First Reading: Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Second Reading: Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
Gospel: John 18:1-19:42
It is in St. John’s account of the Passion of Jesus that we see, in stark relief, both Jesus’ humanity and his divinity. We also get a very hard look at the human nature of the men Jesus chose to be His closest confidantes and the leaders of His Church. And if we ever needed confirmation of human cowardice, all we have to do is look at one very central figure in the drama that was Jesus’ suffering and death.
We believe as a dogma of the faith that Jesus Christ was both human and Divine. He knew who he was and he understood the purpose for which He had come. He alludes to that reality all through the Gospels, and most of the time, the Twelve don’t seem to “get it,” it was almost as though they didn’t believe that all of this talk of suffering and death until the reality of what Jesus was telling them began to come to pass. Jesus knew they were weak, just as he knows that we in our humanity are weak. Jesus was ready to forgive all of them, just as he is ready to forgive all of us.
When the temple guards came to arrest Jesus, he identified himself as God when he asked “who are you looking for” and the guards said “Jesus the Nazarene” and he answered “I AM.” The Gospel says they turned away and fell to the ground. They did this because Jesus had used the Divine Name to refer to himself, a name that they had all been taught that no human being should utter so flagrantly in public, that only God could speak it so freely…and God was placed under arrest that night.
Often we hear people in the world speak of the leaders of our Church as hypocrites, and that may be the lightest charge we hear leveled. Sometimes we ourselves might be frustrated at Church leaders for some reason or other, and in our sincere faith, we don’t understand why they are allowing this or that to go on, or we might ask ourselves “why do they allow such and such to go on” or even “why doesn’t Pope Francis do something about ______.” When we think in this way, we need to remember that not only did Jesus not promise us perfect leaders, we are given a clear example in the Passion accounts that our very first bishops, the Apostles, were just as weak and prone to sin and betrayal as we are, because the Gospel tells us that the Apostles ran away and hid like cowards. Just as Jesus had foretold, Peter denied him three times rather than be accused and suffer with Jesus…think about that for a moment, the Pope denied Jesus rather than die as he did. Yet we know that the risen Lord embraced and forgave Peter, and he didn’t say to him “you can’t lead the Church anymore, you denied me, sorry.” The reason for this forgiveness is because Peter was sorrowful, but he never doubted Jesus’ love and mercy enough to take his life.
Judas was the saddest case of all of the Twelve, but not because he was the one who betrayed Jesus. Someone had to hand Jesus over in the end, and it would have been someone close to the Lord. Judas is such a sad figure because unlike Peter, Judas despaired of God’s mercy, he gave into that temptation of Satan which says “you don’t deserve to be forgiven for the horrible thing you did, so why then do you think God is going to forgive you, you are responsible for all of this.” Judas gave into that attack of despair and hung himself. He never gave Jesus the chance to forgive him and to restore him to life in Christ. Had he done so, we might speak of him very differently today.
And then we have the ultimate example of moral relativism-Pontius Pilate. I have often believed that Pilate, were he among us today, might be something of a popular character among a certain crowd in today’s society. When he questions Jesus and asks him “so you are a king…” Jesus responds “you say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is committed to the truth hears my voice.” (cf. Jn. 18:37). Jesus makes clear that he has come to bear witness to the truth. He has already declared himself to be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (cf. John 14:6) and now he tells Pilate that he has come into the world to testify to the truth-to bear witness to it. Jesus is clear that there is such a thing as truth, and he is a testimony to what this truth is. Pilate’s reaction is virtually the same as much of today’s world when they are presented with the reality of the Gospel…”What is Truth? (cf. John 18:38). It is very reminiscent of today’s moral relativism, wherein even some of our friends and family members, when presented with the reality of the Truth of Christ, or the Church, or the moral law, they will say “well, that is true for you but not for me” or “that is your truth but it isn’t everyone else’s truth.” This is a fallacy. Either what Jesus was telling us about himself and his mission is true, or it is not true, it cannot be true for some but not others. When we accept that false notion, as Pilate apparently does in the Gospel, we are denying that such a thing as truth even exists, and we are accepting moral relativism as a basic reality of how to live.
Relativism is always a cop out. Usually those who profess such a relativistic attitude know the truth, and they know what is right and just, they simply do not wish to be inconvenienced or have to sacrifice for the sake of what is right. The evidence suggests that this is most certainly true of Pilate. He knew that Jesus had been brought to him based on charges that were trumped up, and Jesus’ trial was not even valid according to Jewish law. As the Roman Procurator, Pilate had the absolute power of life and death in the Province of Judaea, and he knew that Jesus was an innocent man. He had the authority to say “enough of your customs, this man has done nothing wrong, and I’m not going to stand for this,” that was well within his power. Instead, he let the hostile crowd decide because he was afraid of having to deal with an insurrection, something the Jewish people in Judaea had become known for even by that time. Rather than stand for what he knew to be true, Pilate let fear rule the day and let a hostile crowd decide that they would rather release an insurrectionist named Barabbas than Jesus who is called Christ.
Pilate did perform one invaluable service, however. Jesus Christ was, and is, our Passover Lamb. The Passover Lamb that was sacrificed and eaten had to be inspected to insure that it was without fault, without blemish, otherwise the Lamb was not suitable for the Passover. Pilate inspected our Passover Lamb for us, and what did he say? “I find no fault in Him.” (cf. Jn. 19:6) Just as they ate the Passover Lamb in the Old Covenant, so we are given the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world to eat in the New Covenant. Happy are those called to the Supper of the Lamb. Amen.