In this age where one sensational trial replaces another, where we greedily consume the latest lurid details in the Lorena Bobbitt trial, the abused woman who took a pound of flesh from her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, or the trial of the moment, where we await a verdict in the Menendez case, the two brothers on the West Coast who out of the love of money killed their wealthy parents, where we have had the Rodney King Beating trials, parts I and II, almost like a bad movie and its better sequel, where we might have Crown Heights Part II, where the Black Brooklyn youth acquitted of killing a Hasidic Jew might face the same charges in federal court because of political pressure from the Jewish community, who believe that justice wasn’t done, where someplace across this great nation, at this very moment, a trial is going on, I wonder, who is on trial, the defendants or the viewing audience? I submit to you that we are all on trial, whether we are watching or being watched, whether we are judging or being judged.
Now, I want to talk about the trial of Jesus. It wasn’t much of a trial, as we know trials today. And then again, the trial is familiar: Jesus is railroaded by a criminal justice system where the cards are heavily stacked against him, where many charges are brought against him, where the prosecution is more concerned with a conviction than with justice. The only thing we can say for the entire proceeding, is that it was swift, something most people charged with crimes want, waiting for their day in court months if not years.
If we read the transcripts of Jesus’ trial, what’s recorded in the Gospels, we don’t see much evidence. It just goes to show you how very little evidence was and is needed to convict a person of a capital crime. Remember what Sol Wachtler, the former Chief Judge of our highest State court, said a few years back before he was arrested and imprisoned for crimes: a prosecutor could get a ham sandwich indicted by the grand jury. And I would add have it tried and convicted of whatever charge it was indicted for. The same thing seems to be the case in Jesus’ time. First, the charges against Jesus are vague. We can’t help but wonder what exactly Jesus has been charged with. So we read the “transcripts” carefully. We are told that many witnesses come forward, but their testimony is false. It’s not even recorded, probably struck from the record, or not recorded for a reason…. One can’t help but think and believe that there’s a conspiracy, from the judge down to the court reporter, to deny due process of law, fundamental fairness, that is, justice, whether or not one is guilty or innocent. It may be the same thing in Jesus’ case. We may not have crucial testimony because someone said not to record it.
Back to Jesus’ trial. Two witnesses come forward, and there is some corroboration between their stories. (Note that under Jewish law, at least two people had to testify against an accused. This decreased the likelihood of false testimony being offered. On the other hand, under our law, we can be convicted on the testimony of one person, which increases the likelihood of false testimony being offered by an interested or aggrieved party.) These two witnesses at Jesus’ trial say that Jesus said something about destroying the temple and rebuilding it. This is the only evidence against Jesus. Even though Jesus is being framed from the very beginning, this is not enough evidence to convict him of a crime. What crime has been proven?
Now, you know how there’s a dramatic moment in movie trials? Well, there’s a dramatic moment at the trial of Jesus. Up until this point the witnesses haven’t provided any evidence to convict Jesus of anything. All Jesus has to do is remain silent. He doesn’t have a public defender to tell him this. I mean, this is a case that even the worst public defender can win, hands down. If Jesus remains silent he walks out of that courtroom scot-free. It’s almost too good to be true, too good to believe, that a defendant accused of crimes in a criminal justice system where the cards are heavily stacked against him will win. The high priest prosecutor knows this. He is going to lose the case. He is desperate. There is no surprise witness to spring at the court at the last moment to bolster his case. He has no more witnesses. All he can do is hope that Jesus takes the stand.
Jesus, against the advice even the worst public defender would provide, takes the stand. The high priest prosecutor puts Jesus under oath. Envision it, Jesus taking the stand. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you?…
There’s no lengthy cross-examination, nothing leading up to the moment of truth. The high priest prosecutor goes straight for the jugular. Are you the Messiah? he asks. Jesus answers in a roundabout way: “You have said so.” The high priest prosecutor jumps at his chance. Jesus’ answer becomes a yes. This is how the system works. “Blasphemy!” he shouts. He knows that this “confession” is all he needs. Stop the trial! “Why do we still need witnesses?” he asks. Render a verdict, not now, but right now. Remember how I mentioned the power of the prosecutor to indict as well as try people? Jesus is found guilty. We know the rest of the story. Jesus is given the death penalty, the cruel sanction of death on the cross, no appeal forthcoming. He’ll be dead in a matter of hours. Now that’s what I call swift justice! If some of our lawmakers had their way, executions would be just as swift today. Let us be thankful that absolutely everything doesn’t go their way. Many more innocent people would be executed. It’s a travesty that many innocent people spend years on death row as it is before they’re vindicated. It’s a tragedy that many are never vindicated and spend years on death row before they’re executed.
Doesn’t this trial story sound familiar? Jesus is arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced and condemned. Sounds familiar yet? Listen to the Word of God. Jesus is betrayed by a co-defendant, Judas. He sells Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver. Sounds familiar? Jesus suffers “police brutality”: “One of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face” (Jn 18:22). Sounds familiar? Peter, the person who says that he will stand with Jesus to the very end disavows any knowledge of him: “I do not know this man.” Peter says that twice after stating that he didn’t even know what the witnesses were talking about when they identified him as one of Jesus’ partners. Sounds familiar? Jesus stands before justice alone, without a public defender. Sounds familiar? Jesus is ridiculed, made mockery of, abused: “They spat on him and took the reed and struck him on the head.” Sounds familiar? If there was television in those days, you can bet Hard Copy or Inside Edition would have covered this sensational trial. The trial of the century! You can bet they would have made sport of Jesus in the way that the tabloid press does. The King of the Jews wearing a crown of thorns! They wouldn’t have known that this trial would change the course of history!
I’ve been focusing on the trial of Jesus, but he’s not the only one on trial. Judas is on trial. He’s guilty as sin, commits suicide for his crime of betrayal. Peter is on trial. He’s guilty as sin. He wept for his denial of and abandonment of Jesus. Caiaphas, the high priest prosecutor, is on trial. He’s guilty as sin. From the very beginning he was looking for false testimony to try Jesus, whom he knew to be innocent of any crime. Pontus Pilate is on trial. He’s guilty as sin. Against his better judgment, he let an innocent man be crucified. All of the people who shout, “Let Jesus be crucified!” are on trial. The soldiers who make sport of Jesus are on trial. Who in this whole bunch is without guilt? They have all judged Jesus. Who in this room hasn’t been judged harshly or unfairly? Who hasn’t judged? Who hasn’t judged harshly or unfairly? Remember, we are told: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 8:1). And we know, what goes around comes around. Don’t we know that? That’s the hand of providence at work.
We also know that the death of Jesus isn’t the end of the story. In fact, it’s the very beginning, the very beginning of the story of Christianity, which springs from the criminal justice system of Jesus’ day, which led to the cross….
Jesus is on the cross. It’s a dark day for humanity. It’s a dark day for justice. It is recorded, “from noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Mt 27:45). Haven’t we all had one of those dark days? Haven’t we? It’s a day of utter despair. It’s a day where we are ready to give up hope…. Even Jesus experiences this dark day where his faith is put to the test. Jesus seems to give up hope around 3 o’clock, and Matthew is bold enough to tell us his last words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mt 27:46)? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Jesus dies on the cross. He is laid in a tomb. But that’s not the end of the story. Now the cover-up begins. Once people have been condemned by the criminal justice system, the people responsible for convictions, in the name of the State, do everything within their power to have people executed or kept imprisoned. Any form of vindication becomes nearly impossible; likewise redemption, because it would undermine the system. Check out what the chief priest and the Pharisees, the people chiefly responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, do in order to uphold what they’ve done. They go before Pilate. They say, “Sir, we remember what that imposter said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘he has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” The last deception would be worse than the first.
If Jesus was an imposter, why were the chief priests and the Pharisees so concerned? Who’s practicing deception here?
Soldiers are sent to guard and secure Jesus’ tomb. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus appealed His case to a higher authority. If we depended on the authority or goodwill of man, we would be arrested, tried, convicted and condemned so swiftly we wouldn’t know what happened. Our cases would go unreported. There must be a higher authority we can appeal to. Jesus appealed his case to a higher authority. His God hadn’t forsaken him! There is the resurrection. Jesus rises. He rises.
Now, we can appeal our cases to a higher authority, and rise from the depths of despair to a glorious daybreak, a day of new beginnings. We can rise.
* This sermon is based on Matthew 26:57-68.