Preaching on Good Friday is tough. The subject, the material, everything is going against you. I lamented to a friend that the struggle I was feeling going into it was the tension between wanting to be honest to the day and its solemnity without sending people out wanting to slit their wrists. I was taught to look for the grace in every preaching opportunity, but it seemed like Good Friday needed to be the exception.
As I was preparing for this year’s service, and reading the gospel, which is the 18-19 chapters of John, I came across this interesting passage. Jesus is being questioned by Pilate and here is a short exchange in verses 19:10-11:
Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’
Perhaps it was reflective mood I was in, but as I read these words, my mind did a double-take. “Did Jesus say what I think he said?” I thought. Let’s take a look at it.
Pilate has Jesus over a barrel, and if we take John’s understanding of events as honest, Pilate is trying mightily to get out of doing what he’s in the middle of. And he pleads with Jesus here: be reasonable he seems to be saying. Work with me here! Can’t you see that I’ve got the power to choose whether or not you survive the day? He appeals to Jesus’s intelligence and sense of self-preservation. Just end this charade.
Puzzling is not that Jesus picks the response that he does, but what that response could imply.
Jesus’s response is two-fold:
- Any power you possess over me was given to you by God.
- Who brought me here “is guilty of a greater sin.”
Just reading this through, we can see these things as direct and making sense. God grants earthly power and the Jewish leadership are the ones most responsible for this. We can easily see the roots of anti-Semitism in this exchange. But this reading requires us to make some leaps that the text doesn’t give us.
Notice in the first part that Jesus doesn’t refer to Pilate having any actually earthly power except that he acknowledges his possessing power “over” Jesus. He doesn’t seem to be honestly granting Pilate’s premise, but takes the opportunity to describe the possessor of true power. Also, in the NRSV phrasing, the supposition is that Pilate would have no power at all if it weren’t for God.
But the really interesting stuff is in the second part. Keeping in mind that the first part is dealing with power coming from God. Jesus then seems to be condemning “the one who handed me over to you”. But who? Caiaphas? The Chief Priest? Or do we go back to Judas? What interests me is that Jesus refers to the singular, when the evangelist keeps pinning the blame on “The Jews”. The reading one gets, both up to this point, and throughout the Passion narrative, is that it is the Temple authorities that are most responsible. It also seems to be a strange moment to take a pot-shot at Judas. I can’t help but read this statement with the first part in mind–God gives the power to Pilate to condemn Jesus, so isn’t it God that also gave power to the soldiers, Jewish police, the crowds, the authorities to deliver Jesus to them? Isn’t God, therefore “guilty of a greater sin”?
Perhaps I’m letting my deconstructionist heart get the best of me today, but this passage seems to speak to that enduring question: how could the Father let this befall the Son?
For me, the truly revealing thing about Good Friday is our willingness to blame God for putting Jesus, and us, in this situation. Jesus, humbling Himself in human form, dwelling among us, and walking straight into his own execution is pretty heavy burden to put on all of us. Friday comes around, and I feel guilt. Two thousand years of guilt. We even have a liturgical tradition of assuming that guilt in shouting “crucify him” in the gospel reading. We take on that guilt. And we often blame each other or we scapegoat “The Jews” because its convenient and some of our ancestors did, so its ‘traditional’. But isn’t some of the blame God’s? And don’t you think that Jesus got that? And don’t you think that God gets it now? Isn’t God taking some of that heat a good thing? Isn’t God working in the midst of this nasty scenario just as important as the victory through which the light of Christ is revealed just as awesome? And if we’re willing to be honest to it, isn’t it a teensy weensy bit more awesome than that?
It seems like we make a theological leap when we express liturgically that Jesus became human “yet, without sin”. Perhaps the greater leap is that we believe that God can’t sin.