1999 05 – Good Friday (Prison Writings)
Fr Frank Cordaro – March 4, 1999- Yankton FPC
(rewrite – Dec. 1999 for possible use in David Smith-Ferri’s book)
When the authors of the Gospels started to collect and arrange the stories and sayings of Jesus, the most developed and intact narratives about Jesus were the accounts of his last hours, his passion and death. Long before they reached the hands of the four evangelists, the narratives of Jesus’ passion and death had already undergone extensive theologizing of the historical events.
For the modern reader seeking an accurate historical chronology of Jesus’ last days, reading the Gospels accounts can be frustrating. The fact is we will never be able to reconstruct an hour by hour account of Jesus’ last 24 hours to satisfy our 20th century investigative reporting standards. Still, there is enough information given in the text, coupled with what we know of the historical political context of the 1st century Palestine, to give us some basic facts and a fair idea of what actually happened to Jesus, if not an exact account of the details.
Jesus’ Trial/What actually happened?
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trials go to great lengths to show that Jesus was innocent, set up by his own people, the Jewish leaders, and condemned to death by a very reluctant Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator. In all likelihood, the Gospel’s characterization of the role of the Jewish leaders and Pilate’s reluctant participation in Jesus’ condemnation, is more a reflection of the Gospel’s theological biases than what actually happened. We Christians are fond of saying that Jesus was the innocent Iamb that died for our sins. True as this statement may be, it is a theological statement. Criminally speaking, Jesus was as guilty as sin. If we can assume that the accounts of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (a major political street demonstration), and his Temple Cleansing (a direct nonviolent witness that included destruction of Temple property) are based in historical events, then we can safely say that Jesus was rightly charged and convicted of rebellion and insurrection and that he was legitimately put to death. Given what we know historically at that time, the Romans used to crucify people routinely of doing far less.
There was no actual transcript of Jesus’ trial kept. In all probability, there wasn’t much of a trial at all, none that we would recognize. It is likely, however, given his long standing confrontation with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and his public demonstrations in Jerusalem, that there was collision between the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and the Roman authorities in getting rid of Jesus.
Jesus’ Trial/What the Gospels say happened:
Having just recently been in a trial in which I and my God’s of Metal Plowshares co-defendants were found guilty of a crime in which we did not contest the facts, but disputed the meaning and criminality of our actions, I find myself reading the Gospel’s accounts of Jesus’ trials in an entirely new way. It seems possible that the Gospel writers placed Jesus in a similar court room context as our Gods of Metal Plowshares placed us in our trial. The results being, we have four accounts of Jesus’ trial, in which Jesus doesn’t really dispute the facts, but disputes the meaning and criminality of his actions. Accounts of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin are recorded in all three of the synoptic Gospels. In Matthew and Mark’s accounts, efforts were made to find witnesses to testify against Jesus. Mark says some testified, “We heard him declare, ‘I will destroy this temple made by human hands’ and ‘In three days I will construct another not made by human hands.’ ” (Mark 14:58). Matthew has two witnesses making the same charges (Mt. 26:61).
The Gospel writers tell us that all testimony against Jesus were found to be false and contradictory. I find this most puzzling, because the testimony is exactly what we Christians believe Jesus actually did. In fact, Jesus himself makes this claim in John 2:19-22, immediately after he did the temple cleansing witness. Could this be a situation where the Gospel writers are not disputing the facts of the case but are challenging the meaning and criminality of Jesus’ actions?
The alleged false testimony is followed by the Chief Priest asking Jesus point blank, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Mark 14:60 (Mt 28:63 and Lk. 22:66). Jesus answers, “I am, and you will see the Son of Many seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” Mark 14:62 (Mt 26:65 and Lk 22:69). This too, rings true to the Gospel understanding of who Jesus was.
Apparently, this claim of Jesus’ was all the Sanhedrin needed to find Jesus guilty of blasphemy and condemn him to death. Yet, by the standards of the day, none of these charges would warrant a death sentence by the Romans. Clearly, the Gospel writers were more concerned with making theological points than disputing any criminal charges.
Jesus’ Sentencing / What the Gospels say happened:
Jesus is then taken to Pilate to be sentenced. As reported in all four Gospels, Jesus’ session before Pilate was more like a sentencing hearing than a trial to determined innocence or guilt. Pilate is characterized as complaining about being locked into a mandatory sentence that he knows to be unfair. This is the same position many Federal judges find themselves in today, when they are forced to sentence people to long prison terms because of the mandatory sentencing guidelines which they believe to be unfair. Like Federal judges today, Pilate had no other options but to sentence Jesus to death.
What we need to remember in all this is that the accounts of Jesus’ trials are written by Jesus’ followers, people who believed in him and the Truth he represented. They wrote their accounts after the fact, based on what they believed to be the real (theological) reasons why Jesus was condemned to death. The Jewish authorities and the Romans probably thought they were working together to get rid of Jesus because he was a rebellious person who demonstrated outlawed behavior. It was only in the eyes of Jesus’ followers that he was condemned to death for being on God’s side and against the evil powers and principalities of his day. And the Gospel writers got the last word, the one everyone believes; the side that made it in the New Testament.
This difference of perceived realities was very much evident in the Federal Court room in Greenbelt, Maryland this past September and January when our Gods of Metal Plowshares folks were found guilty of a crime and sentenced to jail. As far as the Federal Government was concerned, we were guilty of destruction of government property, plain and simple, and were sentenced accordingly. But from our God’s of Metal Plowshares perspective we dared to expose the truth that our Federal Justice System and its courts are really agents and protectors of our country’s evil nuclear weapons establishment and the demonic powers and principalities that stand behind them. That is why we believed we were sent to jail. Guilty or innocent, truth or lies, it all depends on the eye of the beholder… and who gets the last word, who’s truth makes it in the final testament.