Imagine this scenario. You’re with a gathering of friends, or possibly co-workers. One person brings up a story about someone from a rival group, someone who evokes in you that sense of “us versus them.” The story being told, of course, portrays the other person in the worst light possible, to the general laughter of the group. Others pile on with stories and exaggerations of their own.
At some point, you become dimly aware of a nagging thought: “Wow, maybe this is going a little too far.” What do you do? Do you stuff the thought down, go along with the game, and smile and laugh with the group? Do you make some excuse and walk away? Do you say something?
This is what I’m trying to keep in mind as I read the story Matthew tells after Pilate hands Jesus over to his soldiers:
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. (Matt 27:27-31, NIV)
The soldiers gang up to make vicious and brutal sport of the prisoner: not exactly what we would think of as professional behavior. But as N. T. Wright suggests, we might consider the situation. These men were likely far from home, in the outskirts of the empire, dealing with unpredictable terrorist threats from a people for whom they had no love. Then one of those people is tossed into their mix, a man reputed to be their king, but seeming to be nothing more than another failed upstart.
How would they treat him? We should probably be surprised if they didn’t abuse him.
Mark 15:17 says they clothed Jesus in purple, the color of royalty; Matthew says scarlet, which suggests that they used a Roman officer’s cloak as the nearest stand-in for a royal robe. They fashioned a crown from some thorny plant, and put a makeshift scepter in his right hand. Then they bowed down to him in mock obeisance, completely unaware of the irony of the act.
And after the mockery came the physical abuse. They spit on him. They took the scepter from his hand and beat him over the head with it: the verb suggests that they kept doing it, hence the NIV’s translation “again and again.” I imagine this as involving many soldiers, out of control, each taking a turn. Did any of them, at any point, think, “Enough, already”? Who knows. Matthew doesn’t say.
But eventually, play time was over, and they had to get back to business. They took away the mock regalia and put his own clothes back on him, which no doubt were caked with blood after the earlier scourging (vs. 26). And they led him away to be crucified.
Here again we have what seems to be a recurring theme in Matthew: the clash of kingdoms, of the kingdom of heaven and the Roman Empire. We are rightly horrified by what the soldiers did to Jesus. But if we are to follow Jesus’ commandment to seek the kingdom first (Matt 6:33), then we must recognize that the soldiers are not some different breed of human being, capable of a kind of monstrous behavior totally unlike our own more minor faults. A difference of degree? Perhaps. But not necessarily of kind.
Maybe we should remember that, the next time we’re tempted to make sport of someone else.