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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Real Power (Matthew 27:15-23; 14:1-12)

She was very close to great power, that lady. Living in Jerusalem in AD 33, she did not hold an official office. But, like so many wily women of history, lack of official status did not diminish her voice. The chief priest in the temple, the visiting dignitary from another nation, and the Roman legionnaire needed permission to approach Governor Pontius Pilate. Yet, when he, the Roman ruler in the region, sat on his judgment seat, she could and did walk right up and offer her opinion. I am talking Pilate’s wife. She goes unnamed in Matthew’s gospel. In all of scripture, she is only mentioned in one verse. Yet, what this peripheral character says and when she says it is poignant.

A mob dragged Jesus in the middle of the night to the house of the high priest. The questioning was intense. Jesus was tired, physically beaten, and confronted with witnesses whose testimonies contradicted each other. In both form and content this highly irregular trial was from the start a miscarriage of justice. But the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of God” (26:63)? He was not asking if Jesus had claimed divinity. The prominent different Jewish groups expected a Messiah, but not God incarnated.

“Are you the Christ, the Messiah?” Jesus said, “You have said so. From now on you will see the Son of Man [Jesus here by saying son of man claims to be the Messiah anticipated in the book of Daniel] seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (27:64). Everyone in the crowded room understood Jesus to be saying the same thing – not only did he claim to be the Messiah. He said he was God. Only God comes on the clouds of Heaven.

They rendered a death sentence for blasphemy. Jesus was taunted and abused by the temple police (26:68). Already he had been betrayed by Judas Iscariot, abandoned by the other disciples, and denied by Peter. “I do not know the man,” Peter shouted. Previously Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (16:16). Now he sang a different tune.

Jesus was alone, seemingly without power or hope. But his questioners also had a problem. They decided Jesus must die, but they lacked the authority to carry out a death sentence. As religious leaders they held considerable political power, but like all 1st century Mediterranean cities, Jerusalem was under the governance of Rome. Rome had to proclaim the death sentence. The council had to turn to the Governor Pilate to carry out execution of Jesus.

So they drag him, chained before the governor. Jesus had probably gone without sleep the whole night. He had endured an intense interrogation along with humiliating, painful abuse. Now, aching and exhausted, he stood before the intimidating, shimmering splendor of Rome.

Pilate went straight to the point. “Are you the king of the Jews” (27:11)? If Jesus says, “Yes,” then he is rebelling against the Emperor, a capital offense.

“Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus looked at Pilate and said, “You say so.” What’s the governor supposed to do with this? He didn’t say “No,” but it wasn’t exactly “Yes,” either.

While Pilate interrogated Jesus, the agitating Jewish religious leaders gathered a crowd, people already on edge because of Rome and because of the various rebel groups and because it was Passover. With the political climate in Jerusalem, it was not overly difficult to rile up a mob to call for Jesus’ death. If their case wasn’t strong enough, and it wasn’t, they could manipulate Pilate into an execution for the sake of keeping the peace.

He played right into their hands. “Don’t you hear the accusations they make against you” (v.13)? Matthew tells us Jesus did not even answer a single question. Pilate’s anxiety rising. Pilate, the mighty Roman, ruler of this city, is losing control of the situation and maybe of himself. Jesus calmly stays silent.

Pilate tries to turn the tables on the leaders by calling for amnesty, but only for one criminal. He could free the known violent murderer called Barabbas. Or he could free meek, beaten, harmless Jesus. The crowd called for freedom for Barabbas and death to Jesus.

As this is happening, message comes from Pilate’s wife of all people. She’s supportive enough to be with him in this city. She could have remained in the comfortable governor’s palace in Caesarea Philippi. She could have waited for Pilate there. Jerusalem was obviously a city under duress, and brought particular stress to Roman nobility. Yet, out of support for Pilate, she came.

He did not think she was there to insert herself right into the middle of a testy situation, but that’s exactly what she did. She told her husband, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man for I suffered a great deal because of a dream about him” (v.19).

I don’t know if she regularly told Pilate how to govern based on her dreams. If she did, I don’t know if Pilate shrugged her off or paid serious attention. I think Matthew includes this verse, telling of the concerns of Pilate’s wife, because it was irregular and because it was significant.

My guess is God was giving Pilate a chance to avoid putting to death an innocent man who happened to be the Messiah and also happened to be the Son of God. This was God saying to Pilate through his wife, “You can prevent this. You have the power. Now show the courage to use it.” That’s my guess. Pilate was given a chance to listen to God and cooperate with God, but he balked.

Pilate declared himself clean. In a grand fashion, he washed his hands before the crowd, washing off responsibility for the death of Jesus. He said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (27:24). Those in the crowd responded, “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:25). Throughout history, the church has foolishly used these verses in Matthew 27 to blame the death of Jesus on the Jews. Such idiocy ignores that Jesus was Jewish as were his disciples. Pilate could wash his hands 100 times, but Jesus still hung on a Roman Cross, erected under his, Pilate’s authority. And ultimately the sins of all humanity including us here today caused the death of Jesus on the cross.

Pilate’s wife was close to power. She could approach him in the midst of tense negotiations and she did just that. She told Pilate to get out of the mess. She didn’t say her dream was a vision from God. All she knew was that the bloodied man who looked so small was in fact innocent. Roman governors killed innocent people for political expediency. It happened all the time and she knew it. But in this case, she told her husband not to do it and he didn’t listen.

We meet another woman who lived close to power in Matthew 14 where Matthew gives the background of King Herod’s animosity toward and curiosity about Jesus. Herod was the Jew the Romans propped up as King. He had to do all his Roman overlords commanded, but he could exert force on his fellow Jews and he did so to advance his own wealth and to keep his people under heel.

One very loud and popular Jew was the zealous prophet John the Baptist. John lived an ascetic life and preached fiery sermons in which he called out unethical behavior. John said the Messiah was coming, the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.

A favorite target of John’s sermons was Herod. Herod had married the wife of his half brother. Her name was Herodias. According to Jewish law, this marriage of Herod and Herodias was a violation. The strong-arming and manipulation Herod exerted to get his wishes, and his general disregard for God’s ways put him right in the locust-eating preacher’s crosshairs. John hammered Herod and Herodias repeatedly.

She got sick of hearing her sins publically called out. Herod did too, so John was arrested. Herod had that kind of marginal but also arbitrary power. He could blatantly bypass correct procedure and imprison someone. No Jewish courts could challenge him. He was supported by Roman muscle.

John wallowed in Herod’s prison for a while. Herodias would have put him to death upon his arrest, but Herod’s feelings were far more uncertain than his vengeful wife’s. He hated that John condemned him, but he also sensed the power in John’s words. Much like the sensitivity Pilate’s wife showed in responding to her dream about Jesus, Herod was sensitive to the spiritual power in John. Herod locked John up in prison, but then went and sat with him and listened to him for hours on end (Mark 6:19-21).

Things changed at Herod’s birthday party. Herodias knew her husband was given to drunkenness and lust. After he had imbibed and was feeling jovial, she had her daughter, probably a teenager, dance a seductive dance, and the smitten, sodden puppet king smiled and promised the young beauty anything she might desire. Her mother was in her ear the whole time. She told the girl to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Herod was trapped. In front of the crowd, he had made a spectacle of promising the girl her heart’s wishes. Herod feared John’s spiritual power, and he feared the masses that admired John. But Herod had to save face. So, he, the supposed king, gave into the forces of his wife’s manipulations and his own unthinking promises. John was beheaded simply because Herodias effortlessly manipulated her husband.

Two women – the wife of Pilate and Herodias, the wife of Herod; both lived in close proximity to power, the power over people’s lives. Both spoke up in highly charged situations. One, sensing a power beyond herself or her husband, said, leave that man alone. He’s innocent and you need to get out of this.

The other, ignoring the presence of God in the heart of God’s prophet John and instead listening to her own thirst for revenge also spoke up. Using the power of her husband’s cravings, she manipulated him and he followed her will. In the end, John the Baptist and Jesus were both executed and in the story of their deaths, two peripheral characters were significant in the story.

God allowed these events which included the death of his prophet and the death of his son. God could have intervened at any point, but God allowed this sin and cruelty because God was speaking through John and through Jesus. God spoke a power that surpasses what we might think of as power.

Both John and Jesus spoke unwavering truth. They told the truth about sin, about humanity, and about how humans are saved from the death sin brings. Both men, in their lives, their actions, and their sermons pointed to Jesus as the means of salvation from sin. Human authorities – the Pharisees, the Elders, the Romans, Herod, Pilate – none of these could save a person from sin. All of these were guilty of sin. Jesus and John both spoke this truth and in the truth there is immense power.

Because they spoke the truth and lived the truth, they had to deal with the consequences wrought by men who hid behind lies. This is a second element of the power wielded by John and by Jesus. They were willing to sacrifice, even sacrifice their very lives. Truth-telling and willingness to sacrifice are the transcendent forms of power in this story.

This truth is set on the table we call the Lord’s Supper table. Everyone who dines at this table is a hell bound sinner whose only hope for life is the grace of God. That includes you, me, everyone. Like Herodias, we manipulate power. Like the wife of Pilate, we try to run away from it. And, like Herod and Pilate, we put up the mirage of power, but then in cowardly fashion, we just go with the flow and allow the circumstances to dictate our ethic and our actions. In short, we are sinners and are thus not invited by God to His table – except …

We are invited when we submit to the power of Jesus – his truth, his sacrifice. We acknowledge our sins and receive forgiveness. We open our hearts and submit our lives to him. We receive salvation and are born again.

Today, as we share the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper table, we reflect on the mistakes of Pilate’s wife and especially Herodias, the wife of Herod. Their errors were sins related to misunderstanding of God’s power and abuse of human power. We think of our own sins related to power – whether the fear of power, or the abuse of it.

We also praise God for God’s power expressed in truth and in the sacrifice of our Savior Jesus Christ. We receive the forgiveness he gives and we sit at His table knowing that with the salvation he gives, we will one day sit at God’s eternal, Heavenly banquet table.


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