The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 4/9/09
Text: Isaiah 53:1-6
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The Blame Game. Have you ever noticed that there is something in you and me that likes to assess blame? I do not think that desire is simply malicious. Rather, I suspect it has to do with our wanting to bring things to a conclusion. We do not like unanswered questions. Check out the evening news. In recent weeks and months we have been treated to regular assessments of blame about the state of the economy - who did what, when or who failed to do what, when. No unbiased answers, to be sure, but the questions continue. The blame game.

I bring the subject up on this auspicious night because that blame game has been played for centuries concerning the crucifixion of Jesus. Five years ago, Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ" (that's right - it's been five years) brought the question into wide-screen focus as controversy arose as to whether or not the movie was needlessly anti-Semitic. Remember? Gibson said he based his movie script primarily on the gospel accounts so, since the gospels themselves can be accused of being anti-Jewish, he was willing to accept the charge.

As to the gospels being anti-Jewish, that is understandable, if you know the background. First, understand that the gospels are not history, at least not in the way we write history 2,000 years later. They are called GOSPEL; that means Good News, not history. They were trying to do something beyond simply recount a story - they were expressing a point of view. At the time the gospels were finally written (almost a half century or more after the actual events), Christians were viewed by many as merely a certain type of Jew; the gospels wanted to dismiss that notion.

The truth, of course, is that most Jews of Jesus' day never ever heard of him and could have cared less whether he lived or died. Some knew of him and became followers. Some knew of him and became concerned, the most notable being the leaders of the Temple. They were afraid this rabble-rousing rabbi who went around talking about the "Kingdom of God" was going to rouse the wrath of the empire of Caesar, or at least Caesar's hand-picked governor, Pontius Pilate. After all, Pilate was immensely powerful, with even the High Priest only serving at the governor's pleasure. To get on his bad side would have been most hazardous, not only to career, but probably to health as well.

Now we encounter the scene. It is Passover time in Judea, and a mob from all over the known world would be assembling in Jerusalem. It has been described as Times Square on New Year's Eve, but for two-and-a-half straight weeks and without sanitation. Pilate had come to Jerusalem from his normal residence in a palace by the sea. He only came up at Passover time because there was such an opportunity for civil unrest and he needed to be ready; there had previously been a Passover riot that he had had to put down with a massacre. (1) Pilate would not have been a happy camper.

Now the Jewish leaders come to Pilate with this one they say is a danger. And to their credit, they genuinely believed it. Here was a man who attracted large crowds; he had made a wreck of the Temple courtyards just a few days ago, turning over the tables of the money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals, all of whom had their jobs by being related to these same leaders. This "Kingdom of God" talk was politically dangerous. The High Priest was the one whom Pilate would hold responsible for any civil disorder, especially at Passover. This was nothing more than enlightened self-interest; that is why Caiaphas would say privately, "it is man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed." (2)

Ultimately, the decision was Pilate's. The Apostles' Creed gets it right when it states that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate." Pilate was boss; he wielded absolute authority in Judea. The Roman legion, the army of occupation, answered directly to him; and that meant so did everyone else.

Crucify Jesus? No big deal. That was a punishment routinely handed out to troublemakers. Who knows how many others suffered that fate under Pilate? He was a brutal tyrant who had no moral qualms about executing anyone he perceived to be a threat.

So why do the gospels treat the man relatively gently? That has to do with something that occurred, not at the time of Jesus' death, but rather something almost forty years later. In the year 70 A.D. - just before the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written, and a decade or two before John - the Roman general Titus marched his legions through Jerusalem, massacred tens of thousands of Jews, burned most of the city, and pulled down the temple, stone by stone. It was Jerusalem's 9/11, a first century holocaust. No wonder the gospel writers were not anxious to assess blame on Rome; that might have been the end of them.

So how do we choose the winner of this "blame game?" First, we can say that the Jews as a people did not do it, despite what certain passages in the gospels, taken out of context, could lead us to believe. Was it the High Priests? Not really. They lacked the authority. Pilate? He would appear most culpable.

But for us, on this holy night, this night in which we remember the Last Supper and recall the horrific events of Calvary, we look at the total witness of scripture and are forced to say, "I did - I killed Jesus!" We hear again the witness of the prophet Isaiah thundering over the centuries before, "he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."

Many of us debated Mel Gibson over the way he made "The Passion of the Christ" five years ago, but in one respect he had the right idea. Do you know whose hand it is that portrays the Roman soldier pounding the nails into Jesus' flesh? Mel Gibson's. Any extra could have played that role, but Gibson chose to do it himself. Ask him the question then, who killed Jesus? Ask me. Ask yourself.

"I did. I killed Jesus."


1. See Luke 13:1

2. John 11:50

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