Perhaps you have heard the name Brock Turner. If you haven’t let me fill you in on this boy. Turner was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman at Stanford University in California. The details are grim, but those of you with daughters, I want you to consider what you would do to a person you saw raping your daughter when she was passed out from drinking too much. As a dad, the idea of a rusty knife, nail, old wooden barn, and lighter fluid come to mind. I would want complete and total justice. However, in the case of Brock Turner, he received a sentence of six months in the county jail with the high probability he will only serve three months. He could have been sentenced to up to 14 years in prison, so he gets off very, very light. Too light in my estimation and in the estimation of many, many people. Those of us who believe this sentence was wrongheaded are asking, “Where is justice?”
The cry for justice is a loud and strong one throughout the centuries. If you read through the Old Testament, you will see over and over again the cries of God’s people for justice. You will hear the cries of the prophets for justice. You will see how God demands justice. It is not without reason that God Himself declares, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” (Exodus 21:23-24; Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:21) Deuteronomy 19:21 even goes so far as to say, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Show no pity.
True justice demands no pity. True justice means that those who are guilty pay a price equal to what they have done. True justice means that no matter if you are a lowly peasant or a high king, the law applies equally to both, and there is no give or take. But justice also means that the innocent are left alone. The innocent are protected. Justice also means that the victims are compensated and cared for. The Old Testament had quite a bit to say on this as well. Care for the widow and the orphan are repeated over and over and over. Concern for the well being of the poor and disenfranchised are highlighted by the prophets at every turn.
And justice isn’t just demanded in the holy Scriptures. There is something deep within the fabric of nature that calls for justice. There is something deep within the fabric of our beings that clamors for just behavior. I showed a youtube video at the last senior service about what happens when two monkeys are paid unequally for performing the same activity. One monkey is given a cucumber for handing a researcher a rock. The second monkey is given a grape. Guess what happens? Here’s a hint, if you have children, give one child an apple and give the other an ice cream cone. See what happens next.
We long for justice. Plain and simple. And so, when we hear stories like Brock Turner, we recoil. Justice isn’t being served. Not in the least. And when we look at Jesus’ trial, I think we should recoil as well–for justice is being mocked once again.
We know that the Sanhedrin, or Jewish leaders have broken nearly every rule in the book governing the trial of a criminal as they brought a sentence of death upon Jesus, but they did not have the power to put Jesus to death. Only the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate could do that. As the Roman empire expanded, one of the ways it kept power and control was by holding the power of the death penalty. Local courts could try individuals, but to put them to death was reserved for the Roman governors. Judea was no exception, so the Sanhedrin had to bring Jesus to Pilate.
Pilate is an interesting character as far as we know. Paul Maier wrote a very intriguing historical fiction regarding this man, and it is very eye opening. Pilate was a social climber. He wanted to do a good job and work his way up in the Roman empire, and this meant handling some jobs that weren’t exactly fun. Being procurator of Judea was one of those jobs. The Jews were traditionally stiff necked and difficult. They had a history of rebelling. Pilate knew these things, and he also believed he could handle them. He encountered no small amount of difficulty, and it is safe to say that he was not on the friendliest of terms with his subjects. Interestingly enough, he served as procurator of Judea for eleven years which is quite a long amount of time considering the difficulties he had.
Pilate was charged with keeping the peace. The Jews, particularly at Passover made this job very, very difficult. As the Jews remembered how their God delivered them from the hands of oppression, they were apt to look for any reason to throw off their current oppressors: the Romans. Pilate worked hard to keep the peace which is why he was in Jerusalem. He normally resided on the coast, but during this time when the population of Jerusalem exploded with pilgrims, his presence was necessary.
This is why the Jewish leaders were easily able to bring Jesus to him for trial. And you will note the charges the brought before Pilate. Jesus is not being accused of blasphemy. Jesus is being accused of calling himself the King of the Jews. Pilate’s question in Greek can be expressed as follows, “You are the king of the Jews?” It could be read contemptuously. It could be read accusingly. We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that Pilate is not swayed by the Jewish leaders’ accusation. Pilate knows these leaders do not respect him and would just as soon have him gone. He can also perceive that Jesus is no king, and he really is no threat to the peace. As N.T. Wright says, “he didn’t bother to round up any of his followers.”
Jesus responds, “You say so.” Mark Edwards says this about Jesus’ response, “In reply to Pilate’s question, Jesus responds, “You say so,” with emphasis on You. It is not a direct affirmation, or else Pilate would have immediate grounds for execution. But neither is it a denial. The reply is suggestive, as if to say, “You would do well to consider the question!”
And Pilate does. He has to. He is having to navigate a very sticky situation with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish pilgrims who are there for Passover, and a crowd that is growing as they watch the proceedings. The Sanhedrin begins making all of their accusations. Jesus remains silent. Pilate is amazed. Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent of the charges being brought against him–after all, Jesus hasn’t been stirring up a rebellion. Jesus hasn’t been putting together an army. Roman spies would have known this, particularly since Jesus had been in public day after day after day. Pilate knows that the Sanhedrin has it out for Jesus. So, Pilate decides to stick it to the Sanhedrin by offering to set Jesus free as part of the Passover custom of releasing a prisoner.
There are no other records of this Passover custom outside of the biblical accounts; although there are some accounts of similar things happening in other countries around the Roman empire at the time. Mark tells us; however that members of the Sanhedrin work the crowd. They begin inciting the crowd to ask for Barabbas. Here is an interesting twist to the story. After all, the crowd used to be highly supportive of Jesus. The crowd used to hang on his every word. What has changed? How are they so susceptible to the Sanhedrin at this point? Remember, the Jews did not believe that the Messiah would ever be arrested or tried. They believed that the Messiah would conquer Israel’s enemies with God’s power and might. Jesus wasn’t doing a very good job of that. Jesus wasn’t calling down God’s power now. It is my surmise that the chief priests were working the crowd with these facts. The chief priests were calling Jesus a fraud. He obviously was no messiah. Therefore, Pilate should release Barabbas. At least Barabbas had fought against the Romans. At least Barabbas was trying to overthrow Israel’s enemies. Jesus wasn’t doing anything.
The crowd demanded Barabbas.
Pilate was incredulous. “Then what should I do with Jesus, the ‘king of the Jews?”
Why such hatred? Perhaps even the Jews had their limit. After so many false messiahs, after so much disappointment, all of their frustration and anger was poured out toward Jesus. This fraud; this charlatan must be put to death. It is only right. Their disappointment can only be appeased with blood.
“Why?” Pilate asks. “What evil has he done?”
There is no reasoning at this point. The crowd is beyond reason. They shout all the more, “Crucify him.”
Pilate, knowing that he must choose between justice and his job keeps the peace and orders Jesus crucified. It is a great injustice. The innocent is sentenced to death, and the guilty goes free.
Now, let me read to you N.T. Wright once more at this point. It is a long quote, but worth pondering.
And therefore, within Mark’s story, we find also the deeply personal meaning. The story of Barabbas invites us to see Jesus’ crucifixion in terms of a stark personal exchange. Barabbas deserves to die; Jesus dies instead, and he goes free. Barabbas was the archetypal Jewish rebel: quite probably what we today would call a fanatical right-wing zealot, determined to stop at nothing to bring in a version of God’s kingdom which consisted of defeating Roman power by Roman means–in other words, repaying pagan violence with holy violence. No doubt many Christians in Mark’s community, and others who would read his book, had at one stage at least flirted with such revolutionary movements. Reading the story of a guilty man freed and the innocent man crucified, it would not be hard for them to identify with Barabbas, and to view the rest of the story with the awestruck gaze of people who think, “There but for God’s grace go I.”
Just so, Mark is saying, God’s grace, God’s sovereign and saving presence, is exactly what we are witnessing in this story. When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves–that insight produces, again and again, the sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience.
The guilty go free.
The innocent gets condemned.
The innocent dies in place of the one who should be condemned.
This is a microcosm of the Gospel–the knowledge that Jesus takes our place as condemned sinners which allows us to go free.
You might object to this right here. You might object and say, “This is a travesty of justice!” And you would be right–particularly if you neither understand your own sinfulness or the love and justice of God.
First, our sinfulness. You will notice that I shifted from your to our. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And this sinfulness goes much deeper than simply the things that we do. Everyone does bad things. Everyone makes mistakes on a regular basis. This is hardly worthy of condemnation. None of us here this morning have committed murder, so why do we stand condemned before God?
Deep down in the very recesses of our hearts is a driving force that we are all born with. Deep down in the very core of our being is a driving force that leads us to live for ourselves–to see ourselves as ultimately important; to portray ourselves as better than most; to put on facades of perfection, beauty, wealth, and independence so that we look like we have it all together; to strive for our own safety and security first and foremost and then to look at the world around us and perhaps, perhaps offer a token or two of charity toward another–but only if they meet our criteria. Deep down, we are inherently selfish and self-serving only engaging in activities if we get some benefit or some sense of self-worth. There is a reason biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a book entitled The Selfish Gene! There is a reason John Stossel once did a documentary piece titled, “Greed is Good”! This is who we are deep down, and you can deny it if you choose, but spend enough time in reflection and examination of your own motives, you will see that this is simply a fact.
And if you act for yourself all the time; if your ultimate motivation is your own safety and security; if your motives are “what can I get out of this”; then who in your universe is god? The answer is: yourself. Do you want to know why there is so much turmoil in the world? Do you want to know why there is warfare? Do you want to know why there is hunger and thirst and poverty? Go no further than our inherent, selfish nature. We are all part of this problem. How much so? This week I heard an interesting quote about extinction. For it is a reality that as humanity has flourished, many species have become extinct, but if humanity were to become extinct, it would be many other species that would flourish. Think on that for a few minutes as you consider the impact we have had on this natural world. And what would be the just punishment for our species for all the damage we have done?
And if God is a just God, what should He do? If God is a God of justice, shouldn’t payment be made for this destruction? Shouldn’t death be visited upon us for the tremendous amount of death and suffering we have caused? If you believe in justice, true justice, you know the answer is in the affirmative.
And death is served. Death is visited, but not upon us, but upon the God who entered into the world. For this is where God’s love enters into the picture. This is where God’s love makes itself known in an amazing way. For though we deserve death, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.
Jesus took our death upon Himself to satisfy the demands of Justice, and He pardoned us and allowed us to go free because of his love for us. Justice and mercy have met singularly in the Christ event. What transpired at Jesus trail when Barabbas was released is a foretaste of what we will experience next week as we travel to the foot of the cross–the place where God poured out His love for you and for me. Amen.