Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ Then Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ He answered, ‘You say so.’ Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, ‘I find no basis for an accusation against this man.’ But they were insistent and said, ‘He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.’
When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.
Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.’
Then they all shouted out together, ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!’ (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’ A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’ But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.
As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.” For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
The Roman Empire was one of the cruellest and most violent in human history. Its power covered most of the known world. The head of a small subservient nation could have his soldiers mock and scorn an accused over whom he had no jurisdiction. An Imperial Governor could find someone innocent and then have him flogged anyway in order to satisfy the crowd. He could then reverse the verdict in order to keep the ‘peace’. The imperial guard could force a passing black man to carry the instruments of death in order to save them the trouble. Yet with the benefit of hindsight we now know that at the very height of its absolute power the seeds of destruction of this empire were being sown. Its hubris was unsustainable. It had grown too big to effectively defend its borders. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire had begun.
Our capitalist empire is one of the cruellest and most violent in human history. Its power covers the whole world – the very last tribes to escape its clutches have been conquered. Small subservient nations elect dictators to shoot the drug-runners and street children on sight. Large imperial powers can send bombers to bomb whomsoever they wish with no retribution, and with drones they need not even risk their own armed forces. Innocent people can be gaoled or executed to keep the ‘peace’. Black, brown and indigenous peoples continue to carry the white man’s burden. Yet with the benefit of science and a little foresight we know that at the very height of its absolute power the seeds of destruction of this empire are being sown. Our fossil fuel guzzling way of life is unsustainable. We cannot effectively defend our borders against the billions of dispossessed. The decline and fall of capitalist industrial ‘civilization’ has begun.
It was to an empire such as this that Jesus came. It was at the hands of an empire such as this that Jesus died. Astonishingly, it was within an empire such as this that Jesus would rise again.
Lord Jesus, your Kingdom is so different from our empire that even you could not find the words to explain the difference. Your life of sacrifice and service is so different from our life of luxury and self-indulgence that only in your death could you point the way to true life. Strengthen us neither to accept the cruelties of empire around us nor to despair at their apparent invincibility, but rather to take up our cross and follow you to the end. Amen.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is National Assembly Policy Officer for Cytun (Churches Together in Wales) and a member of Parkminster URC, Cardiff.
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