Mark 14:53-65, Matthew 26:57- 68, Luke 22:54-23:1
Self-proclaimed Messiahs are dangerous people. They always have been. People with Messiah complexes are subject to no laws but their own. They are accountable to no one. And they leave behind a legacy of damage in the lives of individuals and in the life of a community.
People like David Koresh of Waco, Texas, Jim Jones and Charles Manson teeter on the borderline between insanity and genius. They are creative enough and charismatic enough to forge a following and become believable. On the other hand. they are irrational to the extreme. And history is littered with the damage caused by such human hurricanes.
1. THE DILEMMA OF THE SANHEDRIN
The Sanhedrin who were the 70 ruling elders of the Jewish people throughout the world, had met self-proclaimed messiah’s before. During the decades leading up to the appearance of Jesus many so-called messiahs had appeared. After the ascension of Jesus they would meet many more. Those messiahs were to create wave after wave of insane activity within Israel that would lead to the destruction of their nation 40 years later. These self-presumed messiahs always had one agenda. The liberation of Judaism from foreign tyrants.
Because of this Jesus, like John the Baptist before him, did not want to be identified as a Messiah. He uses a term for himself that is ambiguous. He calls himself “The Son of Man.” But the crowds are convinced that Jesus is the Messiah. They begin to use that language about him. And the Jewish Sanhedrin members are hearing this and their anxiety quotient is rising. They are probably saying to themselves, “here we go again!”
Because Jesus is a threat, the leaders of the Sanhedrin say “We must find a way to get rid of him. It is for the good of the people. It is necessary for security reasons. We must find a way to defuse this bomb before it goes off.” So, they undertake plans to arrest Jesus covertly, in a night-time operation. They have a man on the inside who is willing to tell them where Jesus can be taken without fanfare. On the Thursday night of Passover, when almost every Jew is at home celebrating Passover, they arrest Jesus and bring him to trial.
2. THE ATTEMPT TO DO THE RIGHT THING
They bring him to trial. That is interesting. They send out no death squad like those that operate in some third world republics. They do not send out a James Bond secret agent with a license to kill to simply bump off the threat to security. They call a trial. It may be that they want to be seen to be doing justice in their act of injustice. But it could very well be that they really want to do the right thing. They want to protect their nation from another messiah, but they do not want to be criminal either.
They suspect Jesus of a hidden agenda, but they need proof before they do away with him in the name of peace. They need evidence of some kind before they can, in clear conscience, declare him a criminal. Can I suggest that most of the Sanhedrin were good men who wanted to do what was right.
It may well be that Annas and Caiphas, the Father and Son team were evil men who plotted the death of Jesus just because they were malicious men. But most of the ruling elders were driven more by fear than by hate. Driven more by patriotism and love of country than by evil intent.
The trial in intriguing. They call witnesses. They do not simply call a couple of hand-picked people who will lie through their teeth. From the people who have complained about Jesus, they call anyone who has an accusation to come forward and make his statement.
That night they heard a lot of witnesses. And one after another the council of 70 decide that the witnesses are not telling the truth. They perceive that these witnesses were either flakes, or dishonest men who made outlandish charges that no responsible jury could believe. Through the hours of that night they listened to the foolish charges and dismissed them. They were honest men.
But during that long sequence they noticed that two witnesses told a similar story. They had heard Jesus saying something about the temple being destroyed and being rebuilt in three days. As the jury listened to these two men, they judged them to be honest men who had heard something suspicious. Mark, however, tells us that though their stories were similar they diverged enough to create some doubt about what was really said.
Again, the Sanhedrin wants Jesus out of the way because he appears dangerous, but they want justice to be served as well. They do not want this to be a kangaroo court.
By now the High Priest is desperate. There are not enough clear charges to proceed with any judgment. The 70 men who are judge and jury will not prosecute Jesus on such flimsy grounds. The High priest, Caiphas turns to Jesus, the defendant, and asks, “What do you say to these charges? Could you clarify what these two men are getting at?” Jesus, however, remains silent. Trying to explain what he had meant by such words, would not be understandable by those who were gathered there.
The high priest is frustrated. No verdict of guilt is possible. Jesus has said or done nothing that can bring about a sentence for either incarceration or execution. He will have to be let go. These 70 men are basically good men who intend to be law abiding citizens.
3. 70 MEN BECOME A MOB.
The High Priest, however, is not happy with that outcome. He knows that all messiah types are dangerous. They are dangerous by definition in his mind. He cannot believe that any person could be a genuine messiah. So he asks Jesus to answer the question that has been upon his mind all night. He uses strong language. “I put you under oath before the Living God, tell us, Are you the Messiah?”
All Jesus has to say is “no” and he is a free man. Say “yes” and he is a goner. I am sure there was a heavy silence in the court room as 70 men leaned forward, holding their breath, waiting for the answer.
Then Jesus answers the question, and as he does he puts his neck in their noose. He says, “It is as you have said.” St Mark records it more simply, (ego eimi) “I, I am” I am the messiah. That brief answer was enough to put him in grave danger, but he does not stop there. He then quotes the book of Daniel. (Chapter 7:13) You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
He has claimed to be the fulfillment of a promise from God to send a deliverer and a saviour, one who shares the very throne of God. He has committed blasphemy.
And 70 men who have kept their composure throughout that long session erupt into an angry mob. They forget about trumped up charges. Those are no longer the issue. He has just committed the ultimate crime right before their faces.
The High Priest tore his robe in an act of outrage and declares the charge. “Blasphemy!” Who needs witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy, what’s your verdict?” And 70 well behaved men cry out, “Death!” But it is not a calm judicial decision they make. It is a volcanic outburst of rage that pushes reason to the rear and violence to the fore. They leap from their seats and attack the defendant. Matthew tells us that some spat in his face, others punched him. Others slapped him while others resorted only to verbal violence and poured ridicule upon him.
In a moment of time, 70 men are transmuted from orderly judicial persons to punching and slapping and spitting. Their concern for justice has been swallowed up in rage. Sophisticated and civilized barristers find themselves acting like wild barbarians.
Jesus is hurried off to Pilate to be tried by the civil court. We know what happened to him. But what happened to the 70 men who were at that trial? I think their angry outburst exhausted them. Finally their anger subsided. And some sat there is the Counsel Chambers trying to regain their composure. Some of them felt anger still. Others felt confused with the turn of events. Some may have felt terribly ashamed of their behaviour. Why do I suspect that?
There is a wonderful footnote in the book of Acts. Just a few weeks after the ascension of Jesus, and after the day of Pentecost, the book of Acts, 6:7, tells us that a great multitude of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Many of the priests, who had been so critical of Jesus, now find themselves among his early followers.
I wonder, had they suffered terrible shame over their treatment of this good man? Did their deed haunt them in the days and weeks that followed? Could it be that they could not stand the memory of that great injustice they had participated in? Could it be that they were so ashamed of the kind of person they had become?
We actually know some of these men. Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin. He had been a Christian in the closet and a coward, but I wonder if the terrible revulsion at himself and his colleagues pushed him to open declaration that very day. For a few hours after the trial, he is taking the body of Jesus from the cross. Is he trying to undo something that he can no longer live with?
Another member of the same Sanhedrin was Joseph of Arimathea. A wealthy man who was used to making decisions for his nation. He too came out of the woodwork that same day, putting his own life in danger and his character under suspicion. He took the body and laid it in his own tomb that he had created for the eventuality of his own death.
What was the motivation to such bold deeds when other disciples were hiding away? I suspect a deep revulsion about the part they had played in that terrible trial scene.
The great Rabbi Gamaliel was part of the Sanhedrin. He never became a Christian, as far as records show, but there came a day when some of the apostles were arrested. They too are brought before the Sanhedrin, and the scene is about to be repeated. In Acts 5:33 the Sanhedrin was enraged and wanted to kill them, but Gamaliel intervened. He wants justice done for the early members of the church. He may have participated in the trial of Jesus and may have given in to his fear, but he does not want to repeat of that dark deed.
My suspicion is that the human psyche cannot easily tolerate behaviour that it despises in itself. The guilt of priests and leaders was so shattering, that it opened them up to the grace of God and his healing touch.
Why do I turn our attention to this scene in the life of Jesus. Why focus on the Sanhedrin? Because I have sat where they have sat. I have been on the bench along side of them. These 70 men are just like me and people that I have known all my life.
My friends, these people were just like us. They blended within themselves a desire to be just and fair, but in a moment of anger or pressure did something that was both unjust and unfair. And some of us find ourselves living out that same sequence. We can be ape and angel. We can act in ways both demonic and divine. We can be people of integrity and in a flash become people of the lie. We can be deeply religious and godly, and then something happens that pushes that to the background of our lives, and we revert to actions that we have always despised in others.
The apostle Paul faced that same dilemma. He cries out “The good that I want to do, I find myself not doing, and the evil I do not want to do, I find myself doing. O wretched man that I am. Who shall deliver me from this curse?”
It is part of the human dilemma. But Good news! Many of those early priests and leaders turned to the one they had helped crucify, and they found in his death not only the source of their guilt, but the source of their forgiveness. In asking for His forgiveness, that wound they had caused within themselves found healing. In their encounter with him they also found the strength to do what by nature they had not been able to do. To resist evil and do good. To be strong in virtue and weak in sinning. Weak men, vulnerable to their own passions and to external circumstances, found themselves strengthened with might by his spirit. And what those men found we too can find. Thanks be to God.
Let us sing a hymn that is a prayer, as we close this hour.
#438 Search Me O God..