Real power, part 1

Reading the story of Passion as given to us in the four gospels, it’s easy to think of Jesus as being calmly in charge, despite the circumstances.  He had already submitted himself fully to the Father’s will in Gethsemane, and would drink the cup set before him.  There would be no point in his resisting arrest or declaring his innocence.  He had his Father’s power at his disposal, but chose instead the way of powerlessness.

Others inside the story saw the world differently, and used what worldly power they had accordingly.  The Romans, flexing their military muscles, sent hundreds of soldiers to Gethsemane, as if to intimidate an armed rebel and his band.  In brave futility, Peter responded in kind, striking with the sword.

And the high priest would prove to be no different.

Caiaphas, who is mentioned a handful of times in the New Testament, was clearly a cunning political animal.  His father-in-law, Annas, was probably still considered the high priest by many Jews, but having been deposed by Rome, remained only as a powerful figurehead.  Caiaphas held the post in his place.  It was he who instigated the murder plot against Jesus after the raising of Lazarus (John 11:49-53); it was at his home that the Sanhedrin decided to arrest Jesus secretly to avoid a riot (Matt 26:1-5).  In all likelihood, he was the one who arranged for the mob that took Jesus into custody.

From Gethsemane, Jesus was dragged first to Annas (John 18:12-14, 19-24), then to Caiaphas, who had already assembled the Sanhedrin.  Matthew makes clear that the purpose of this illegal nighttime tribunal was not to seek the truth, but a quick conviction and a death sentence (Matt 26:59).

Hours of false testimony were given, and still Caiaphas didn’t have what he needed.  Then two witnesses came forward, derisively claiming to have heard Jesus say that he could destroy the Jerusalem temple and rebuild it in three days (Matt 26:60).

They were referring, of course, to the episode in John 2, in which Jesus had cleansed the temple, prompting the Jews to demand that he perform a sign to show that he had the authority to do such things.  In response, Jesus had said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19, NIV).  He had meant his own body, but not surprisingly, the crowd had misunderstood (vss. 20-21).  The incident must have generated its own urban legend, which then wormed its way into Caiaphas’ court.

The high priest pricked up his ears: there could be something useful here.  To make such a claim about the temple wasn’t a capital offense, but it flirted with sacrilege.  Caiaphas stood up to assert his authority and hammered at Jesus to respond to the charge.

But Jesus remained silent.

Infuriated, Caiaphas played his trump card.  As high priest, he put Jesus under a solemn oath and pressed him to swear by the living God: Yes or no–are you the Messiah, the Son of God?  If Jesus said yes, Caiaphas would nail him to the wall as a blasphemer (for how could such an outrageous claim be true?).  If he said no, the response could be published widely, and Jesus’ following would soon die out of its own accord.

But Jesus said neither.  Instead, Jesus replied, “You have said it,” an ambiguous phrase that means something like “Those are your words, not mine” (the same response he had given earlier, when Judas, pretending to be innocent of the charge of betrayal, asked, “Surely you don’t mean me, rabbi?”).  After all, Jesus had expressly avoided taking the title of “Messiah” to himself.  The word had become encrusted with too many historical and political associations that distracted from the message of the kingdom of heaven.

That didn’t mean that Jesus would disavow being the Messiah, only that he would declare the fact in his own way: “From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64, NIV).  He was drawing on a well-known messianic image in Daniel 7, with the addition of imagery from Psalm 110:1.  But taken as a whole, Jesus’ meaning was unmistakable.

This was all Caiaphas needed, and he pounced.  He tore his clothes, accused Jesus directly of blasphemy, and called for the obvious verdict, which was swiftly given: death.  Then Matthew describes the unnecessary orgy of cruel violence that followed, as those gathered for the trial mock the condemned prisoner, spit on him, and beat him with their fists (Matt 26:67-68).

Why did they do this?  None of the gospel writers say.  But to my mind, this is not the behavior of those who believe in the justice of their cause.  I can’t help but wonder: to what extent is this the violence of those who must loudly and self-righteously silence their consciences?

In his arrest and trial, Jesus confronts power with powerlessness, not because he has no power, but because he will not use power in ways that don’t suit the Father’s purposes.  We’ll come back to that idea in the second half of this post.