The story of what happens on Good Friday (another obsolete term) is really not far-fetched, even by today’s standards. Sometimes it’s scary how justice is meted out, especially when power is threatened and a mob is involved. Jesus knew all this and he never deviated from his mission.
What we see in this story is the true character of the players. How they behave or cope in these circumstances reveals a lot about who they are inside. I know they aren’t the principle person in the story, but I think we can relate more with them than we can with Jesus. So I thought we’d explore a little about these individuals.
Let’s set the stage: Their last meal is finished and Jesus has just finished talking with and prayer for his friends. They went off to the garden of Gethsemane for a time of peaceful reflection. It had been an intense night.
The little garden of Gethsemane was located on the Mount of Olives, just outside the city gates. Many wealthy people had their private gardens there. Space in Jerusalem was too limited for private gardens and ceremonial prohibitions forbade the use of manure on the soil of the sacred city.
An anonymous friend must have given their key of the gate to Jesus to use whenever he was in Jerusalem. He and his friends often went there for peace and quiet. Judas knew that they would go there and so made arrangements for his arrest in the garden.
An expedition showed up against this lone Galilean carpenter. It was a full moon (remember this is the Passover and it is always around the full moon) and yet the soldiers showed up with torches. They probably thought they’d have to look among the bushes and trees for their suspect. Instead, Jesus presents himself.
They bring him to the High Priest, Annas. Annas was a notorious character. He was the power behind the throne in Jerusalem. Even though he currently wasn’t the reigning High Priest, he still held the real power. Four of his sons and been High Priest and now his son-in-law, Caiaphas, was High Priest
The office of High Priest was full of intrigue, bribery, and corruption. Annas made his money from the vendors in the temple’s Court of the Gentiles. Vendor is actually a bit too nice for them. They really were extortionists. One couldn’t enter the temple without an offering free from blemish. These “vendors” had been vetted to guarantee a blemish-free offering. Some of the proceeds of these preferred vendors made their way into the pockets of Annas, et.al. This practice was what Jesus flew in a rage about about as he overturned their tables and tossed them out of the temple. Jesus was the man who attacked Annas’ vested interests, right where it hurt – his financial portfolio. Annas wanted to be the first to gloat over Jesus’ arrest.
Jesus never had any hope of justice with the High Priests. The self-interest of Annas and his colleagues had been touched. Jesus was condemned before he was even tried. When someone is engaged on an evil way, their only desire is to eliminate anyone who opposes them. If they cannot do it by fair means, they are compelled to resort to nefarious ways.
Our next person to consider is Peter. Peter has taken a bad rap from preachers over the centuries. I, for one, believe Peter’s true, brave character emerges in the midst of his greatest failing.
Peter was the only friend who stood up to the soldiers in the garden. He whipped out his sword and cut off the ear of one of them! He then followed behind to find out where they were taking Jesus and see if he could gather some intelligence on the situation. When confronted about being a follower of Jesus, he did deny it. I think that’s why Jesus told him what would happen. He was letting Peter know that even when these things happen, Jesus knew and understood the real Peter. Jesus loves us in spite of what we do. He loves us not for who we are, but what we have in us to become. The forgiving love of Jesus is so great, he sees our real personality, not in our faithfulness, but in our striving after goodness. Over time, Peter would come to understand all that Jesus said and meant to him.
Pilate. Poor Pilate. He must have been a good administrator at some previous post to be appointed governor of the region. He wasn’t a wise or strong governor. He was being used to carry out the desired death sentence of Jesus. The religious leaders couldn’t pronounce a death penalty, so they manipulated Pilate. Pilate really wanted nothing to do with this man Jesus! He did not want to be in the middle of a religious dispute! His wife had a dream about Jesus and warned her husband to have nothing to do with “this righteous man.”
Pilate tried to divest himself of the responsibility of passing judgment on Jesus again, sending him back to the religious leaders. It wasn’t until the leaders twisted their charge against Jesus, that Pilate became threatened. He was essentially blackmailed into pronouncing the death penalty on Jesus. The leaders were threatening to report him, knowing he had been reported for mishaps already. He wanted to do the right thing, but didn’t have the fortitude to stand up to the religious leaders. Basically, he had Jesus crucified to keep his job.
Information was leaked to the crowd as the event unfolded. There were people who had been coached to stir the shrieking, frenzied fanatics. The leaders knew that the mood of the crowd would eventually take on a life of its own, rising in hysteria. There’s a certain point when a crowd passes the point of no return and becomes a mob. We’ve certainly seen reports of this recently throughout regions of the Middle East.
There’s no getting around the ugly, agonizing crucifixion. It was unthinkable that a Roman citizen should die such a death. It was never used as a method of execution in the homeland, only the provinces, and there only for slaves. The most dreaded form of execution, reserved for criminal and slaves, was how Jesus was put to death.
The inscription on Jesus’ cross was in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. These were the three great languages of the ancient world and they stood for three great nations. In God’s economy, every nation has something to teach the world. Greece taught the world beauty of form and thought. Rome taught the world law and good government. The Hebrews taught the world religion and worship of God. The consummation of these things must have been seen in Jesus since they were ascribed to him.
In the end, Jesus was not absolutely alone. The four women who loved him were there. It was always a dangerous thing to be associated with an enemy of the Roman government. It was also dangerous for women to show their devotion to one whom the orthodox regarded a heretic. Jesus had a special place in each one’s heart and there was no way these women would not be there.
They were an interesting lot. Mary, the wife of Clopas, we don’t know anything about. There was Mary, Jesus’ mother. This was her son. She brought him into the world; she would be with him when he left. There was Mary’s sister, Jesus’ aunt. Jesus spoke sternly to her when she requested that her sons have places of importance in Jesus’ kingdom. Yet here she is. There was Mary of Magdala who could never forget what Jesus had done for her, restoring her to wholeness and acceptance.
When Jesus sees his mother, he could not help but think of the days ahead. So Jesus committed Mary to the care of his beloved friend John, and John to the care of Mary. They would be able to comfort each other in their grief and loneliness.
We come to the final two people in this tragic story: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Both were members of the Sanhedrin, the inner circle of religious leaders, and followed Jesus secretly. Jesus’ friends were poor and could not give him a fitting burial. These two stepped forward, wanting to at least place his body in the tomb before the beginning of the Sabbath. While they were afraid to publicly show their devotion while Jesus was alive, they came before the Roman governor and requested his body for burial.
There were a lot of different people, with different agendas and motives, drawn or forced into an unbelievable event. Who could have foreseen the events that were to unfold? Or seen themselves as part of the great drama?
When we look at each character in this story from a distance, we would never imagine that we could be this people. But I think there’s a little bit of all of them in each of us at various times. We are influenced by those around us. We all react to power in different ways. How far would we go to keep our job or maintain our image?
Only one never wavered from his mission. He suffered and died. But that wasn’t the end…
Good Friday bonus: I love Gregorian chant. There’s something soothing and meditative about it, even if I don’t understand Latin. Here is the famous 12-men vocal group from San Francisco, Chanticleer.