Lessons from John, 19:1-16 Mockery

John 19:1-16 Mockery

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 23, 2007. Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Old Salem. The weather was so heavenly this week, it was hard to stay at my desk and do my work, but I do have a lesson for you today. Wednesday was International Talk Like a Pirate Day, so I told my class that a pirate’s favorite prayer is “Ourrr Farrrther.” Next Sunday, Dr. Richard Vinson of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond will be filling in for me while I am away at a conference in Germany. The conference is being held in honor of the 550th anniversary of the founding of the Moravian Church, and I will be giving a paper on Moravian theology in the early years. I’m grateful to Dr. Vinson for sharing some of his vast knowledge of the NT with you. 

Today we are continuing our discussion of the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Last week we saw that John draws a contrast between two types of people, two types of leaders. There is Jesus: a sojourner for truth who invites his accusers into eternal life. And there is Pilate who has a legion at his command and sits on the judgment seat, but is weak and frightened. James Russell Lowell’s words “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, Yet that scaffold sways the future” in the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” captures John’s image well. Pilate is not shown as evil, but weak. He tries to avoid making a decision and plays games with the Sanhedrin. In the end, though, he does condemn a man he thinks is innocent. Weakness can make us immoral. As Raymond Brown put it, “Pilate tried to be neutral to the truth, the truth that sets men free; and now he is enslaved by his own fears.” (Brown, II:891) I will be reading from ch. 19 of John’s gospel, using Brown’s translation.

Scourging:             Matthew, Mark, and John all report that Pilate had Jesus scourged or flogged. Luke indicates that Jesus was beaten. None of the gospels give the details of the scourging, perhaps because the original readers knew all too well what such a flogging meant. Historians have learned that the Romans had three degrees of physical punishment. Beating with sticks was for lesser crimes. Flogging was for more severe crimes, but not for capital offenses. In both of these, the victim would be released after the ordeal. Scourging or verbatio was done in preparation for crucifixion in order to speed death. It is not clear which was done to Jesus since the Greek words do not match precisely with the Latin terms in Roman law. In both Mark and Matthew, the scourging takes place after Jesus has been condemned, which implies he suffered the most severe form of the punishment. This is what Mel Gibson depicts in such gory detail in his movie The Passion of the Christ. Catholic piety focused on this brutal punishment during the Middle Ages, but John devotes a single sentence to the whipping of Jesus; far less than he devotes to Jesus’ conversation with Pilate. The whipping of Jesus was an historical fact, but it was not central to the good news about Jesus, and it is wise not to dwell too long over the gruesome details. It is enough to know that he suffered as a human being before he died.

John’s portrayal of this scene implies that Pilate was ordering the lesser punishment since he intended to free Jesus after he was whipped. It is hard to understand why John would have placed the scourging before Jesus was condemned. Different scholars offer different explanations, but none of them are really convincing. This different sequence of events does how that John probably had different sources for his gospel than Mark had used.

Robe and Crown            All of the gospels record that Jesus’ ordeal included mockery. John says that Jesus was mocked by the Jewish police when he was in the home of Annas and that he was further mocked by the Roman soldiers. Mark and Matthew agree with John that the Roman soldiers who had fun abusing their prisoner. Luke alone tells that Jesus was sent to King Herod whose soldiers mocked him. The details are a little different, but Matthew, Mark, and John say that a crown of thorns was placed on Jesus’ head. Any number of trees or bushes could have provided the thorns, by the way. There are lots of thorns in Palestine. The crown the soldiers plaited was probably a mockery of the laurel wreath worn by the emperor. The symbolism of this derision is clear: Jesus claimed to be a king, but his crown was made of thorns that cut into his scalp. What was a source of amusement to the soldiers became an important aspect of Christian devotion.

The four gospels agree that the soldiers then put a robe on Jesus. According to Mark and John, it was a purple robe, which was the color of royalty because purple dye was so. Over the centuries as the church took over many of the characteristics of the Roman Empire, purple became the color for bishops, by the way. Matthew says that the color of the robe was scarlet, not purple, which causes some confusion in the Passion Week Manual. Matthew wisely recognized that it was unlikely that the soldiers would have “wasted” such an expensive robe on a prisoner, particularly if he were still bleeding. The historical robe probably was red, but was remembered as purple because of the greater symbolic value of purple.

Ave Caesar!            After putting the crown of thorns and robe on Jesus, the soldiers mockingly paid homage to him, shouting out “hail, king of the Jews.” There is no reason to do the historicity of this. Not only is this ritual humiliation attested in all of the gospels, we know that Roman soldiers acted this way in other cases. Prisoners about to be killed in the arena were often ridiculed for the amusement of the crowds. Moreover, there was even a game Roman soldiers played in which they set up a “mock king” during Saturnalia. (Brown, 888) 

We should not forget theses Legionnaires. They were not forced to humiliate this poor Jew from Nazareth. They placed the crown on his head because they enjoyed reducing another human being to an object of scorn. This mocking of Jesus is one of the most painful aspects of the passion narrative for Christians. We remember these soldiers in the gospel narrative, not to inspire hatred, but to make us ashamed of who we are. Those who are weak and on the fringes of society are often subjected to cruelty masked as fun. For some reasons, people like to make themselves appear bigger by making other people small. Just think back to the humiliation visited upon those who did not fit in at high school or work.

Last week I watched the wonderful Roberto Benigni film “Life is Beautiful” about an Italian family taken to the concentration camp. The death camp was simply the final stage of a process of humiliation, degradation, and cruelty. The main character, Guido, was a Jew who tried to shield his son from the degradation by pretending that it was all a game. To the very end, he laughed at those who murdered him. In the church, we remember another Jew who was mocked, scourged, and executed by another empire. This story has been retold for 2000 years to remind us that our Lord and Savior suffered, but he did not respond to enemies with hatred and scorn.

Ecce Homo            Pilate endorsed this humiliation of the Messiah. He brought Jesus out to the priests, dressed in his crown of thorns and his robe, and declared: Idou ho anthropos, which is more famous in the Latin: Ecce Homo. Behold the man. Scholars debate how to translate this phrase even though the Greek is simple. Some interpreters think Pilate is saying “here is a true man,” and expressing admiration for Jesus’ courage. Some have thought that this statement is proof of the Incarnation, that the beating and mockery have shown that Jesus is truly human, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. Others have thought that this statement does the opposite and is identifying Jesus as the heavenly Son of Man who will return in glory. I think Pilate is proclaiming that Jesus is merely a man and no man can stand against the emperor.

It is possible, perhaps likely, that Pilate wanted to send a message to all Jews that no one can stand up to Rome. It is possible, perhaps likely, that Pilate wanted everyone to see that Jesus was powerless and they should not follow him. It is possible that Pilate hoped that the sight of Jesus in humiliation would convince the priests that he was no threat to their power or authority and they would agree to drop the charges. We do not know what Pilate hoped would happened when he said “Behold the man,” but we do know that the priests had no more compassion than the soldiers. Seeing the Messiah brought low, the priests called for more blood.

Innocent of the Charges            Pilate’s game failed, and now he must take responsibility for the fate of Jesus. He proclaims again that there is no legal case against Jesus. He tells the priests to crucify him themselves if they want to, but they refuse. They are shrewd and refuse the bait. They tell Pilate that Jesus has violated the laws of their religion and must die. Thus, the truth leaks out. The Greek is more clear here than some English translations. It says that he “made himself the Son of God,” rather than he “claimed to be the Son.” The evangelist knew that Jesus was innocent of the charge that he made himself the Son of God because it was God who named Jesus the Son. It is not blasphemy to claim to be the Son of God if you really are.

Pilate’s Fear            It is not clear why Pilate was so frightened when he heard the response of the chief priests that Jesus made himself the Son of God. Pilate was probably frightened because he realized that this case was a religious matter not a political matter, and religion is a dangerous and unpredictable power. If Pilate refused to punish someone for offending Jewish law, he risked antagonizing the priests and the people. He had already been forced to put down violent uprisings. If he executed someone that the people thought was the Son of God, he might have a bigger uprising on his hands, but if he failed to execute a blasphemer, there could also be a riot. Or, since Pilate was a pagan who believed in many gods, he may have simply been frightened by the though that Jesus was a demigod who might defend himself with divine power.

We do not know why Pilate was frightened. In any case, he went back inside and asked Jesus where he was from. Since this question comes immediately after the statement that Jesus had made himself the Son of God, we can assume that the evangelist intended something more than just a geographical answer. Pilate was really asking Jesus if he was from Galilee, he was asking about the origin of Jesus: was he from the heavens? Was he the son of one of the gods of the pantheon?

But Jesus refused to answer. This is one of the great moments of silence in the history of the world. There are times when silence communicates more than words could. Throughout the Gospel Jesus says that he has come from the Father and will return to the Father, but such teachings were not for pagan governors who have just ordered an innocent man to be tortured. Pilate deserves no answer. His treatment of Jesus ought to have been based on the truth, not on his fears of offending one of the gods or his fear of the crowds. Jesus has offered Pilate the truth, but he scorned it and mocked the truth-giver. Now he receives silence. How often we complain of the silence of God without wondering if God is silent because we are unjust, merciless, scornful, and cruel.

Threats and Violence            Pilate responds in the only way he knows: with threats and promises. Jesus’ life is in Pilate’s hands. Like all tyrants, Pilate exults in the fact that he has the power to take life or to grant it. He is like the little boy who feels powerful because he can kill an insect; like the psychopath who feels godlike because he can abuse and kill women and children; like the politician who thinks that sending troops into battle is a demonstration of his resolve and strength. Pilate thinks that the power to take life is the same as the power to grant life, but Jesus reminds him that he has no real power. Pilate is the puppet of the emperor in Rome and his life is just as tenuous as the lives of his subjects. Pilate has no power of his own; his power comes from above him.

According to John, Jesus told Pilate that those who handed him over have greater sin than Pilate. Up to this point, the verb translated “handed over” has referred to Judas. Here John is probably referring to the chief priests who handed Jesus over to Pilate. Their sin was greater than Pilate’s. Pilate sinned out of weakness, ignorance, and laziness, but the priests knew what they were doing. They knew the Law and the Prophets but do not recognize the one sent by God to bring reconcile the world to himself. Those who knew the Law failed to recognize the truth. Worse, they betrayed him. The more Pilate tried to release Jesus, the more insistent they were that he had to die. Sin is so often compounded sin.

No King but Caesar!                        Finally, the tensions reach a fever pitch. The chief priests threaten Pilate at his weakest point. They tell him that he is no friend of Caesar if he does not execute the Messiah. “Friend of Caesar” became a formal title in the Roman Empire to indicate someone who had shown great loyalty to the emperor. It was an even more exalted title than “Friend of Bill” was in the 1990s. We do not know if Pilate was considered a friend of Caesars, but we can assume that this was a desire of his. We can perceive the threat behind these words. If Pilate failed to execute Jesus, the priests would send someone to Rome to inform the emperor and ask that Pilate be investigated. His misdeeds and misrule would come to light. His chance for advancement would wither. The priests thus affirmed what Jesus just told Pilate. He has no power of his own – unlike Jesus. It is Jesus who has the power to lay down his life and to take it up again. It is Jesus who can give life instead of death. Jesus can ignore Rome; Pilate can’t.

Judgment            Finally, the trial is over. Pilate sits on the judgment seat and officially sends Jesus off to be crucified. There is an ambiguity in the Greek so that it could be read that Pilate set Jesus on the judgment seat, as if he were continuing to mock Jesus (O’Day, 822), but it seems very unlikely that the governor would do that. No, the time for games was at an end. Judgment had come. Pilate presented Jesus one last time and forced the priests to repudiate Jesus and declare loyalty to Caesar. “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked cruelly. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. This is a shattering statement. Not only have the priests rejected Jesus, they have rejected the idea of the Messiah and embraced a pagan emperor as their ruler. This statement seems like a rejection of the teaching of the Torah that God is the true king of Israel. It is a tragic moment in the gospel that echoes in silence.

Noon on the Day of Preparation            The evangelist includes a detail that may or may not be historically accurate but is theologically rich. The judgment of Jesus by Pilate came at noon on the day of preparation for the Passover. According to Jewish law, the priests could begin sacrificing lambs for the Passover festival at noon the day before the feast. It other words, the priests call for the crucifixion of Jesus at the moment their colleagues in the Temple are lining up innocent lambs for the slaughter. Passover is a festival celebrating God’s judgment of the world, but here the priests judged themselves by judging Jesus. The priests proclaimed their allegiance to the new Pharaoh and called for the execution of the one who could lead people out of slavery. The truth will set you free, Jesus had proclaimed, but Pilate rejected truth and the priests sacrificed the liberator. The question for us is where do we truly stand? Do we stand with the man of sorrows dressed in robes of mockery or with the priests and procurator who have no king but Caesar? Do we stand with those who deal in death and judgment or with the One who offers

life and truth? Pilate sent him away to be crucified. 

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