Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
April 18, 2014
Among all the spiritually vertiginous aspects of the Good Friday account, from Jesus’ being spat upon, slapped, mercilessly scourged, mocked and hammered to a tree, what’s always pierced me the most has been what happened in the courtyard of the Praetorium.
Pontius Pilate knew that Jesus was being framed by the totally corrupt chief priests and Sanhedrin members. Not only did his investigation demonstrate his innocence, but his impressions were confirmed by a dream of his wife who told him to have nothing to do with that “just man.” But Pilate was too much of a coward to take personal responsibility for setting Jesus free. He suspected that the same chief priests and Sanhedrin who thought nothing of trumping up charges against Jesus to get him murdered would almost certainly engage in similar machinations to get him eliminated by his Roman superiors if he didn’t let them get their homicidal way.
So he had Jesus scourged in the hope that that would satisfy the blood lust of those who hated Jesus, while at the same time trying to shift the responsibility to the crowd for setting Jesus free. Invoking a recently established precedent of releasing a prisoner during the Passover, he called for his soldiers to bring forth an absolutely notorious convict, Barabbas, and have the crowds choose between Jesus and this murderous insurrectionist.
Pilate was intentionally stacking the deck so that the crowd would select Jesus. He knew that the Jewish religious leaders had handed Jesus over out of envy, but that the crowds had been flocking to Jesus. Pilate had doubtless heard about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a few days earlier amidst exultant crowds with palm branches treating him as a hero. The choice would be a no-brainer, he thought: Jesus would be selected by the hordes and set free, and the Sanhedrin and chief priests would go home empty-handed with no one really to blame except, condescendingly, the ignorant masses.
But that’s not what happened.
We’ve heard the name Barabbas so many times that we can become inured to the shock value of the scene that’s about to take place as the procurator asks the crowd to pick whom they wanted released to them.
If the scene were taking place today, Pilate would bring up Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and ask a crowd on Boston Common whom they wanted released, Jesus or the marathon bomber. Or he would bring an Al Qaeda member and query a bunch of New York firemen at Ground Zero whom they preferred to have set free. Or he’d have one of the captured collaborators of Adolf Hitler brought forward and permit a bunch of Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem to select between Jesus and this murderous Nazi.
By this point in his politico-military career, Pilate had probably seen almost everything, but he was obviously not prepared for what was about to transpire when he proposed the choice to the assembled jury. Spurred on by the chief priests and the Sanhedrin, the mob shouted, “Release to us Barabbas!” Pilate was aghast. So he asked, “Then what do you want me to do with Jesus, called the Christ?” Their response shocked him even more. “Crucify him!” “Why? What evil has he done?,” Pilate blurted, in response to their sentence that an innocent man suffer the most torturous public execution imaginable. But the mob just kept increasing the volume as they clamored for capital punishment, “Crucify him!” When Pilate spinelessly washed himself of liability for executing an innocent man, the murderous mafia took total responsibility, screaming, “His blood be upon us and upon our children!”
It’s important for all of us to ask, what the hell, literally, happened? How could the multitude of ordinary, hard-working people who had come up to the holy city for the religious feast of Passover, who were there to ponder God’s freeing them from Pharoah’s oppression in Egypt, and who were meditating on the precepts of the Covenant they had committed to keep in response to God’s fidelity, all of a sudden rise up to roar that an innocent fellow Jew be butchered by the oppressing Romans? How could they, in the span of only a few days, go from acclaiming Jesus with palm branches, cloaks, hosannas to preferring a notorious criminal over him and accepting nothing short of his sadistic destruction?
What would have happened if one solitary but courageous voice had begun shouting in the courtyard, “Release Jesus to us?” Would Pilate had gained courage to do the right thing? What if a small group had cried out, “We want Jesus!” What if a handful of those who believed in Jesus had begun to work the crowd in his favor and the favor of justice in opposition to the perverted peer pressure of those calling for the massacre of an innocent man? We don’t know what would have happened, but, sadly, we have no evidence that there was any protest at all. Instead, there was a crescendo from a cacophonous choir clamoring for evil instead of good.
While it is inappropriate to compare anything to the magnitude of what happened to Jesus on Good Friday, we can say that mob injustice still occurs, and from a spiritual point of view, still effectively crucifies the Lord by facilitating sins that led to his death.
One area where the sudden shift between “Hosanna!” and “Crucify him!” is being observed today is with regard to same-sex marriage and sexual activity. Only a few years ago, the vast majority of people respected Jesus’ clear teachings about marriage — that marriage involves a man and a woman whom God joins in a one-flesh union seen most easily in children. Most recognized the disorder in same-sex sexual activity; Christians, in particular, recognized that it was a sin from which to be converted, not a sacrament to be celebrated.
And yet in a few years, we have gotten to the point where Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich is pressured out of his job by a mob of employees because six years ago he gave a $1,000 contribution to the defense of marriage. We have photographers in New Mexico who are fined $6,000 because in conscience they don’t want to film a lesbian ceremony. And inside the Church, we have students and parents at Catholic high schools in Charlotte, North Carolina and in South Kingston, Rhode Island, orchestrate protests respectively against a Dominican sister and a Catholic priest who in assemblies dared to be faithful to Jesus’ and the Church’s teaching with regard to same-sex sexual activity and marriage.
Just as Jesus’ crucifixion didn’t happen because the vast majority of people really wanted to follow Barabbas instead of Jesus but because people allowed themselves to be persuaded by a mob to acquiesce in evil, so today a similar thing is happening with regard to Jesus’ teaching on love, marriage, sex and family. Most are just following the crowd as today’s cultural Sanhedrin are trying to call Jesus’ teaching bigoted and intolerantly persecute those to whom just a few years ago they were saying, “How will my same-sex marriage affect you?”
We’re now seeing how. And the modern Sanhedrin is trying to intimidate everyone either to join them in the mob trying to shame and penalize those who stand with Jesus and his teachings or risk becoming the object of their mob frenzy.
Today as 2000 years ago, the question remains: Who will stand up and shout, “Give me Jesus!?”