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“Approach the Bench”

Date: April 4, 2022/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
A Judge's bench.

John 19:1-16a

I have sat in on a couple trials in my life.  One was actually just a sentencing, of someone who had harmed one of my youth group kids, who had asked me to be there.

Another was an entire trial for a relative of a church member who turned out to have been wrongly accused.[1]  It went on for the better part of a week; some of my church ladies and I attended to give the defendant and family some moral support.

Over the course of that week I discovered that what goes on in actual courtrooms is nowhere near as exciting as what we see on TV—especially on shows like Law & Order or Perry Mason.  Witnesses weren’t badgered until they confessed; nobody in the gallery jumped up and admitted they, not the defendant, had committed the crime.  There weren’t dramatic objections offered by either the prosecutor or the defense attorney.  The attorneys never approached the bench, either to argue against a ruling or to be chewed out by the judge.  And when the jury came back with the verdict, it was not a surprise.  It was all actually pretty boring.

John’s description of Jesus’ trial—actually more of a show trial, since I think everybody knew what was going to happen and nobody really cared that Jesus was innocent of the charges that had been brought against him—is a little more interesting.

Pilate spends a lot of time during this trial running back and forth from inside his headquarters, known in Latin as the praetorium, to the porch outside where the bench was.  We saw part of it last week.  The temple police take Jesus to the high priest, and then to Pilate’s praetorium.

The religious leaders, since it was the start of Passover, wouldn’t enter the praetorium, because they didn’t want to be ritually defiled and thus unable to participate in the upcoming observances.  (It didn’t seem to matter to them that conspiring to kill the Messiah they had been waiting for would be an even worse offense.  But to be fair, I don’t know that they actually believed he was the Messiah.)  So Pilate took Jesus inside, and talked to him, then went back out to talk to the religious leaders; and then back inside to talk to Jesus, then back outside again.

He has Jesus scourged—which was a truly horrendous act of torture, the details of which I won’t go into right now—perhaps thinking that would mollify the chief priests and other leaders outside; but it doesn’t.  The soldiers put a crown of thorns and a purple robe on him and mocked him, and then Pilate brought him out to show the leaders.  Most likely, he meant for them to be humiliated by the sight of this pitiful man they claimed had declared himself King of the Jews—if this is what your “king” looks like, he may have been saying, then you’re all pretty worthless.

Yet Pilate said he found Jesus not guilty, and tried to shift responsibility for him back onto his own religious leaders.  But then they played their ace in the hole.  They played on Pilate’s own fears to get him to do what they were demanding of him.

There was an elite class of people in the Roman system who were known as “friends of Caesar,” or in Latin amici Caesaris.  These were senators and other powerful men—always men, since Roman women tended not to hold any power outside their households—who had merited special favor from the emperor.

But “friend of Caesar” was not a permanent designation; it could be withdrawn if the person holding it acted disloyally.  This seems to have happened to Pilate’s patron, Aelius Sejanus, who had once been second only to the emperor in power.  He had plotted against the emperor, Tiberius; he was apparently known for mistreating Jews under his control, as well.  When his plot was discovered, he was executed and Tiberius put a stop to his atrocities against the Jews.[2]

Pilate well knew what it meant to be accused of being “no friend of the emperor.”  He knew his privileged position could be yanked out from under him at any moment, and the religious leaders did, too.  So they revealed their last card:  “He said he’s the Son of God!”

In the Roman world only the emperor could claim to be Son of God, and if Pilate let that stand, they said, Caesar would be justified in declaring him no longer to be amicus Caesaris, and perhaps removing him from his position as governor of Judea.

And so Pilate felt he had no choice.  He brought Jesus out to the stone pavement, where the judge’s bench was, to pronounce sentence.

John’s Gospel is my favorite, mainly because it has so much depth, so many layers of meaning, so many ambiguous passages where John seems to intend for a word or conversation or story to mean more than one thing at the same time.  This little detail about the judge’s bench is one example of this.

Some have said that John’s account of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion shouldn’t technically be called a passion narrative.  In everyday speech, we understand the word passion to refer to strong feelings, whether of love or anger or something else.  But its original meaning, and what it refers to when we use it to describe the accounts of Jesus’ death in the Gospels, is demonstrated in its root, which is the same as in the word passive.  In other words, Jesus’ passion is something that is done to him, something over which he has no control.

If you read John’s version of the story, that doesn’t really seem to be the case.  Jesus spells it out in his last conversation with Pilate before he is taken outside for sentencing.

Pilate says, “Why don’t you say anything to me?  Don’t you know I have the power to kill you and the power to let you go?”

And Jesus responds, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”

And since elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel Jesus has said he is one with the Father, and if you know him you know the Father—God—also, then it’s almost like Jesus is saying that if Pilate has any power over Jesus, it’s because Jesus himself has allowed him to have it.  This is not a passion narrative, not really.

So out on the stone pavement, known in Aramaic as Gabbatha, there’s this bench, where the governor or other official would sit to pronounce a verdict or a sentence.  And when we get to the point that Jesus is brought out onto the pavement for the last time, it isn’t totally clear who is sitting on that bench.

The NRSV’s main text says Pilate “brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench.”  Shawn’s NIV says pretty much the same thing.  But in a footnote in the NRSV we find out there’s an alternative rendering:  he brought Jesus out “and seated him on the judge’s bench.”

Which is correct?  It’s not clear.  But it reinforces what we see throughout John’s passion narrative that isn’t really a passion.

Remember how in the other Gospels, after the Last Supper Jesus and the disciples go out to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prays in agony to be spared the cup that he is about to drink—in other words, the death he is about to die[3]?  Ultimately he relinquishes his own desire to avoid the cross and says to God, “not my will but thine be done,” as the older translations say.

Jesus does say a final prayer in the Fourth Gospel[4], but it is nothing like the one in the other three.  It doesn’t take place in the Garden of Gethsemane, for one thing.  For another, there is absolutely no agony, no request to be spared death on a cross, none of that.  Instead, he prays for the disciples—the ones there with him, and all who come after, including us.  He prays for his disciples’ protection, and their unity, as they continue to say and demonstrate they belong to Jesus, so that all the world may come to believe in him.

It’s a very different kind of prayer that Jesus prays before he’s arrested in the Fourth Gospel.  It’s not the prayer of someone about to undergo a passion at someone else’s hands; it’s the prayer of someone who knows what is about to happen to him, is not afraid, and in a way is even orchestrating what’s getting ready to take place.

So after he’s arrested and questioned by the high priest, questioned by Pilate, beaten, and then questioned again by Pilate, who is running back and forth between Jesus and the religious leaders who are calling for his head, Jesus is brought out to the judge’s bench.

Officially it’s Pilate who sentenced Jesus to death.  But he did so in response to a conspiracy and demand from the religious leaders—it’s important to note that it’s only the leaders, not a mob of ordinary Jews, calling for Jesus’ death here—and under a threat of blackmail by those leaders:  Do what we say, or we’ll get your amicus Caesaris title taken away from you.  But who’s actually pronouncing judgment on whom?

This is not a passion, and although Pilate and the frightened and grasping religious leaders are certain they’re in control of what’s happening, their power over Jesus is an illusion.

[1] I actually knew this, because the defendant had told me they were innocent the first time I had met them, when they had no real reason to lie to me about it.

[2] This information comes from Michael Card’s commentary on John, pp. 190, 194-95.

[3] Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46

[4] John 17