In both our piety and our agnosticism, we sometimes put God on trial and whenever we do that, it’s we who end up being judged. We see that in the Gospel accounts of the trial of Jesus, particularly in John’s Gospel.
John’s Gospel, as we know, paints a portrait of Jesus from the point of view of his divinity, not his humanity. Thus, in John’s Gospel, Jesus has no human weaknesses whatsoever. He’s God from the first line to the last line of the Gospel. This is true to the tiniest detail. For instance, in John’s Gospel at the feeding of the multitudes, Jesus asks his disciples how many loaves and fishes they have. John notes in brackets: “He already knew”. There are no gaps on a divine radar screen.
We see this most clearly in how John writes up the passion and death of Jesus. Unlike the other Gospels, wherein Jesus is shown as afraid and cringing before his bitter fate, in John’s Gospel, throughout his entire passion journey, Jesus is unafraid, in complete control, serene, carrying his own cross, and the antithesis of a victim. Instead, throughout the whole account, Jesus is someone who is acting freely, out of love, and has complete power over the situation.
John makes this point very strongly: When they come to arrest him, Jesus stands up and all those who are apprehending him fall to the ground so that, in contrast to the other Gospels, it is not he who is prostrate on the ground but rather it’s the Roman soldiers and temple police who are prostrate – and in that prostration symbolically doing him reverence. And the symbolism continues: Jesus is sentenced to death at noon, at the exact hour when the priests began to slaughter the paschal lambs. After his death he is buried with a staggering amount of myrrh and aloes, as only a king would have been accorded, and he is laid in a “virgin” tomb (just as he was born from a virgin womb). John makes it clear that this God we’re dealing with.
With this in mind, namely, that Jesus was always divine and in charge, we will be able to understand more clearly what John is trying to teach in his account of Jesus’ death. What John focuses on most is the trial of Jesus. The bulk of his passion story is centered on the trial and the main characters in that trial. But his account has this ironic twist: Seemingly Jesus is on trial; but, in actuality, he is only one who isn’t on trial. Pilate is on trial, the religious authorities are on trial, the people are on trial, and we, today, reading the story, are on trial. Everyone’s on trial, except Jesus.
Pilate is on trial on a number of counts: He knows Jesus is innocent but lacks the courage to stand up to the crowd and thus allows the fickle, mindless frenzy of a crowd to have its way. He’s judged for his weakness. But he’s also on trial for his agnosticism, namely, his belief (however sincere) that he could treat truth and faith as realities that he, himself, could steer clear of, that he could assess these from a neutral, non-committed position, and that these were other peoples’ issues, nothing to do with him. But he’s judged for this. Nobody can coolly ask: “What is truth?” as if that answer didn’t affect him or her. Jesus’ trial finds Pontius Pilate and those of us like him, guilty – guilty of agnosticism, a non-involvement, an indifference, that is in the end dishonest. Ironically, Pilate’s weakness in not rescuing Jesus ends up making him perhaps the most famous governor and judge forever in history. With his name in the Christian creeds, millions and millions of people pronounce his name every day.
But Pilate isn’t alone on trial here; so are the religious authorities of the time. In their very effort to protect God from what they deem irreverence, heterodoxy, and blasphemy, they are also complicit in “killing” God. The judgment made against them at Jesus’ trial is the exact judgment that is being made, down to this very day, on a lot of religious and ecclesial authority, that is, its feverous proclivity to protect God often helps crucify God in this world.
Last, not least, Jesus’ contemporaries are also on trial and, with them, so are we. In the heat of the moment, caught up on the mindless, feverous energy of a crowd, they abandon their messianic hope for the slogan of the day: “Crucify him!” How little different from so many of the political and religious slogans we mouth at political and church rallies today. The trial of Jesus is a very harsh judgment on the mindlessness, fickleness, and dangers of crowd energy.
The genius of John’s account of Jesus’ death is that it shows what happens whenever through our misguided religious fervor or through our cool agnosticism we put God on trial. It’s we who end up being judged.