Read the passage here.
Today is the sixth Sunday in Lent, or (and perhaps better known as) Palm Sunday. Because of the way we’re working through the book of Matthew, the passage usually associated with Palm Sunday – the Triumphal Entry – was discussed some time ago. And when we remember that passage (chapter 21 in Matthew), we note that the people hailed Jesus as the coming King, the Messiah, but what they don’t realize is that Jesus isn’t any kind of king that they had expected or wanted. Chris actually walked us through that passage and in doing so, noted that the triumphal entry in Matthew is immediately followed by (and intricately tied to) Jesus’ clearing of the temple – the spiritual center of Israel – of those who wanted to use it for their own purposes.
Now we’re not going to review that passage today – we have our own passage to consider. But it’s something to keep in mind. Because one of the key themes that we’ve explored through the book of Matthew is, “of what kingdom do we want to be a part?” Do we really want Jesus as our king?
Over the past several weeks, through this season of Lent, we’ve been working our way through the Passion narrative. We’ve been following Matthew as he walks us towards Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. And one of the questions that hangs over the scene is, what kind of kingdom is founded on a king who dies? Which begs the question, “Why does Jesus need to die?” Or it begs the question, “why is Jesus so willing to die?” (Maybe it doesn’t beg those questions for you, but it’s something I’d like you to keep in mind).
As we consider our passage today, I want to examine a few elements of the story, think about what Matthew may have been trying to communicate (which is to say, think about what God is trying to reveal to us), and then think about what that means for us.
Firstly, as many of you are probably aware, during this time, Judea (which is to say, the people of Israel) was under Roman rule. Though they were allowed to have a certain degree of autonomy (like all Roman territories), they were ultimately under Roman law. Therefore, Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor at that time, because the Jewish courts, the Sanhedrin, didn’t have the authority to execute someone – under Roman law, only the Roman authorities could make that decision. Therefore, after Jesus’ trial with the Sanhedrin, which we discussed previously, the religious leaders brought Jesus to Pilate.
Now when we read of the encounter between Pilate and Jesus, it’s pretty sparse (much less so than John’s account). As we read from v. 11, Jesus’ response to Pilate’s question, “are you the king of the Jews?” mirrors his response to Caiaphas’ question, “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” – that is, he says “You have said so.”
Jesus’ response is enigmatic. Again, this is one of those phrases that English translators and commentators have debated endlessly. The English versions of the bible have translated this, “You have said so,” “Those are your words,” “Thou sayest,” “It is as you say,” “If you say so,” and even as straightforward as “Yes, I am.” But as much as the various translations and commentators debate what Jesus meant, I tend to think that his statement (two words in the Greek) are intended to be inherently enigmatic.
But beyond that ambiguous statement, Jesus doesn’t respond to the accusations. Again, John’s account provides us with a lot more dialogue between Jesus and Pilate – but in Matthew’s gospel, beyond these words, Jesus remains silent. Why is that?
Once again, I’m making some assumptions here. And I’m inserting some of my own biases and presuppositions – partly for the sake of brevity. But I think part of the reason that Jesus doesn’t provide a defense, or a more detailed explanation is because the accusations themselves are faulty – they are not actually the point of what’s going on, either on an earthly level or a heavenly one.
I think those who are bringing the charges don’t actually care about the answer – they just want Jesus gone. They don’t care about who Jesus may actually be – they only care about what they have to lose.
But more importantly, I don’t think Jesus cares about the charges. His goal doesn’t seem to be to establish his innocence or expose the motives of his accusers. Because the reason Jesus is allowing this farce to happen to him has nothing to do with the intentions of his accusers or the machinations of worldly forces. In other words, Jesus’ death serves a greater and higher purpose – we’ll have more to say about this later.
In response to Jesus’ silence, Pilate says essentially, “Why don’t you defend yourself?” And we read in v. 14 that Pilate was amazed by Jesus’ non-response. The word used for “amazed” here seems to denote a favourable impression. In other words, Pilate wasn’t just surprised, he was impressed.
Now this favourable impression seems to incline Pilate towards Jesus and against the religious leaders. Because when Pilate follows the custom of releasing a prisoner – either Jesus or Barabbas – we read the following:
17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.Matthew 27:17-18 (emphasis mine)
This suggests (?) that Pilate thought that Jesus should be the obvious one for release. And then again, later in the encounter with the crowd, we read:
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”Matthew 27:22-23 (emphasis mine)
My point in looking at Pilate in this account is that, for Matthew, throughout this whole process, Pilate does not seem to have a good faith belief that Jesus is actually guilty. Indeed, based on verse 18, we can infer that he knew that it was actually the religious leaders who are in the wrong. Again, based on how the story is presented to us, Pilate seems to recognize that Jesus is innocent – that Jesus doesn’t deserve to be condemned to death.
Now, if that hasn’t already been made clear or obvious so far, Matthew inserts a detail that’s not found in any of the other gospels. In the midst of this (Jesus or Barabbas) process we read that Pilate’s wife sent a message to Pilate:
19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”Matthew 27:19
This is noteworthy because this account is unique among the gospels. It seems to underscore what Pilate may have been thinking (by providing yet another testimony) that Jesus is in fact innocent.
So far, we have Jesus’ refusal to address the charges or participate (in the expected way) with the trial proceedings, and we have Pilate who seems to believe Jesus to be “not guilty,” and we have the testimony of Pilate’s wife. All of this adds up, in this episode, to underscore what we already know from what’s come before in the Passion narrative, and indeed the rest of the gospel: That is, that Jesus stands accused but is innocent.
Now, having said all that, I’m not trying to suggest that Pilate is somehow a positive character in all this. It’s not as if Matthew is suggesting that Pilate is somehow trying to defend Jesus and deserves our sympathy. So, carrying on, I want to turn our attention to the well-known hand-washing scene. After the crowd, at the urging of the chief priests, demands the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus, Pontius Pilate refuses any responsibility for Jesus’ conviction and death. This reminds us of the encounter between Judas and the chief priests:
27:3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”
“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”Matthew 27:3-4
We see from these two passages that neither Pilate nor the chief priests and elders are willing to take responsibility for Jesus’ conviction and death. And the notion of responsibility is woven throughout these passages. Though the religious leaders and Pilate both refuse responsibility, it is clear that they share it. Either one of them could have cleared Jesus of the charges. They all knew he was innocent. But they went ahead with the trials (both of them) anyways. We also know that Judas, despite his repentance, regret, or change of mind, shared responsibility for Jesus’ fate. And we also see the crowd also acknowledge their culpability. In choosing Barabbas and condemning Jesus, they say:
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.Matthew 27:25-26
In other words, in this telling, what is clear is that everyone shares the responsibility for Jesus’ death. The chief priests, Pontius Pilate, Judas, the crowds, Israel, Rome, Peter and the disciples – everyone seems to be guilty. The only person who stands blameless in this entire episode is Jesus, the very man who is condemned.
One of the primary tenets in Christian theology is that we are all – every human being – sinners in need of salvation. We are all sinners in need of God’s grace. But we very much live in a world in which that’s not something anyone wants to hear. Christians generally know this – that we are sinners. But sometimes we are much better at pointing out how others are sinners than we are at remembering that we are. Because we believe that we are forgiven (which is true), we may think we don’t have to think about “forgiven for what?”
But I’m not trying to engage in Christian-bashing. Because the world is full of sinners. Indeed, the world is full of only sinners. There is none righteous – no, not one. But the message that we often hear is that any talk about sin is merely self-loathing, religious fanaticism, or old-fashioned, obsolete superstition.
But I believe, and I believe that scripture tells us, that human beings are truly, genuinely, and wholly broken. Inasmuch as human beings throughout our history have tried to solve the problems of humanness through our philosophies, our technologies, our spiritualities, and our politics, we have fallen short and continue to fall short. We have found that we are still truly, genuinely, and wholly broken.
And I tend to use the language of “brokenness” because in our contemporary aversion to Christian or religious language, we tend to dislike or avoid terms like “sin,” but it is precisely sin that is the problem. The problem is that we have and do turned our backs on God, choosing for ourselves what is good and what is wrong, placing ourselves on the throne of the world.
And I remind all of us of this, not so we would think less of ourselves, not so we turn to religious systems or institutions, and certainly not so we would look to the “spiritually enlightened.” I remind us of this so that we would look to Jesus. Because this is precisely for whom Jesus went willingly to the cross. It is precisely for sinners that Jesus died. Though we were guilty, He was the one who gave up His life. Though He was innocent, we were the ones who were set free.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,Isaiah 53:5
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
As an interpretive principle, I don’t like allegorizing scripture. Which isn’t to say that this is never appropriate when reading the bible. I simply mean that we have to be careful not to over-do it. And I don’t mean to say that this passage is in any way an allegory. But when I read this passage, it’s hard not to see myself in this story. And we’ve talked about the various characters: Pilate, the chief priests, Pilate’s wife, the crowd, and Jesus. And we’ve talked about guilt and innocence and we’ve talked about responsibility – who bears the responsibility for Jesus’ death. And when I read the story, it’s impossible for me to not see myself in this story: I am Barabbas.
I’m the one who was set free because Jesus died. I am the one who was guilty, but whose life is saved by an innocent man. I am the one who is given life, though I had done nothing at all to earn it.
This next week, the week leading up to Good Friday and Easter, is Passion week. It’s the week in which we remember the last days of Jesus’ life before the cross – those days we’ve been reflecting upon over the past month and a half.
And our inclination is to choose not to reflect on suffering and death. We often want to focus on the positive. And make no mistake about it, for us, Jesus’ death has the greatest possible upside. But it’s also important that we remember that our lives are bought at great cost.
So when we ask the question, “Of which kingdom do we want to be a part?” once again, we are also asking the question, “who do we want to be our king?” And this narrative, this entire gospel tells us the story of what God is willing to do in order to restore us to His kingdom.
So this coming week, among all the other things we have to do, among all the other things that are on our minds, remember the King who walks willingly to the cross, who walks innocently to the cross, for those who don’t deserve it, for those who stand guilty. This coming week, let’s remember His great love.