Cut the Good Friday Mob Some Slack
Photo Credit: “Judged by Pilate,” by Sister Marie Clare Naidu, Church of the Assumption in Bangalore, India
It’s tough to tell the story of Easter — or, certainly, Good Friday — without explaining the time Jesus got the death penalty from a mob.
Picture it: Christ, detained by the gatekeepers of the local synagogues, gets a prescription for his own death from King Herod. But, because Israel is a colony of Rome, no one calling for the Lord’s head actually has the clout to take it off. Rome’s governor in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, has that power, and so the Pharisees ship Jesus to Pilate to rubber-stamp their execution.
This is, undoubtedly, the most famous political fizzle in human history. Christ, who to this point has been trading in his status as some sort of Jewish contrarian cult hero, punts on the governor’s every probe into his political ambitions. His kingdom, Jesus answers, isn’t of this world; His servants have no intentions of fighting Rome in the streets; on Earth, He’s far more concerned with guiding us into “the truth.”
Pilate, puzzled at this rabble-rouser’s lack of pragma, is feeling salty by the end of this inquiry. (“What,” he scoffs, “is truth?”) But he’s not feeling homicidal. The crowd, unfortunately, is feeling very homicidal, and Pilate’s suggestions that they let the good Lord walk come a cropper when the Jerusalemites vote to free a common crook, and to affix Jesus Christ to His logo-to-be.
For entry-level historians and high-level clerics, Christ’s final sentencing is the stem for a clover of condemnations — of Pilate’s deference, of the disciples’ disappearance, and even of the mostly-Jewish crowd, the description of whom in the Gospel of John’s 18th chapter has been a matchbox of anti-semitic bigotry. (Coincidentally, I have a condemnation: Of Pilate’s secretary, for having this show trial “around noon,” per Matthew’s Gospel, instead of at night. A night trial would have at least produced some sterling visuals.) But one criticism I haven’t encountered in this space is a critique of… Jesus Himself.
Jesus? Really? He, of getting dragged around Jerusalem all night and enduring beatings and mockery from the local political and religious overseers? Are we really about to tee off on Him, of all people?
Hear me out.
For the lion’s share of 21st-century Christians, Jesus is a spiritual messiah: He came to Earth and sacrificed Himself so that we could experience peace, and forgiveness, and eternal life, and more. But the Jews of the Pax Romana would have been looking for a different kind of messiah, altogether, a figure who could eject the occupying Roman forces and give the local population some control over their own country. Judas Maccabeus is an example of the kind of guy they were looking for — he ejected Antiochus’ Greek Hellenists from the Temple Mount with a little help from a menorah that refused to stop burning until the deed was done. He was a military leader, who stood, at least partially, for Jewish honor and self-determination. But he couldn’t have been the messiah, since the Holy Land found itself in Roman hands once again roughly 140 years before Jesus Christ’s birth.
But maybe Jesus Christ was the messiah. He performed miracles, healing His people and exorcising their demons. He engaged in rap sessions with the local authorities, critiquing the contours of Pharisees’ regulations and the social conventions of Roman Judea. Perhaps most to my point, He preached something called “the Kingdom of God,” in which the lowly would be lifted up and justice served for Jews and Gentiles alike.
None of that was in motion when Christ’s seder wrapped up on Maundy Thursday Night. No revolution was on the horizon when Judas (not the victor — Judas Judas, famous Judas, traitor Judas) brought a mini-posse of arresting officers to Jesus’ garden hideaway. And none of it was in evidence in the first few Christ-condemning kangaroo courts. (Did I mention this before? Pilate was his third death sentencer of the weekend.)
Pontius Pilate was more or less the end of the road, and a perfect opportunity to turn the tables: Jesus, scars and all, could have had one of His signature rap sessions, right then and there, blasting the excesses of the authorities to someone who could have done something about it.
A college instructor once told me that every actor has to think about what their character wants in a given scene, and who they need it from. The people, those among whom the Lord had walked, needed liberation from beneath the Roman colonial boot. They needed better systems, thanks to the Pharisees’ religious systems. But they also just needed a voice, to bring their anger in front of Rome. Jesus hadn’t turned a blind eye or a deaf ear to their concerns before; why would He turn a silent mouth?
That’s the headspace that surrounded the crowd in Jerusalem when Jesus took their biggest and best shot and spent it on a woo-woo spiritualistic symposium. Pilate was left confused and conflicted about the Lord’s execution, sure, but he could have been so much more. He could have been aware, aware of the suffering Rome had inflicted on the people of God.
If you’ve read the Gospels before, you’re probably about to call for a timeout right about now. Didn’t the Jews know what they were getting into before? Hadn’t Jesus told them that His was a religious revolution? Well, sure. But any confusion was still evident after Christ’s more high-minded revelations, and He routinely passes on opportunities to clean it up. (The King of Glory doesn’t correct the record when a Disciple Mom asks about her sons’ status as His royal companions, and he doesn’t clear the air when a crowd of bread-stuffed superfans decides to “make Him a king by force.” In the first case, He remains obtuse in His response — “to sit at my right or left is not mine to grant” — and he just bails on the second, “retreating to a mountainside.”)
Think about the crowd in that moment, as their shining hope and would-be hero goes off the reservation before their very eyes. Think about their disappointment, their sense of betrayal. From where they sat, Christ’s refusal to speak into Judea’s situation probably was worse than the crimes that landed Barabas in the annual Passover Prisoner Swap. And, just like that, to the cross Jesus went. “He saved others,” said the Pharisees, “Himself He could not save.”
But, unlike the crowd, or Pilate, or even the disciples, we know how the story ends: With Christ, crucified for the sins of the world, only for His body to vanish amid claims of resurrection. In the Gospel of John, Christ ends on a beach with the disciples, where He gives them the marching orders that will later be said to “turn the world upside down.” With a religion — the religion of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dietrich Bonhoffer, and Clara Barton, and Nelson Mandela. In fact, though Jesus Himself doesn’t put the paddles to Rome while on earth, the Empire’s adoption of Christianity in 300 AD does prove to be their undoing — not according to some evangelist or a low-grade layman such as myself, but the historian Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
St. Luke’s gospel, however, gives us a different visual to end on. “I am sending the promise,” the resurrected, almost-zombie Jesus explains, “upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Having said all this, He’s said to have taken them out of Jerusalem, “raised His hands, and blessed them. As He blessed them He parted from them, and was taken up into Heaven.”
It probably still wasn’t the visual anyone wanted, even after Jesus got the band back together. (Rising from the dead tends to attract some eyeballs.) But maybe it was the visual we needed: The good Lord, satisfied that His mission was accomplished, leaving Earth in our hands as if we were capable and floating into Heaven like he owned the place.
If you’re reading this because you happen to know me, or this story popped up in your feed because you’ve thumbed-up some of my past work, there’s a decent chance you don’t buy any of this. Even if you have, there’s a decent chance you don’t buy my idea that Christ’s call does, indeed, involve looking for justice on Earth. But, if you do, and you’re lost in the world that we all are — one with problems so similar to the problems of Judea, yet nothing like those problems at all — then I’d like to ask you a question. It’s not particularly original; it kicks off the Book of Acts. It’s barely even a question, and it’s not about who’s to blame or what’s to gain from the events of Holy Week. It’s about what there is to do.
“Why stand you here idle, looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who was taken up into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into Heaven.”
Maybe Jesus isn’t here to meet our earthly needs. Maybe that’s what we’re for.