WHO’S TO BLAME: A QUESTION OF JUSTICE?

If destroying the greatest good is an expression of the greatest evil, then what happened on ‘Good Friday,’ is the ultimate expression of evil. The question begs to be asked, who is responsible for this evil? In other words, who is to blame? When we look at the crucifixion of Jesus the question naturally arises as to who is to blame? In the middle ages, the church blamed the Jewish people and what transpired was the incredible evil expressions of antisemitism.

Looking at the biblical account, we need to realize the complicity of all of humanity in the death of Jesus. It is human nature to want to blame someone for evil, and injustice. We are seeing that today as so much anger is directed toward various people and cultures from the past and present. This is at the heart of what is now called ‘cancel culture.’ We are blaming our past for our present yet forgetting that while there were injustices that occurred in the past that need to be rectified, we also are the recipients of many good things that we enjoy today as a result of the past.

What we hear from the lips of Jesus are levels of culpability or responsibility for the injustices that led to his death. The cast of characters in that early setting that were involved in Jesus’ crucifixion were the majority of the religious leaders, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, the king of the province of Judah, Herod, Judas Iscariot the betrayer, the disciples and ultimately, each of us. Michael Wilcox points out: “If there is one thing clearer than another in the accounts of the trial of Jesus, it is the innocence of the prisoner.”[i]

Who were some of the people responsible for the injustice in the death of Jesus? Here we are going to examine four parties that we could say shared in the blame.

THE FIRST PERSON WE CAN IDENTIFY AS BEING RESPONSIBLE FOR CHRIST’S CRUCIFIXION IS PILATE

Only the Romans had the authority to sentence a person to death. Pilate, as the Roman governor, recognized the innocence of Jesus, yet because of the pressure placed upon him by others, sentenced Jesus. Three times Pilate expressed that Jesus was innocent. He should have simply released Jesus, but he seems more concerned about placating the crowd than executing justice. Here in Luke and John’s gospels we see that Jesus becomes a political issue rather than a judicial one. “Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man (Luke 23:4).” Pilate recognized that this was not a criminal issue at all. He tried to evade responsibility by sending Jesus to Herod because of the pressure of the religious leaders and the crowd that had gathered for this kangaroo court.

But they insisted, ‘He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.

On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean.

When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.[ii]

What is tragic is that Pilate does everything he can to release Jesus short of releasing him. He sends him to Herod hoping that he has rid himself of making an unpopular decision and alienating the people he is governing. Herod, on the other hand, is simply interested in seeing some sort of a miracle. He has no interest in what is right or not. “When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort (Luke 23:8).” Herod was only interested in being entertained, not in furthering justice. So, he sent Jesus back to Pilate. We read that Jesus does not respond to Herod’s questions, which leads Herod and his soldiers to ridicule, mock and physically abuse him. Now for a second time Pilate’s verdict is one of innocence.

Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him.

Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death.

Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.[iii]

Even the suggestion that Pilate would punish Jesus is beyond the scope of true justice. He has already declared twice the innocence of Jesus, but to appease the crowd, he throws out this gesture to please them. However, the crowd will have none of it. They are now screaming for Barabbas’ release and the crucifixion of Jesus.Then Pilate makes one more appeal to the crowd, as if they are his jury. Pilate is trying to avoid taking responsibility for Jesus’ death.

Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again.

For the third time he spoke to them, ‘Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.[iv]

However in the end, Pilate surrendered Jesus to the will of the crowd crying out for his death.

THE SECOND PERSON WE CAN IDENTIFY FOR BEING RESPONSIBLE FOR CHRIST’ CRUCIFIXION IS JUDAS ISCARIOT

The betrayer is the one who Jesus pronounces is under a greater condemnation. During the final Passover meal before his crucifixion, Jesus makes this startling statement regarding one of his twelve closest disciples.            

But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table.

The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him![v]

In Matthew’s gospel (Mt. 26:24b), he adds, ‘It would have been better for him if he had not been born.’ Jesus pointed out to Pilate that the one who betrayed him was guilty of a greater sin. “Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore, the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin (John 19:11).” The punishment obviously will be greater because this is a sin against love and knowledge. Judas had witnessed the amazing miracles and had even performed some himself. In Dante Alighieri’s, ‘The Divine Comedy,’ when he is being guided through hell by Virgil, Dante comes to where Satan is frantically beating his wings trying to escape God, but is trapped in a sea of ice, and in effect is making his escape impossible. Upon closer examination we find three people that he is consuming in one of his three mouths. These are considered the greatest human sinners because they betrayed those they once loved: God, country, or people. One of the characters being ever consumed is Judas Iscariot.

III. THE THIRD PERSON/GROUP WE IDENTIFY FOR CHRIST’ CRUCIFIXION IS JEWISH RELIGIOUS LEADERS

We are not suggesting that all of them were in support, because we know that there were some opposed to this action and direction, but the majority were certainly committed to this course of action. There had been growing opposition to Jesus’ ministry particularly by the Pharisees and then the Sadducees, who were in a leadership role. They were threatened by Jesus’ growing popularity and were angered by his understanding of what it meant to belong to God. Jewish identity markers such as the Sabbath and purity laws were being challenged by Jesus. While they had a very external understanding of these elements, Jesus talked about the Sabbath as designed for the benefit of people. Jesus was concerned about the internal aspects of true faith demonstrated by mercy and justice. This conflicted with their legalistic understanding. This conflict became so evident that they accused Jesus of matters that were false and were seen as inciting civil strife.  

Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate.

And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.[vi]

The accusations against Jesus were unfounded and false. Pilate easily sees through their antagonism against Jesus. “For he [Pilate] knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him (Matthew 27:18).” Other translations use the word envy for self-interest.

We know from John’s gospel that a confrontation was about to occur. After the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead, it brought great consternation among some of the leaders.

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. ‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs.

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up. ‘You know nothing at all!

You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea.[vii]

Jesus knew that his life was in danger. The anger was now solidified in their hearts which would lead to crucifixion. They were not concerned about the truth; they were concerned about ridding themselves of Jesus who was challenging them at every turn. Both Peter and Paul single out this aspect of the guilt of Christ death to these leaders so clearly that it infuriates them.

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: ‘Rulers and elders of the people!

If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.

Jesus is the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.[viii] 

Paul in writing to the Corinthians explains that the reason the leaders did this atrocious act was because they were blinded by their own prejudices and misunderstanding of Scripture. “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8).” Though Paul mentions that they did it in ignorance, he is not saying that ignorance is an excuse, for they are still responsible for their actions. But had they not walked in blindness and understood who Jesus really was, they would have never crucified him. Which leads to the burning question, why were they so blind to this reality of who Jesus is and what He came to do? The nature of sin in all of our lives blinds us to our true condition. So the question begs to be asked, who ultimately is responsible for Jesus’ death?

THE ULTIMATE PERSON OR GROUP THAT IS RESPONSIBLE FOR JESUS’ DEATH IS EACH OF US      

We need to personalize this and stop pointing the finger at others. Without sin, there is no need for a Savior. The good news of Jesus’ death is that he came to die for sinners. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).” It is amazing to read, even in this very chapter of Jesus’ crucifixion where the focus of Jesus was at in his dying hour. While the crowd was jeering and mocking, and some of the women were weeping, we have this conversation between the two criminals and Jesus.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!

But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence?

We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.

Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’[ix]

Even in his agony, his abandonment by God the Father, as he was now the sin offering, Jesus was concerned about the people at the cross and those who in the future who would come to the cross for forgiveness. What we learn is that our God is a forgiving God. He shows us mercy and grace when we least deserve it.

I love the apostle Paul’s confession to Timothy regarding the nature of the gospel, the good news about Jesus.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.

But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.[x]

The way to receive this amazing gift is simply to call out to Jesus in conversation and decide to start following him as the authority in our life (cf. Romans 10:9-10).

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[i] Michael Wilcock, Savior Of The World: The Message of Luke’s Gospel, The Bible Speaks Today, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 194.

[ii] Luke 23:5-7, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[iii] Luke 23:13-16.

[iv] Luke 23:20, 22.

[v] Luke 22:21-22.

[vi] Luke 23:1-2.

[vii] John 11:47-54.

[viii] Acts 4:8-11.

[ix] Luke 23:39-43.

[x] 1 Timothy 1:15-16

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