They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ” But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’ ” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.
This passage raises a lot of questions. Who reported it? Peter is at a distance and the rest have scattered, so we have no first-hand witnesses. How did it happen? We’re not completely sure about the standing orders for the Sanhedrin at this time but with it happening at night, on a feast day, there being no second meeting to confirm the sentence, that technically Jesus did not blaspheme, and whether or not they could pass a death sentence; all gives us plenty to think about. Maybe Mark was unaware of how the Sanhedrin worked, or did and wanted to portray them as rule-breakers? Possibly it was more of an informal hearing? Perhaps the Sanhedrin were so incensed by Jesus they forgot all of their rules?
So, in what context do we place this encounter? The city of Jerusalem was full of pilgrims for Passover, the festival that remembered their liberation from another empire. The Jewish authorities colluded with the occupying Romans to maintain the peace, retain their position, and ensure the flow of trade and taxes. Jesus was attracting crowds, questioning authority, and declaring that the Kingdom of God was near. Jesus was declaring liberation!
The Jewish authorities were afraid. Afraid of riots on the streets, a brutal response from the most powerful army that marched the earth, the change to direct rule by Rome and risking the imposition of Roman gods and imperial theology, the desecration or destruction of the Temple, and potentially the end of their nation and religion. They were afraid for their people, apart from their own selfish motivations for security, power and esteem.
When people are afraid reason, good order, facts, justice, hope, and mercy, and many more of the attributes healthy societies rely on, go out of the window. Fear is the antithesis to faith. Jesus declared faith in God’s promises. To trust that, despite appearances, God’s Kingdom of justice, peace, mercy was the reality. Fear threw the Word of God into the hands of brutal pragmatists who believed that if you silenced the voice of non-violent protest order would be restored. Rome was the way of the world, but we have faith that it is not the way of God! In the face of fear, we need to hold ever-tighter to our faith.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
St Matthew 5:11–12 (NRSV)
In the face of fear, may we hold on to faith. When others ignore, ridicule or misunderstand us, may we trust in God. When numbers reduce, projects fade or enthusiasm wanes, may the way of Christ be ever clearer. When all we hear is silence, when the noise of the world overwhelms, may the Spirit energise us. In the face of overwhelming data and scarce information, deafening opinion and whispered facts, may we always pray, act, and speak in the light of God’s Kingdom. Amen
The Rev’d David Coaker is minister of Leyland and Penwortham URCs.