Passion 3:  Luke 23:1-25

A Question of Innocence

What makes someone guilty in the court of public opinion?

A day does not pass by without a courtroom drama on television. The judge presides over a battle between two adversaries. The judge defines rules of the battle. And the judge might even hand down a determination of guilt or liability.

Even in a courtroom (a television studio or otherwise), the question of innocence or guilt may be a question of degrees. Or a certain point of view. In the case of Jesus from Nazareth, innocence or guilt was a matter of faith.

The Trial before Pontius Pilate

Literal Translation

After the Sanhedrin tried Jesus on charges of blasphemy,

1 all standing (up from their seats of judgment), (the leaders) led HIM to Pilate. 2 They began to accuse him, saying, "We found this (MAN) subverting our nation, forbidding (people) to pay tribute to Caesar, and declaring himself to be Christ, the King." 3 Pilate asked HIM, saying, "Are you the 'King of the Jews?'" Having answered, HE said to him, "You say (so)." 4 Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no cause against this MAN." 5 They persisting, saying, "HE incites the people, teaching through the whole of Judea, beginning in Galilee to here." 6 Having heard (this), Pilate asked if this man was a Galilean. 7 Discovering HE was under the authority of Herod, he sent HIM up to Herod, him also being in Jerusalem during these days. 8 Seeing JESUS, Herod was very happy for he wanted to see HIM for the longest time, and was hoping to see some sign being done by HIM. 9 He asked HIM with sufficient words, but HE made no answer to him. 10 The chief priests and the scribes had stood (here), in violent tones accusing HIM. 11 So, Herod and his troops, showing HIM contempt, mocking and throwing bright clothing on (HIM), sent him up to Pilate. 12 On the same day, Herod and Pilate became friends with each other. For, they existed previously in enmity between them.

23:1 "(the leaders)" is literally "their company." In the context, this referred to the leadership of the Sanhedrin.

23:2 When they presented him to Pilate, the leaders brought three charges against Jesus: a vague charge of public disorder, tax evasion, and rebellion. All three could carry the death penalty. But, the trial before the Sanhedrin was religious in nature. According to Luke, the leadership questioned him on one charge: Was he the Christ? Notice the leaders turned the charge of blasphemy into political charges. Also notice all three charges built in upon each other to paint Jesus as a radical revolutionary, not as a traveling rabbi.

"forbidding (people) to pay tribute to Caesar" Paying tribute was more than paying Roman taxes with coins bearing the likeness of the Caesar. Paying taxes with such coins meant an allegiance to the Emperor. As such, many zealous Jews would have objected to the payment. For they believed it meant placing Caesar above God as king.

23:3 "King of the Jews" was a political title that began with the Hasmonean dynasty after the success of the Maccabean revolt in early part of the second century B.C.E. Pilate began with the last charge first, since innocence on this charge would make the first two charges (public disorder and tax evasion) harder to prove. But, this was an ironic question. Pilate literally sat in the judgement seat that Herod the Great, the late King of the Jews, used to rule and judge the people. So, Pilate implied, "Do you, Jesus, want to sit in the seat I use to judge you?"

"You say (so)" This is essentially the same answer Jesus gave to the charge of blasphemy at the Sanhedrin trial (Luke 22:70). When asked he was the Christ, Jesus turned the question on the inquisitor. In both cases, Jesus seemed to ask what he asks us "What do you see in me?"

23:7 "Discovering HE was under the authority of Herod" Pilate was governor of Judea, but Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee. According to Luke, Pilate wanted a "second opinion" in a capital case. So he passed Jesus to Herod. Herod was in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Pilate could add Herod's judgement to his own against the charges of the Sanhedrin.

23:10-11 While Herod showed disdain toward Jesus, he did not rule against him.

13 Pilate, summoning together the chief priests and the people, 14 said to them, "You brought to me this MAN as (ONE) turning the people away (from Roman authority). Before you, I, examining, found no cause in HIM which you make charge against HIM. 15 Neither (did) Herod. For he sent HIM back to us. Look! There has been nothing done by HIM worthy of death. 16 Disciplining (HIM as I would a child), then, I will release HIM." 18 All together, (they) cried out, saying, "Lift this ONE away. But release Barabbas to us" 19 [who was thrown in prison because of some uprising occurring in the city and murder]. 20 Again, Pilate called out to them, wishing to release JESUS. 21 But they cried back, saying, "Crucify, crucify HIM." 22 For a third time, he said to them, "What evil did this (MAN) do? I find no cause in him for death. Disciplining (HIM as I would a child), then, I will release HIM." 23 They were pressing (him) in loud voices demanding he be crucified. And their voices won. 24 Pilate made a judgment to fulfill their request. 25 He released (the man) in jail because of insurrection and murder, who requested.

23:12 Why did Herod and Pilate hate each other before this time? We can only speculate: jealousy, pride, lust for power, etc. But, after the trial of Jesus they became friends. Again, we can only speculate. Possibly, Herod appreciated the professional courtesy of judging one of his subjects in "foreign" territory.

23:14 "You brought to me this man as (one) turning the people away (from Roman authority)" Unlike his questioning of Jesus which began with the last charge, Pilate forgave the first charge: public disorder. By dismissing the first charge, the other two were denied.

23:15 "to us" is a collective sense of the first person. Pilate used fancy language to refer to himself and his court.

Luke was an elegant author. In these few verses, the evangelist interwove a series of threes: three scenes, three accusations, three declarations of innocence. The three scenes flow from Pilate to Herod to Pilate. In each scene, the chief priests and the loyal crowd cry out for the execution of Jesus. In each scene, the judging authority declared the innocence of the traveling rabbi. The crescendo built until Pilate gave into the demands of the mob. Throughout, Luke stressed the innocence (literally "the righteousness") of the Nazarene.

But, sometimes innocence and guilt were a matter of view point. In a certain sense, the charges against Jesus were true. First, he did stir up the people in sure expectation of the end times. He turned the faithful against the religious leaders and toward God. Second, he did turn people away from Rome, for he placed an allegiance to God higher than that of Caesar. After all, a main focus of his ministry was the repentance of tax collectors. When one of these cheats changed their lives, Rome lost a reliable and efficient means of collecting money for Caesar. Third, Jesus was the Messiah, the King of the Jews. And the King of the Greeks. And the King of Rome.

These were moral and religious issues, not political ones. But, in a culture that mixed religious and political thought into one, the distinction between faith and public order was a thin one. How could Jesus and his early followers maintain they were no threat to Rome, while, at the same time, deny the divine will and activity found in the Emperor? This was not only the charges against Jesus. The popular culture made the same charges against those in Luke's audience. Consider the charges made in Acts 17:6-7:

And when (the synagogue officials) could not find (Paul and Silas), they dragged Jason and some of the brethren before the city authorities, crying, "These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them; and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus." (RSV)

Christianity was, in effect, a peaceful counter-culture. While it did not pose an immediate threat to Pax Roma, it did challenge the attitudes and structures that had built up the Empire. Faith stood against the self-important arrogance of the Caesar, and, so, challenged a social order built around cult of the Emperor. Hope stood against the tyranny of a system that leached life from the lowliest of subjects; Christianity questioned the decrees of such a system. Charity stood against the ruthless violence of the Roman army; the 'Way' followed the love of a different King. Was Jesus and his followers a threat to the public order in the Empire? The answer to that depended upon the person asked.

Jesus and his followers were controversial. The scandal of the cross depended upon the vision of the seer. How do you envision the power of your faith? As the old saying goes, "if you were put on trial as a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"