Sunday, January 13, 2008

A sense of justice

When I came home from church I flipped on the TV to find them showing an old Audrey Hepburn film, "How to steal a million". Gentle stuff - one of those 'caper' movies that were so popular then. The sex comprised a very chaste kiss with Peter O'Toole and nobody profited from the crime.

Back then that was the rule. In the movies no-one was allowed to get away with it. Life isn't like that. Most crimes go undetected and unpunished.

I remember a TV series back then which starred Margaret Lockwood as a barrister (courtroom attorney for the Americans). A rich guy employed her to defend him in a drink-driving case. After he was acquitted he received her bill. He commented, "That's an awful lot to pay for justice."

She replied, "But you didn't get justice, Mr Smith, you got off!"

You may have gathered that this is just a roundabout way of introducing Mark chapter 15.

Pontius Pilate wasn't much concerned with justice either, he was concerned with order. We don't know much about Pilate. He was for 10 years Prefect of the Roman Province of Judea but where he came from and how he died are the subject of myth and legend. He was canonized by the Ethiopian Church and his wife was canonized by the Coptic Church. At various time he has been blamed and exonerated for the death of Jesus. An inscription found in 1961 confirms his historicity. We have to answer the question of how Matthew knew of his wife's dream, so perhaps there is some truth in the suggestion that she at least was converted afterwards.

Jesus did not defend himself. The NIV translation, "Yes, it is as you say." is a disputed one. The NASV has "It is as you say.", the KJV "Thou sayest it.", the Good News Bible "Those are your words,", The Message "If you say so."

If I were to paraphrase it, the sense is, "You're not wrong, but I wouldn't put it like that."

There are two reasons why Jesus does not defend himself. One is to fulfil prophesy, "as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." Isaiah 53:7, but the other reason is that the death of the Christ had to be voluntary. If he was killed simply as a result of an injustice then he would not be a substitute; he would just be another martyr.

The Jews were familiar with the idea of a substitute. Every day there were sacrifices in the Temple. A lamb or a bull or a couple of pigeons were killed as a substitute for somebody's sins. But they could not suffice. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming — not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshippers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." Hebrews 10:1-4.

Barabbas could not have been the substitute. Everyone knew that Barabbas was guilty. But everyone knew that Jesus was innocent. Pilate knew, "it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him." (v 11) The sacrifice had to be of a lamb without blemish, a picture of the sinless Christ. Pilate released Barabbas to appease the crowd and then asked the same crowd, "What shall I do with Jesus?" In many ways it is the perfect question.

What will you do with Jesus? What you can't do is watch and wait. Just as with CLL you can watch and wait too long. There will come a time when it is too late for decisive action. A famous atheist was asked what he would do if he met the risen Christ after death. He replied that he would complain to him, "Sir, you did not leave enough evidence."

To see the question of Christ as a puzzle that can be solved by scientific experiment or the application of reason or by the experience of life is a conclusion of arrogance. All that is required is a simple faith; something available to the peasant who walks behind a plough in Patagonia, the child who sits in an mud hut in Malawi, the factory worker in Pittsburgh, the Inuit in an ice-hut in Alaska, or the banker in a board room in Manhattan. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" asks God of Job when the patriarch dared to question Him.

Pilate was found wanting. He handed over Jesus to be flogged and crucified. If you have seen "The Passion of the Christ" you don't need a description of a Roman flogging. If you have a tender soul don't watch it. It was criticised by many as revelling in the blood. All I can say is that the research for the film was accurate.

We cannot imagine the pain of crucifixion. The word 'excruciating' derives from it. There is a Latin verb cruciare which means 'to torment'.

Have you been found wanting. Are there occasion when you did not do what was right because you needed to 'please the crowd'? Do you squirm when you think of them? I do.

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