Matthew 27:1-26, The Judgment for Our Salvation

[February 24, 2008] During the night, Jesus was a captive in the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, having been apprehended by soldiers on loan from Pilate, the Roman governor. Throughout the night Caiaphas and his collaborators among the wealthy priests and members of the council (the elders) tried to bully Jesus, but without His cooperation they failed to come up with a definite charge against Him that they could present to Pilate (as he seems to have demanded).  They got together again very early in the morning with others in the council to determine how to proceed to give Pilate what he had requested. It was as though for the rest of the council who had not been involved, Jesus must be guilty since He had been arrested and others in the council had already determined that He was guilty. Yet what took place in Caiaphas’ house was not a trial but an attempt at self-preservation.

When we share responsibilities, we must not passively let others make decisions for us that might be unfair.

Judas

Nowadays people have quite an interest in Judas and want to think that the Gospel writers were unfair to him in the legacy they left for him. After all, it says he repented for what he had done (Matthew 27:3). The word for “repent” (metamelomai) is different than the usual word (metanoeō) and might better be translated “regret.” He realized now that he was just a pawn in a much bigger game. His suicide was out of despair, having recognized the evil he had aided and unleashed. Since his name, Iscariot (which possibly means “assassin”), might reveal his former sympathies, he might have realize that he was working for the other side—the Romans and the Jerusalem aristocrats.

There is no doubt that Jesus’ salvation was sufficient even for Judas, whether we consider the betrayal or his subsequent suicide—God’s grace is not limited by the gravity of our crimes—but our concern over Judas’ damnation is missing the point. The point in today’s reading is about our guilt. We are implicated in the action of Judas, of the chief priests and elders and of Pilate. None of what happened that morning was by accident. Rather, the Father willed it and the Son chose this path in order to expose our guilt.

The reason Jesus could bear our judgment was because He alone—in His humanity—was qualified to be our Judge (see Acts 17:31 and John 5:22). It was not He who was on trial that day but we. Before He could bear our judgment, He first had to judge us. This is why He chose this form of death.

Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. As the prophecy in Zechariah 11:13 (fulfilling Jeremiah 32:6-15) emphasizes, that is how much he and the chief priests considered that Jesus was worth. How much is Jesus worth to us? At what price would we betray Him? If a court accused you of valuing Jesus at too low a price, would the evidence of your life absolve you?

Pilate

Pilate was going to crucify Jesus for pretending to be a king (he spoke to his wife about his decision and had loaned soldiers to Annas the night before) and demanded that the chief priests frame the charges to condemn Jesus, so that he would not have to take the blame. They gave him a number of civil charges but without any evidence, and as before, Jesus remained silent, refusing to cooperate in their mockery of justice. He admits to being a king (using the same words he said to Caiaphas when asked directly), but He will not participate in their crafting a lie since they are not interested in what He means by the term. His answer, though, is ambiguous. “[It is as] you say,” or rather, “You say so.” In other words, the onus is on them to understand what they mean by the term. But they do not, and thus they condemn themselves.

Like a sheep led to slaughter, Jesus allows it (Isaiah 53:7).

No trial takes place. This is murder. When Pilate sits in the judgment seat, he presents two prisoners to the crowd. Who are these people who gather at seven in the morning after the Passover Seder the night before? Who would even have known about these proceedings when Jesus was apprehended so late at night? Probably not the Galilean pilgrims, but rather people who lived in Jerusalem whom the chief priests could rally.

Consider the choice between Barabbas and Jesus. His full name was Jesus Barabbas. Bar-Abbas means “son of a father,” hardly a real name. Jesus means “savior.” He was a zealot and had committed murder during an insurrection. In the Gospel he is symbolic on different levels, for the people of Jerusalem in collaboration with their leaders choose Barabbas over Jesus.

Barabbas represents the zealot cause and the use of violence to effect social change (a kind of salvation). Jesus offered an alternative. They were both based in Galilee. In less than forty years the zealots would organize a rebellion against Rome and their first victims would be the priestly aristocracy in Jerusalem. As a result of this rebellion, the Temple would be leveled and Jerusalem destroyed, as Jesus predicted. The chief priests and indeed the whole sect of the Sadducees leave the scene of history at that point. Today’s Judaism comes from the Pharisees, not the Sadducees. The words of the crowd, “His blood be upon us and upon our children!” were fulfilled in 70 AD.

Even though the chief priests opposed the zealots, through their coercive exercise of power they proved themselves to be partners with them. Violence (any kind of violence) begets violence. They really did choose Barabbas over Jesus. Jesus was more of a threat than Barabbas! We might consider what this means. Jesus demands total allegiance—unto death. How does Jesus threaten our world and our values? If we really follow Him, what will we lose? Whose side are we really on?

Pilate washes his hands, a meaningless ritual from the point of view of Roman law. It has meaning only for the Jews (Deuteronomy 21:6-9) and is meant to throw the guilt for the murder back on them. Of course, it is purely manipulative and does nothing of the kind. Pilate uses the same words the chief priests said to Judas, “You see to it yourselves.”

The disciples desert Jesus, Judas hands Him over to the chief priests, the chief priests hand Him over to the governor, and the governor hands Him over to a mob. It is as though He is condemned by neglect. (Do we neglect Him?) No one is willing to take the blame except an anonymous crowd; so in effect, everyone takes the blame.

Thus Pilate with his corrupt use of politics and force, the chief priests and their corrupt use of religion and deceit, and the disciple Judas in his naïve duplicity all represent one thing—the rejection of God by humanity, and their blood guiltiness with respect to God’s presence in humanity. This was God’s purpose. Though we may not have been there and done it, we are one with their decision. Our world has crucified Emmanuel (God-with-us). This utter rejection of God, rejection to the nth degree, is what God judges us for. Every human being is guilty of this. No one has any other claim to make.

Paul put it succinctly: “God has shut up ALL in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32).

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