A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday in Lent (02/04/23): Jesus Handed Over and Abandoned

Matthew 27:11-26

[The lectionary gives two options for reading on the Sixth Sunday in Lent / Palm Sunday. We can read about Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem from Matthew 21:1-11. You can a sermon on that reading here. Or we can read the Passion Narrative from Matthew 26:14-27:66. This sermon reflects on part of that story]

We know the ending of this story from the beginning. Jesus is going to die. We know because for some time Jesus has been saying that he is going to die. Time and again he has said he will be handed over and crucified. It is a hard message to hear. We wish it weren’t so. But by the time Jesus is arrest, the events have acquired a certain inevitability. The outcome is certain. Yet there still seems to be a series of obstacle that must be overcome to arrive at that destination. The one constant in this part of the story of Jesus’ life, is that everyone seems reluctant to take decisive action. Jesus has become a hot potato that no one wants hold onto for very long, but they don’t want to make the final decision either. Jesus is constantly handed over or abandoned by another party. Judas betrays him. The disciples desert him. The Jewish leadership give him up to Pilate. And Pilate gives him up to the Crowd. Who in turn hand him back to the Romans for execution. Jesus is being handed back and forth as if no one actually killed him, he dies almost from neglect.

The question is who killed Jesus? Why did he suffer and die way he did? And whose fault is it?

You can speculate long and hard about just why Judas does what he does. And perhaps we can never know for sure. After all we’re never that certain of our own motives, let alone those of someone we hardly know. Perhaps one plausible explanation for Judas’ behaviour is that he is impatient. He is impatient with Jesus, he can’t wait any longer for Jesus to do what he is going to do. He has been with Jesus a long while. He has seen what Jesus can do. He has seen the way Jesus can stir the people. He has heard the promises of a better world that Jesus has made. But that world never seems to get any closer. The Romans are still here. The Chief priests still have their dead hands on the religious and spiritual life of the nation. And the Pharisees are no help, piling always more burdens on people. The people must be ready to follow Jesus to victory. All Jesus has to do is act. But day after day all he does is sit in the temple and talk.

Judas’ patience finally wears thin and as it does he thinks he has found a way to speed things up. What if Jesus is handed over to the Chief Priests? What if Jesus is put into a position of having to act decisively? What if Jesus is presented with a now or never moment? Then Jesus would have to act, do what is needed, to get done what needs to be done to bring about that better world he is promising. Judas is like so many idealists. They have a vision of better world, and the want to bring it to reality right now. They have seen a heaven on earth, they try to bring it about right away, and they create hell instead. A lot of idealists suffer from impatience they want to take events into their own hands, to bring about the good end they are looking for, the result is always catastrophe. Yet God has all the time in the world, only the devil is in a hurry! Judas’ impatience in the end leads him to give up on Jesus and Jesus’ methods. He would much rather do something, do something that looks as though it might work. He brings the temple guard to the garden and hands Jesus over to the Chief Priests.

The disciples are just ordinary people. A mixture of fisherman, tax-collectors. They are people who live unremarkable lives, but they find themselves involved in a remarkable story. At some point Jesus has touched those unremarkable lives and they have got up, left everything behind and followed here, to the garden, on a spring evening, when the temple guard appears with one of their own Judas at the head. All along Jesus has warned them that following him is not easy. Discipleship comes at great cost, a cost they should have examined and been sure they were prepared to pay before they set out on this journey. Jesus had warned them that no one who did not take up their cross and die with him could be his follower. He told them any one who tried to save their life would in fact lose the only meaningful life that they had. But now the time had come. Judas had arrived with a mob carrying torches and armed with clubs and sword. The moment had come and the disciples were afraid. The were afraid and they ran away. They were afraid and they abandoned Jesus. They would rather save their own skins than go where Jesus is leading them now.

Religious freedom is a subtle and dangerous temptation. It leads us into thinking that it can and should be possible to be a Christian without it really costing us anything. We try to arrange the world, and our practice of religion so that it will cause us as little pain as possible. We are every bit as afraid as the disciples in the Garden. Easy, pain-free, cost-free discipleship was never the deal Jesus is offering! He did say “Take up your cross and follow me.” But we abandon Jesus when we are afraid to go into the difficult and dark places where Christianity costs us something.

Fear freezes the disciples’ hearts, but it speeds their legs. They vanish into the night. They leave Jesus alone, to be taken away by the temple guards.

The temple guards deliver Jesus into the hands of the council, the Chief priest, their advisors and supporters. Pilate judges them rightly when he accuses them of jealousy. It is out of jealousy that they resent Jesus. You would have thought that the Chief priests and all the leaders of the nation would be in favour of the establishment of the kingdom of God. That surely is what Israel stands for. They are meant to be witnesses to God’s presence. They are meant to point toward the coming of God’s peaceful reign. You would have thought they would have been glad when Jesus arrived and declared that he was setting that kingdom up. That they would have welcomed him and given him fulsome support.

They say, one can achieve almost anything if you don’t mind who gets the credit. But the Chief priests did mind. They are petty, jealous people. They resented Jesus and the attention he was receiving, that was diverting prestige and influence from them. It turns out they would sooner not have the kingdom of God at all if they are the ones who are going to get the credit. So not only are they jealous but this also makes them hypocrites. They say one thing but do quite another. Their words and their public actions do not match the character of their hearts. They are happy to pay silver to buy a man’s life. But they refuse the money which Judas tries to return, because it is tainted blood money! “Schadenfreude,” feeling joy over others misfortune is an ignoble emotion. There is a word for it, but I suspect that it is less common than something for which I can’t think of a long German word for. Feeling resentment over other people’s success. The churches, the different denominations, have often been jealous of one another’s success. As well as feeling a little smug over their failures. And this is as nothing to the dismay we experience when we discover the good in the world that is being done by people who aren’t even Christians! And it makes us hypocrites we try always to put on our best most acceptable face, to conceal both our weaknesses and our resentments.

Something else the Chief priests would rather ignore, or pretend wasn’t the case was their powerlessness. For all their prestige, for all their careful deliberations and political manoeuvrings they could do nothing themselves. So early in the morning Jesus was handed over once again. From the chief priests to the Roman procurator, Pilate.

Pilate’s job is to keep order: Pax Romana. Disorder is bad for business. It is his job to make sure that everything stays calm. This is why he is in Jerusalem at all today. Normally he prefers the cool breezes at his villa at Caesarea on the coast, rather than the stifling oppressive heat and stench of Jerusalem. But the Jews are a fractious lot, and especially during the festivals. So he has to be here to oversee things in person. In theory he keeps order by doing justice. If the guilty are punished and the innocent rewarded society will run smoothly. There will be order. But Pilate is a politician he knows that what works is more important than what is right. He is also weak an lazy. He can find no fault in Jesus. He cares not a bit about the internal theological squabbles of the Jews. He has heard the joke: “two Jews, three opinions,” and he knows that it is uncomfortably close to the truth. The chief priests know he doesn’t care, so they dress their accusation up as one he could understand. But Jesus doesn’t look like any kind of a king that Pilate has ever seen, hardly a threat to Herod, who Pilate could care less about, let alone Pilate’s boss the emperor! But the priests are determined. There must be a way out of this bind that doesn’t leave Pilate’s hands dirty.

Pilate offers the crowd a choice. He hands responsibility over to them. But he offers them a choice which is no choice. Who would choose a rebel, a robber, a rogue, a rabble rouser over a wonder working wise man? It seems this crowd would. Doing what is right is hard. It always comes at a cost. And expedient, effective to often looks like an easier option. Peace and reconciliation are difficult, slow and costly. A surgical strike, a separation a rejection, looks like a lot less effort and some how looks like it might get the job done right away. Justice, actually setting things right is hard work. It is not the same as merely making the “guilty” suffer. For the most part we are weak and lazy. And if an opportunity presents itself that allows us to evade hard moral work then we will take it.

Pilate hesitates. The Chief priest reveal their hypocrisy, they had resisted doing their deeds against Jesus in the open for fear of provoking a riot, but are happy enough to provoke one to get the procurator to do their bidding. Pilate gives in. He washes his hands of the whole affair and hands Jesus over to the crowd.

Because the crowd is a crowd it cannot take responsibility. The crowd is the untruth. Everyone in the crowd looks to their neighbours and defers to them. No one in the crowd takes responsibility for their own actions. Someone else always made them do it. They follow opinion without questioning whether the opinion is right or where it came from and who actually benefits. Jesus Nazarean or Jesus Barabbas? They are so different, yet so easily confused. Which one is the bandit, and which one the Messiah? The crowd murmurs to itself, “One man’s bandit is another man’s messiah.” “We want Barabbas!”
“What was that?”
The call goes up “We want Barabbas”
“Oh ok, it’s Barabbas we want?”
“We want Barabbas, we want Barabbas, we want Barabbas”
“And the Nazarean? God knows. Might as well crucify him.”
Individually the crowd are good people. They care for their families, love their children, work hard at their jobs, are supportive of good causes. But together they are dangerous. They are each swayed by the opinion of others that are around them.

Peer pressure is something that we assume only teenagers suffer from acutely. Yet we all find ourselves pressured. What is surprising is how like everyone else we are. We live the same lives. We buy the same things. We have the same sort of dreams. We want to go on the same sort of holidays. We hold the same opinions as everyone else. We fear standing out. We are afraid of drawing attention to ourselves, of risking criticism by being different. For the most part we go along with the crowd. Which is very dangerous, since a crowd cannot be responsible. It cannot make moral decisions, because everyone has surrendered responsibility to everyone else. Just because most people want it doesn’t make it right. One by one no one in their right mind would choose Barabbas over Jesus. But in a crowd they did.

And so Jesus is handed back to the Romans to be crucified. Who killed Jesus? Who is responsible for Jesus’s death? They all are! If anyone of them had acted differently the likelihood is that Jesus would not have died. It would have taken just one of them to do the “right” thing and the inevitability of Jesus’ death would have been derailed. But the truth is none of them could, because to have done so would have been acting against human nature: Imapatient, fearful, jealous, weak and in a crowd Irresponsible. All of us are some of those things. And there is some of each of those things in all of us. Who killed Jesus? We all did!

Throughout Jesus has been essentially silent. He has said nothing that could change the direction of what is happening. With his dying breath he cries out:
Eli, Eli, lema sabbchtani
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.

Jesus has been abandoned and handed over by everyone. And now he has reached the darkest, bleakest place a human soul can be Jesus feels bereft, utterly cut of from God. The darkest place, were God seems absent, and humans feel beyond help. But that is a false impression, like all the rest. There has been impatience, yet God acts now. There has been fear, yet the love of God drives out fear. There has been jealousy, yet God’s love includes all invites us to love the same way. There has been weakness, yet the power of God strengthens those who want to do right. There has been Irresponsibility, yet trust in God frees us from absorption into the crowd, and allows us to take responsibility for our actions. And at the moment when God seems farthest away, God in truth closest of all. When we are at our most desperate God’s love for us is most visible to others Jesus dies. But as he does, the soldiers see the power of God that has been at work in him “Surely this man was God’s Son.” It is no accident that Jesus finds words for his despair in Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.


Jesus Handed Over and Abandoned by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

1 thought on “A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday in Lent (02/04/23): Jesus Handed Over and Abandoned”

  1. Marilyn Wilkinson

    Best thing I’ve ever read on this subject. I’m 69 and at last I understand what might have motivated Judas and the crowd to behave as they did. Thank you for this thought provoking piece. I read your blog every week. It is really excellent,

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