Who’s Really on Trial?

Today is Good Friday, the day that all Christians gather to remember the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on a cross two thousand years ago. We on this side of history know that there will be a coming resurrection on Sunday. During Holy Week, we are told to ponder the amazing sacrifice and what it means for us personally. However, there is probably one part of the narrative that gets overlook: the trials of Jesus before Pontius Pilate and before Herod.

This is the second in a ten minute sermon series on Holy Week so I am going to explain how we Christians who have been celebrating Easter for so long could have missed a few key details. See my Celebrating Palm Sunday 2021 post.

This is how most Christians remember the key events: Palm Sunday –> first Communion ever/ some vague elements of the Passover feast–> Jesus being flogged then crucified –> burial in a tomb –> Resurrection Sunday (yay!).

In that popular narrative, we skipped a few major parts which is certainly to our detriment. As the title alludes to, the trial(s) of Jesus before Caiaphas and Annas then Pilate to Herod and back to Pilate. What we remember was that it was a show trial with the verdict already given and then we skip to the next parts. Why did we gloss over it?

I suspect the Gospel writers include it in all four Gospels not just because it happened, but to show just how bad humanity is and therefore the need for the cross more than ever. Jesus was lifted high on a Roman cross for all the world to see. Here is the Lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world. Here is the proof of how much God loves us and the price paid to redeem mankind.

At the same time, it also elevates just how bad everyone truly is. As a lawyer, I cannot help but think of all the trial procedures and rights that were violated.

First of all, Jesus’s trial was night. That was a big no-no in any court in any century. Jurists in any country and century will argue that trials must be in an open court for all to see. Even today, if a judge has a private in camera session where it is just the judge and the lawyers to discuss strictly legal points of law or to review highly sensitive evidence, the lack of openness can raise suspicions – either for the laymen and jurors or by a higher court.

Second, at the trial, the witnesses were just horrible. Some were clearly bribed or in collusion with the high priests and the court. Others could not agree on what Jesus said. It is a foundation of the Judeo-Christian legal system that any claim must have two to three eyewitness who agree. None of that happened at the trial. A good lawyer could impeach all of them, possibly easily… if there was a competent lawyer with Jesus.

That leads to the third point; lack of counsel. In the US, the fundamental right to counsel is enshrined in the Bill of Rights – the Sixth Amendment. Two thousand years ago, there were lawyers – men who knew the Torah forwards and backwards. Anyone could have spoken out for Jesus, even if Jesus castigated them for being hypocrites. While there were no slick attorneys and overworked public defenders in the 1st century AD like we do in the 21st century, the idea of a right to legal defense was still there.

I think of the passage in Isaiah that describes prophetically – He was like a lamb led to slaughter, yet he did not utter a sound. That leads me to wonder – why then did Jesus say so little at his own trial? You can always represent yourself; that’s called pro se. (Almost no lawyers and legal experts recommend that.)

As if that was bad enough, in John 18, the apostle John added this fact: the priests did not go into the Roman praetorium because they did not want to be considered defiled and miss Passover. That is religious hypocrisy; they are so interesting in keeping the letter of the law that they violated the spirit of the law. Jesus had already pointed that out and this is Exhibit A.

Later, when Jesus is led before Herod (the same Herod who killed Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist), Jesus has even less to say. Herod wanted some miracle – like we do when we beg magicians to demonstrate a parlor trick – but Jesus didn’t even do that. In this “trial”, if you can call it that, it was even worse. The verdict from history and from the Bible was that Herod was a fool and died a fool.

What then can I conclude at this point?

  1. Religious leaders are not above corruption and collusion to spin their truths.
  2. Evidence and facts are not important, not when power and position are on the line.
  3. Humanity wants God to serve their selfish whims.
  4. Religious hypocrisy is found anywhere, anytime, and anywho.

I am saving Pilate for the end. If you put the Gospel accounts together and watch Pilate’s interactions with Jesus and with the crowd, you will see a very indecisive man. Seven times, Pilate is described as going in, then going out, then going in, and out again. In each interaction, Pilate declares: “I have found nothing morally wrong with Jesus. He is not guilty of any crime. What should I do?” I highly doubt Pilate has any rational thought in his entire life. In fact, history records he was the consummate politician who had always bet on the wrong side. This is somewhat at odds with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ where Pilate was depicted as a honorable but frustrated Roman official who cannot make anyone happy – not his emperor or the people he was ruling.

In the end, Pilate gave into the crowd and the religious leaders and crucified Jesus. Before he did, he took out a basin of water and washed his hands. That coined the modern phrase: “He/she washed his/her hands of the affair.” Even if Pilate could wash his hands, he could not wash his conscience. He knew he was sending an innocent man to die.

I would add Pilate’s conduct to the list of charges against humanity. How often do we stare the truth in the face and do nothing? I am talking about the real truths – about that there is good and evil, that actions have consequences, that there is salvation for all, and that there is real hope and forgiveness. Instead, we rationalize our immorality or even accept the lies.

I echo what Christian author and pastor Max Lucado wrote about why Jesus came. Lucado is much more poetic than I am. Lucado wrote something like this: our problem is not the lack of education so God did not send a teacher. Rather, because our problem is sin, God sent a Savior.

Let me add this coda: In the book of 1 John 2:2, John said Jesus is our advocate in heaven. Thus, because we are guilty, God sent a lawyer.

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