By Father N.J.A. Humphrey
Year B, Christ the King
25 November 2018
Pilate has a big problem on his hands: the crowd. Behind that crowd stand its instigators: the Sadducees and Pharisees. They were normally at loggerheads with each other, but getting rid of Jesus has joined them in common cause.
Pilate realizes that as long as the religious authorities keep riling up the mob, he can’t simply let Jesus go. Nevertheless, later in John’s account, Pilate persists in trying to convince the crowd to release him, saying, “Here is your King!” When they cry out, “Crucify him!” he replies, “Shall I crucify your King?” In response, the chief priests play their trump card: “We have no king but Caesar.”
Do you realize how shockingly hypocritical this statement is? For the chief priests to swear allegiance to Caesar is hardly believable. The puppet-king Herod had placed the Roman imperial emblem, the eagle, above the entrance to the temple porch, and as an unclean bird and a graven image, it was repugnant to them. Though the eagle to us symbolizes our patron St. John the Evangelist, to first century Jews, the eagle stood for Caesar, and Caesar stood for everything the chief priests were not: pagans, unclean, and flouters of God’s law, especially laws against idolatry. Yet here we have them swearing their loyalty to Caesar, whom the Romans claimed was a god in human form. By their own law, therefore, they aren’t just making a political statement; they are committing idolatry. They are worshipping a Gentile king who claims to be a god in order to kill a Jewish King who is God.
Why would they do such a thing? Are these chief priests so blind to their hypocrisy? Many interpreters of this passage from John’s Gospel have used the behavior of the chief priests and the unruly mob to perpetuate the sin of Anti-Semitism, which was responsible not only for the Holocaust decades ago, but for a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh just a few weeks ago. So let’s not go there, shall we?
Rather than heap opprobrium on “the Jews,” as John’s Gospel wincingly refers to Jesus (and John’s) own people, let’s try to practice some empathy and ask: Is there anything objectively good that might be motivating these leaders’ evil intent?
I think what’s happening here is that the religious authorities are scared to death that Jesus is going to upset the delicate balance of powers that has maintained a livable peace in the region. Notice the operative word here is “livable.” The high priests have made compromises so that life for their people is a bit more bearable under oppressive Roman rule. So they are willing to make difficult, even painful, sacrifices in order to keep the peace.
And that is exactly what they are doing here. Our reading begins at the thirty-third verse of chapter eighteen, but earlier in that chapter, John tells us that after Jesus was arrested, he was first brought to Caiaphas. John informs us, “Now Caiaphas was he, which gave counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.” This is a reference to an earlier episode, when we read about the Pharisees’ reaction to hearing about the raising of Lazarus:
[T]he chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
In other words, John the Evangelist himself doesn’t think that Caiaphas is simply an evildoer and a schemer, but rather an unwitting prophet, foretelling what must happen to Jesus so that he might “gather into one [kingdom] the dispersed children of God,” gathering you and me and everyone else under the banner of Christ the King.
Yet, what the chief priests decide to do is indeed objectively evil. They are willing to sacrifice the life of an innocent man to preserve a false peace. So they turn to the oldest trick in the book: the scapegoating mechanism, that is, the strategy of blaming an innocent victim for the ills of the community and offering up that victim as a sacrifice, thereby restoring that fragile (yet ultimately false) sense of peace they so crave.
Pilate, for his part, almost rejects scapegoating. He gets halfway there, in that he recognizes that Jesus is innocent and thus shouldn’t be scapegoated. But instead of refusing to participate in scapegoating altogether, Pilate tries to substitute a guilty goat for an innocent lamb. Just a few verses after the Gospel reading we heard, Barabbas enters the picture. Pilate thinks that if he can get the crowd to free Jesus and have Barabbas executed in Jesus’ place, he’ll have done a good deed—the crowd gets its scapegoat, the good guy gets out alive. Peace is restored. Everyone’s happy. (Well, not everyone.)
But who was this Barabbas, anyway? John notes simply that Barabbas was “a bandit,” while Luke (copying Mark, the earliest of the gospels) tells us that Barabbas “was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.” But our most telling text about the significance of Barabbas is found in Matthew, where he is called “Jesus Barabbas,” which literally means “Jesus Son of the Father.” So Pilate asks, essentially, “Do you want me to release for you Jesus the King of the Jews or Jesus the Son of the Father?” You see, he’s trying to pull off a bait and switch. He’s hoping the crowd won’t care which “son” gets killed. But he’s wrong. Instead of choosing Jesus the King of the Jews, an innocent man who stands against the violence of the past by refusing to participate in the violence of the present, they choose to free Jesus Barabbas, whom Gil Bailie, a commentator on John’s gospel, has described as “a zealot whose commitment is to avenge the wrongs of the past by committing acts that are indistinguishable from them in the future”—in other words, a terrorist.
Thus, in scapegoating Jesus, the religious authorities have chosen Caesar over Christ the King, and the crowd has chosen a terrorist over the Prince of Peace. The religious authorities back the nation-state; the people clamor for the insurgent terrorist. Both Caesar and Barabbas represent violence as the status quo.
As the recent terrorist attack in Pittsburgh demonstrates, we still live in an extremely violent world, and the more “orthodox” or “right” people try to be, whether by being politically correct or ultra-traditional, by blind allegiance to the nation-state or by being radicalized by terror groups or alt-right Anti-Semites, the more they end up behaving like Caesar or Jesus Barabbas, not Jesus Christ. Barabbas was a zealot, whose insistence that he was right led to murder, insurrection, and terrorism. Barabbas was, from one perspective, on the “right” side—he was a Jew who wanted to see the Roman oppressors leave his land—a laudable goal. But he went about his cause using essentially the same methods as Caesar, which only perpetuated the violence and terror. So, too, when our only solution to fighting terror is to spread terror through our own preferred methods of warfare and destruction, we only perpetuate the violence.
This is not to say that I am a pacifist, or a quietist, or a defeatist. But I can never be an uncritical proponent of the way our politicians and other world leaders use military power. I would like to live in a world that could dispense with having a military, but I’m afraid we will all have to wait until Kingdom Come for that. In the meantime, though, this vision of Jesus as the King of Kings and Prince of Peace should inspire us to work for justice and peace as we see what’s happening in the world around us. We must not evaluate our options apart from the higher calling to follow Christ the King, the Prince of Peace, and like him, turn the other cheek, forgive, sacrifice ourselves—in short, live up to all the specifically Christian values that our so-called “Christian nation” all too often fails to practice. We are given the same choice today between Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ on the one hand, or between Caesar and Christ the King on the other.
This choice isn’t easy. But Christ the King does have the power to take away the power of violence, offering us something much more powerful in its place: the promise of forgiveness. When we recognize that Jesus offers us a different path, we are freed to reject the violence of scapegoating that’s all around us, that pervades our own culture, our politics, and even the church itself.
Perhaps following Christ the King will not resolve our geopolitical crises. Perhaps nothing will. The late Stanford professor René Girard, who pioneered the theological anthropology of the scapegoat mechanism on which this sermon relies, believed that the post-9/11 era was a harbinger of the Apocalypse.
Two weeks ago, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of another apocalyptic era, which was sparked when a 20th century Barabbas, a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, initiating a cascade of events that led to the catastrophe of World War One. This random act of terrorism led to the death of millions.
Less than eight weeks ago, a journalist named Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated by agents of a 21st century Caesar, the Saudi government, likely at the orders of their Crown Prince. Reading about this man’s grisly death, I have wondered whether this will be the spark of another world conflagration. I hope I am wrong.
What, then, are we to do? For his part, René Girard’s disciple, Australian theologian Scott Cowdell proposes that the best path forward for people of faith in such struggles between the Caesars and Barabbases of the world is to emulate the saints. He encourages us, as he puts it to, “follow worthy models…away from violent escalation and violent resolution, finding…unity without the need for enemies. By following Christ’s alternative to the false sacred in [emulating] modest lives modelled on his desire, on that of his blessed mother and all the saints, perhaps our good…influence on others in turn will help keep non-violent solidarity alive in the world, and hence contribute to averting Girard’s feared apocalyptic end to history.”
Only time will tell, of course. But in the meantime, time is all we have. So let us spend it well, following Christ the King, the Prince of Peace, rejecting both the violence of Caesar and Barabbas, come what may.
 Paul Nuechterlein, notes on a Gil Bailie lecture, “The Gospel of John,” found online at http://home.earthlink.net/~paulnue/res/john_tp11.htm. Emphasis mine.
 The ‘Darwin of the Human Sciences’: Rene Girard, a Theological Retrospective by Scott Cowdell, Australian Broadcasting Corporation Religion and Ethics, 5 November 2015 found online at: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/11/05/4346211.htm. Word in brackets and emphasis added.