The Politicians - Ultimate Power

Mar 11 2018

                                                THE POLITICIANS – ULTIMATE POWER

 There is a saying that power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Politics, at its worst, is about power. Unfortunately, many times that can mean power for power’s sake which means expedient decisions instead of moral or ethical ones. Today’s sermon is about the political leaders of Jesus’ time concentrating on Pontius Pilate.

First, some history. At the time of Jesus, there were a multitude of itinerant preachers claiming to be the messiah, who healed, did exorcisms and raised people from the dead. The leading ones claimed to be a king; the leading ones were all crucified. When Jesus was crucified, it was the custom to place the reason on the cross. Above Jesus it read, INRI, Jesus Nazarenus, Rex, Judaeorum. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

To this day we do not know what was placed on the crosses of those crucified on either side of Jesus. We do know that they were not thieves; they were bandits. And bandits at that time meant individuals who rebelled against the government. The majority of crucifixions that occurred were for sedition against the government overseen by Pilate.

Now Pilate is the politician who actually figures the most prominently in the passion story, so let’s ask: What picture does the Bible paint of him and why? If it is inaccurate, what was Pilate really like? And what questions does that leave for us to answer?

The Gospel of John paints a portrait of Pilate as someone who ultimately does not want to crucify Jesus and almost pleads with the crowd to free him. He repeatedly calls Jesus a king and, by tradition, we are told that he placed a sign over Jesus abbreviated as INRI meaning, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

The scenario opens with the Jews calling Jesus a criminal and turning him over to Pilate. Their rationale – we are not permitted to put anyone to death. Here we find the first major historical error. Do you remember the story of the woman who was threatened with stoning and Jesus stopped it? The Jews could certainly sentence someone to death – for a violation of Jewish law that called for that sentence. With the power of the Sanhedrin behind them, they could have sentenced Jesus to death for blasphemy, but they didn’t. The Bible leads us to the conclusion that the Jews wanted Jesus condemned for “claiming that he was the Son of God,” (Jn 19:7). That was the precise reason for which the Jews could have put him to death, but they didn’t. And Pilate, as a Roman procurator, could only sentence men to death for political crimes.

Yet the story in John leads us to believe that Pilate agonized over killing this innocent man. He even goes so far as to offer another criminal, Barabbas, as a substitution, claiming that there was a custom at Passover that a criminal would be released. Another problem – nowhere in any historical or political writings of the time can such a substitution or custom be substantiated.

The tradition in Matthew tells that Pilate’s wife suffered in a dream because of Jesus and she begs him to have nothing to do with killing him. It is in Matthew 27:24-25 that we have the famous hand-washing scene where Pilate absolves himself of guilt and the Jews state “his blood be on us and our children.”

But Pilate was, in fact, a ruler who possessed ultimate power. According to research conducted by both Reza Aslan and John Shelby Spong, “Pilate appears, in the records of antiquity available to us, to have been a murderer of unspeakable cruelty. A Jerusalem Post writer, after researching his life, referred to him as  “the Saddam Hussein of his time.” His contemporary, King Herod Agrippa, in a letter written to the Emperor Caligula, referred to Pilate’s corruption, his murder of untried and presumably innocent people and his ruthless inhumanity.  Roman records indicate that Pilate was recalled in the year 37 for his sadistic actions, among which was the slaughter of 4,000 Galileans who had gathered on their holy mountain, an act that ultimately made Pilate a political liability even to the Romans.”

To add further fuel to the fire, consider this: By Judaic law the Sanhedrin was forbidden to meet over the Passover. Further, they were forbidden to meet at night, forbidden to meet in private houses, forbidden to meet anywhere but in the temple. Remember, please, that in John, Jesus is taken first to Annas, then to Caiaphas.

By the scene in the courtyard, we can conclude that they were most assuredly not in the temple. To further confuse the situation, in Luke, the chief priests and the scribes meet during the day. Even if it was during the day, it would have been Passover and they would have been forbidden to meet. In Mark, the courtyard scene is clarified when we are told that Jesus is taken to the courtyard of the High Priest, a private residence. But the presence of the roman soldiers suggests that a private residence was guarded by Romans. Highly unlikely.

So --- we have a meeting at the home of Annas according to John and Caiaphas according to Mark, and the meeting before the elders that could not have taken place because of Jewish law. We have a sentence of death ordered by a Roman procurator for an ostensibly religious reason for which the Jews could have pronounced sentence and which, by Pilate, is couched in the political reason that Jesus claimed he was a king, and reinforced by the sign on the cross.

We have a biblical portrait of a sissified Pilate who shifts the blame for Jesus’ death to the Jews, and who was, in fact, one of the most brutal, inhumane procurators who governed for Rome, so much so, that they finally had to recall him from his position before he created any further embarrassment to Rome.

To where does all of this lead? It certainly becomes clear upon a careful reading of the Gospels and a look at research that has been conducted that the Gospels seek to shift the blame to the Jews.

Why? Because the Gospels as we know them were written for Greek and Roman audiences as well as early Jewish converts to Christianity. It would not have been in the best interests of the ruling Roman government to lay blame for Jesus’ death on the Romans if the church were to be centered in Rome. And by the time we have the canonical gospels, that was precisely the aim – to put the center of the church in Rome and create a religion supported by the populace and supported by the politics.

How to do that? Make sure the Gospels place blame on the Jews. This is all a far cry from Mel Gibson’s literal portrayal of the last hours of Jesus. But it is not a far cry from what Irenaeus did in 150 A.D. in order to create a Christian orthodoxy. We may never know what the early Gospels in the Bible contained, but the more manuscripts of other early gospels that become available, the more research that is done, the more that scholars look into the early gospels and historical writings of that time period, one thing is sure – while Jesus lived, the circumstances under which he died are highly suspect, with the finger pointing squarely at those who wanted no challenges, politically or religiously to their ultimate earthly power.

Like typical politicians, they played “pass it on” in an attempt to shift the blame. Annas to Caiaphas to Herod to Pilate. All of them could have sentenced Jesus, but according to the stories we have in the Gospels, none of them wanted the responsibility of making the ultimate decision. So Pilate finally shifted it to the people with his Barabbas shuffle. Ultimately, they all played politics because each wanted to remain in power and retain what power he could.  And we are left with wondering what really happened that ultimately sent Jesus to the cross.

In the historical accounts that have survived from that time, Jesus was crucified for two reasons – he was perceived of by Rome as a political threat, and he was conceived of by the religious authorities as a religious threat – especially after overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple.

While we may never know exactly what happened, the historical accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth coincide with the many accounts of others that were crucified at that time for the same reasons – the maintenance of political power. Amen.