like a movie. Except in this case it is not like the movie itself. It is like the abstract off of which the movie was written. This is merely the shell of the event, and hits the highlights. But when you examine the event more closely, you’ll see that all the major political players in Israel at the time are present. It took all of them, working in concert, to condemn Jesus. This is proof that Jesus was, in his day, the “third rail of Jewish politics,” just as Social Security is the third rail of modern American politics. Touch it, and you’re likely to get a fatal shock.
On the one hand, Pilate wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Nor did Herod. Both had tried to keep their distance. Actually, the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, was deeply divided on the issue of who Jesus was. We know that several prominent members of the Council were secretly disciples of Jesus. What happened to Jesus really boils down to the jealousy of the Chief Priest, Caiaphas. It was he who had stirred up others of the priestly class against Jesus. Here is the classic scenario of a religious leader dabbling in politics and bringing the whole system down around himself and everyone else.
The priests’ accusations at the “trial” sound more than a little whiny. But notice they aren’t upset in the least about Jesus’ miracles or his attention to the poor, the sick, and even those outside of Israel. The summary on why the priests want him dead is, “this guy stirs up people with his teaching” (read: his teaching threatens everything we stand for).
If you have spent your entire career invested in protecting the “faith of your fathers,” when someone comes along with a major new twist, you’re going to resist. What really happened here is the priests went from resistant to inflexible to adamant, and after that there was no stopping them.
There are several words of warning here for us in the church today. First, I have come to the conviction that the church has no more business working behind the scenes in politics than the CIA does doing covert regime change in foreign countries.
Caiaphas engineered the whole event. If he had simply trusted God and realized that if Jesus was from God no one could stop him and if he wasn’t from God not a thing he did would ultimately stand, he could have avoided the whole mess. Remember it only took another 40 years after this for the Temple to be completely destroyed, and that put the priests out of business for good. If that sounds like a long time, remember that we are only now reaping the financial whirlwind set in motion in August of 1935 when President Roosevelt signed the Social Security bill. Some stews take a long time to cook.
The second word of warning is not to get locked into theological presuppositions. Don’t ask if I’m suggesting you abandon orthodoxy. I’m doing nothing of the kind. If Jesus is who he seems to be (Messiah, the Second Person of the Trinity), then you and I are in a position to trust him completely, and that means that when he does or says something that doesn’t match our theological presuppositions, the person of Jesus trumps our tradition every time. As the last two stanzas of Come, ye Sinners say,
Lo! The incarnate God ascended,
Pleads the merit of His blood:
Venture on Him, venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Not of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
The priests may have felt their need of Jesus, but they had become so locked into their theological system that their conscience wouldn’t allow them to embrace him when he came.
When Jesus comes and challenges the way you’ve always done things in your faith, what will you do with him? Will you test carefully to be sure he is from God and then embrace him as Lord, or will your test be to weigh him against the Law as you know it and find him wanting?