Narrative Lectionary Text: John 19:1-16a
Do you ever find yourself caught between a rock and a hard place?
Do you ever find yourself caught in a situation where, no matter what decision you make, you feel like you are going to hurt someone, or lose somehow?
Let me give you a classic example of this.
How many of you would agree that the Bible tells us that it is a sin to lie? How many of you agree that the Bible says it is a sin to murder, and that, even being an accomplice to murder would be equally sinful?
Yes, this is a pretty clear-cut, basic law of the Bible. Now, let’s try to imagine that you are a German citizen in 1939. Your best friend is a Jew. He and his family are in your house and there is a knock on the door. The Nazi soldier stands at the door and asks, “Do you have any Jews in here?”
What do you do?
Do you lie to protect your friend? That is a sin. Do you tell the truth, knowing that the soldiers will murder your friend’s family, thus making you an accomplice to the murder? That is a sin.
Rock. Hard place. You.
What criteria do you use to decide which law is OK to break when you believe with all your heart that breaking God’s law is sin and you want to honor God with your whole heart?
This is tough stuff.
Law is easy when its on paper, but it gets messy really fast when it comes to real life.
We find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place all the time.
Many of us feel this way right now.
For the past nine months we have been holding the Holy Conversations to discuss whether we should perform same-sex marriages at Grace. This is a politically super-charged and emotionally intense conversation. If you have been involved in the conversation you know that we have people scattered all across the spectrum of this debate, and everyone of them wants to honor God, do what is right, and be unified as the body of Christ.
Yet, my guess is that all of us feel caught between a rock and a hard place. We each have our deep convictions about how to interpret the Bible, and what it means to honor God with our bodies. Yet, we see our brothers and sisters on “the other side” of the issue and we love them and don’t want to hurt them and hurt the church.
Rock. Hard place. us.
What do we do?
I think our story today might help.
It won’t give answers to this specific question, but I think we might learn something about how to think when we are caught in any rock and hard place situation.
Let’s look at John 19 and see what’s going on.
We have this big conversation going on between the religious leaders on one side and Pilate on the other. This is the second half of the conversation that Pastor Mark talked about last week. He did a great job of telling us who Pilate is and the intense political pressure that Pilate was under to make sure that no riots or revolutions broke out in Jerusalem. The emperor of Rome told him that if a revolt happened, Pilate would die. Now he is being asked to kill a man that he thinks is innocent.
Rock. Hard place. Pilate.
This week we look at the religious leaders.
We tend to think about these guys as the pure villains in the story. But, I think we need to be careful about passing judgment too quickly on them. The religious leaders were torn over how to handle Jesus. Many of them believed he was the Messiah. Others believed he was a blasphemer, was disgracing the name of God, and was leading the people into a revolt against Rome that would ultimately lead to the Roman Empire crushing them.
The Religious leaders are trying to protect their nation. And, if it meant killing one man, they were willing to do it. Rock. Hard place. Leaders.
Let’s see how this conversation unfolds.
The carry-over from last week is that Pilate doesn’t know what to do with Jesus, so he hands him over to be beaten. The soldiers put a crown of thorns on his head. They flog him, and mock him, and beat him, repeatedly.
“Hail, King of the Jews!” Bam!
“Hail, mighty King!” Wham!
Then Pilate presents him to the leaders. Here. I have no case against this man.
Did you not hear me? I have no legal case, no reason to execute this man.
We do! We have a law that says anyone who blasphemes the name of God must be put to death.
He claims to be the Son of God. This is clearly a blasphemy. He is not the Son of God. He must die.
I want to stop here and notice something. The religious leaders are making a claim that the Bible clearly says that a blasphemer must be put to death. That is what God wants. It’s in black and white.
I decided to go back and look at that law.
It is found in Leviticus 24:13-17. What’s interesting about this is that this law came about because of an incident that happened to Moses. A man who was half Israelite and half Egyptian was accused of blaspheming the Name of God. Remember, these are the newly freed slaves, that had just escaped from Egypt. Here is a half-breed. There is prejudice against this guy from the beginning. Whenever we have prejudice against someone, it is very easy to manipulate the law.
They bring this half-breed to Moses and ask him what to do with him.
“The Lord said to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying: Anyone who curses God shall bear the sin.”
See. He must die. The Bible says it right there, plain as day.
This kind of text always troubles me, so I kept reading. Look what the next verse says.
“One who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer. Aliens as well as citizens, when they blaspheme the Name, shall be put to death. Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death.”
Who shall stone the blasphemer? The whole congregation. That means 100% of the people must agree that he should die.
Then, look at the very last line again. “Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death.”
In other words, if you want to execute this man, then you all have to do it, and then you all have to die.
What is God really saying here? I think it is brilliant. “Yes, my name is holy and to blaspheme it is a death penalty crime, but I also love my children and don’t want you to kill each other. Let me handle this.”
Here, in John 19, the religious leaders are interpreting the text to make it justify their preconceived ideas about God’s justice. We do that all the time.
So, according to their understanding of the law, Jesus must die. Yet, Pilate doesn’t really care about their law. So, what is his problem?
The emperor considered himself to be the Son of God. If Jesus really claims to be the Son of God, then a) he is directly challenging the emperor’s authority, and/or b) he is a demigod, like Percy Jackson or something. And he could be a powerful threat to Pilate.
Pilate is more afraid than ever. Do you see how fear is really the driving factor here?
Pilate asks Jesus, “Where are you from?”
Jesus is silent.
Pilate flexes his muscles. “Don’t you know that I have the power to release you or to crucify you?”
Jesus basically says, “Let’s rethink power.” He is unshaken.
Pilate knows that he has to let Jesus go. Again, Rock. Hard place. Pilate.
The religious leaders then pour on the pressure. Remember, Pilate, to side with this blasphemer would be an attack on the emperor. You would be no friend of the emperor, and you know where that will lead you.
“But, he is your King!”
“You want me to crucify your king?”
Here is where the religious leaders cross the line. They say, “We have no King but the Emperor!”
Do you realize what they did there?
They committed idolatry. The Roman emperor claimed to be a god. To proclaim him as their only king was a blasphemy against the one true God.
They became the very sin that they were trying to get rid of in order to win this argument.
Now. What did Jesus do?
He gave up his life to die.
There is a third way.
Whenever there are two opposing ideas, whenever there is a rock and a hard place, there is always a third way, and that way is love.
This week I read a meditation by an author I really admire. Richard Rohr said this,
“The Cross teaches us to win by losing. But the ego doesn’t like that. The ego wants to win by winning! That’s the nature of the human psyche. And when the ego is not exposed for what it is, which Jesus’ teaching does very clearly, it simply gets out of control…
The commonly accepted version of Christianity has largely developed in response to individual ego needs for worthiness and significance. But in the biblical tradition you do not see this self-made, autonomous “getting it right” agenda that you see in later images of Christian holiness. Biblical rightness is primarily right relationship!”
Jesus hung on the cross.
He didn’t force his position on anyone. He died. And, as he was dying, he said, “Father, forgive them.”
God knows that we are a mess.
God knows that we struggle with what is right and what is wrong. And God loves us. And, God invites us into the third way.
To love one another.