Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Matthew 27:11–31

Matthew 27:11–31 (ESV): Jesus’ trial before the Romans


This post is once again combining a few ESV section headings together, since they seem to go together.

Jesus has had his trial before the Jewish religious leaders and been found guilty of blasphemy. He is now brought before the Romans, with the religious leaders hoping that the Romans will back them up and have Jesus executed.

However, Jesus doesn’t act as the Roman governor, Pilate, expects him to act; as the religious leaders make accusations against him he doesn’t answer any of them, not even to protest his innocence. The only question he answers is when Pilate asks him if he is the King of the Jews, to which he replies, “You have said so” (verse 11 (ESV)), a phrase which we’ve seen before in 26:25 (ESV) and which essentially deflects the question back onto the asker.

The passage doesn’t tell us, however, whether Pilate judges Jesus to be innocent or guilty, or even if he makes a judgement at all. Frankly, it seems that he wants to bypass this tough decision altogether, and let the crowd decide. There is a custom that has formed where every year Pilate will release one prisoner, and the crowd gets to choose which prisoner is released. Pilate knows that the religious leaders have only brought Jesus out of envy, and his wife has told him that she has had a dream about him and wants Pilate to have nothing to do with him, so he presents the crowd with a choice of releasing either Jesus or a man named Barabbas, who is a “notorious prisoner” (verse 16 (ESV)), presumably assuming that the crowd would choose to have Jesus released.

However, the religious leaders are a step ahead of Pilate, and they persuade the crowd to ask for Barabbas instead of Jesus. Pilate tries again (and again):

The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” (verses 21–23 (ESV))
Pilate now realizes that he’s not getting anywhere—and, in fact, a riot might be starting—so get gets some water and washes his hands in front of the crowd, signifying that he wants no part of this; this is obviously where the phrase “washing my hands of this” comes from. He tells them, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (verse 24 (ESV)), and then the crowd gives a chilling response: “His blood be on us and on our children!” (verse 25 (ESV)). So Pilate gives up, has Jesus “scourged” (see below), and then delivers him for crucifixion.

However, before they get to the actual crucifixion, the soldiers want to have some cruel fun at Jesus’ expense. They take him back inside, strip him down, and then place a scarlet robe on him, along with a crown made out of thorns and a reed for him to hold (as if it were a king’s sceptre). They then mock him by sarcastically paying tribute to him as the “King of the Jews.” Then then spit on him, and take the reed back out of his hand to beat him with it. Finally, they put his own clothes back on him, and lead him away for crucifixion.


The question Pilate asks Jesus is, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (verse 11 (ESV)). I think this is because the religious leaders have changed the charges, slightly, before bringing Jesus before the Romans. Internally, in their own deliberations, the question was one of blasphemy, but for Jesus to question the Jewish religious leaders’ authority, or even to claim he was the Son of God, probably wouldn’t have bothered the Romans much. It’s a religious issue, who cares? But if Jesus were threatening political upheaval—claiming to be a king—then that would be treason against the Romans, and that would be worthy of execution. So I believe this is how the Jews are framing things in bringing Jesus to the Romans; “this guy is threatening your authority, so you’d better take care of him.”

In that light, it’s even more interesting that this is the only question Jesus deigns to answer.

It looks like Pilate is trying to get out of judging Jesus by passing off the responsibility to the crowd; he’s hoping that they’ll ask for Jesus’ release, and then he won’t have to make this judgement at all. Obviously that’s not what happens, and he ends up having a man that he seems to believe to be innocent crucified. His “washing his hands” of the affair simply doesn’t wash (if you’ll pardon the pun); just because he says he’s got no part of it, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t—he clearly does. It’s his decision to judge Jesus guilty, regardless of what the crowd says. He should have judged Jesus innocent before even bringing him to the crowd.

Oh, and as for the word “scourged,” this is an especially nasty form of having someone whipped. From the ESV Study Bible notes:

Roman flogging was a horrifically cruel punishment. Those condemned to it were tied to a post and beaten with a leather whip that was interwoven with pieces of bone and metal, which tore through skin and tissue, often exposing bones and intestines. In many cases, the flogging itself was fatal. The Romans scourged Jesus nearly to death so that he would not remain alive on the cross after sundown.
Finally, the soldiers are adding insult to injury; after having scourged Jesus—meaning that he’s probably already somewhat close to being dead—they mock him and then beat him some more. The irony here is dark and obvious; Jesus really is the king of the Jews. He is, in fact, ruler of the universe; eventually, all of the soldiers who were there mocking Jesus eventually died, and ended up standing before him, learning much too late who it was that they had mocked.

And it continues to this day; Jesus is mocked all the time, by people who will one day learn who is is they are mocking—but, again, too late. I’m not sure what the proper Christian response should be; outrage? Well, yes, we probably should be outraged that our Lord and Saviour is being made light of, although I don’t know that responding with outrage will be all that helpful. Sadness? In a sense, yes, we should be of course be sad about people not understanding who God is, and their relation to Him, but I also don’t know that sadness is enough; there should be some righteous indignation to go along with it, shouldn’t there? I don’t have answers to these questions, they’re just questions in my mind, which is why when I hear Jesus being mocked, my response is usually just to get uncomfortable, and not know what to do.

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