Thirty-Eighth Day of Lent

Luke 22:66-23:25
66 At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and the teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. 67 ‘If you are the Messiah,’ they said, ‘tell us.’
Jesus answered, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe me, 68 and if I asked you, you would not answer. 69 But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.’
70 They all asked, ‘Are you then the Son of God?’
He replied, ‘You say that I am.’
71 Then they said, ‘Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips.’

23:1 Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. 2 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.’
3 So Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’
‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied.
4 Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man.’

5 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.’

6 On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. 7 When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.

8 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. 9 He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12 That day Herod and Pilate became friends – before this they had been enemies.

13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 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. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.’

18 But the whole crowd shouted, ‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!’ 19 (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)

20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21 But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’

22 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.’

23 But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I read this passage of Scripture and can’t help but think about Brexit (maybe everything comes back to Brexit these days!).

First of all, the incidents recorded here reveal the perils of weak and insecure leadership. Both Pilate and Herod have power to do what they want, but neither of them want to make a decision. Instead a profound injustice is worked as they callously pass Jesus from one place to the next and abuse him as they do. Remember, Jesus has been up all night with no sleep, and here we are at the beginning of a new day and he faces FOUR trials. First in front of the Sanhedrin, the Pilate, then Herod and then Pilate again. In each situation the loudest voices win, and the accusation of treachery and treason is the one that is heard most clearly.

But where is the treason? The Sanhedrin who deliver one of their own to the hated Roman powers, and change the charges as they go? The Roman ruler who is bored by the whole thing and passes on a decision of one accused of sedition? The cruelty of Herod towards one of his own? The cowardice of Pilate who gives in to the crowd?

It reminds me of Brexit also because all of these powerful bodies and individuals can make the right decision but every single one of them looks to their own advantage and they do this flying the the face of the cause of justice. It is stated repeatedly that Herod and Pilate can find no basis of a charge against Jesus. And the religious leaders hated Rome (another Brexit connection perhaps!) and detested paying taxes to the Empire, nevertheless they sided with the enemy to get rid of the upstart Jesus (Luke 22:1).

The wanton human cruelty here is awful. Look how Herod dresses Jesus up in robes and mock him as a ‘king,’ (Luke 22:11). And how Pilate repeatedly says there is no charge, but I’ll punish him anyway (Luke 22:15-16; 22).

Weak and insecure leadership permits all sorts of injustice and wrong-doing.

Second, sometimes the voice of the crowd needs to be ignored, and it shouldn’t matter how many are shouting. Sometimes people with nefarious purposes can manipulate a crowd to act against their best interests. The first ‘crowd’ is in v5 and consists of the seventy or so leaders of the Sanhedrin. Later this crowd has grown and we see its effect in v18,21,23.

Look at the words that straddle v23 and v24: “their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand.” Pilate knew better than this. Pilate knew there was no charge. Pilate knew that Barabbas was a dangerous, violent man. Yet he accedes to the shouts of the crowd.

This is the victimising of innocence for personal advantage. This is the vacillation of weak and insecure leaders. The surrender to the shouts of the loudest voices. The refusal to defy the crowd when one knows that what they want is not for their good.

Behind all the political chicanery we see in this story and in the EU these days I came across a blog post today from the Joint Public Issues Team, a partnership of churches in the UK. The report says:

1. Life expectancy has fallen for the poorest women in the UK. Dropping life expectancy in peacetime is extraordinary.
2. 4.1m UK children are trapped in poverty, 70% of them are in working families.
3. Meanwhile on 8 April £1.5bn was cut from or frozen in social security benefits which will hit 27m people, and the worst effects will be focussed on poorer parents and their children.

Weak and insecure leaders, focussed on narrow self interest, inclined to listen only to the loudest voices, permit all manner of injustice to thrive. The UN Special Rapporteur’s recent report made the startling accusation that the increasing poverty levels in the UK are the result of political choices made by those in power. It’s not a new thing. It happened then, it’s still happening. The violent and unjust treatment of Jesus reveals us for what we truly are.

You might find some time today to read the JPIT piece on this link http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/one-week-poverty-rises-the-next-we-cut-benefits/

You also find the UN Special Rapporteur’s Report on extreme poverty in the UK can be found here https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23881&LangID=E

Lord Jesus
I read these stories and I am angry
At the cruel and inhuman way you were treated
All that terrible day after a sleepless night.

And I am reminded of all those millions in our wealthy country
Who went sleepless last night
Because of worry and stress
Because of hunger and homelessness
Because of the malnutrition of their children
Because of the endless frustration
Of hard work leading to deeper poverty.

Give us wise and compassionate leaders
Give us kind and sensitive policy makers
Give us more and more loud voices
Prepared to stand up for the weakest among us

Lead us this Holy Week
Towards a more just and fair society

For Jesus sake,
Who suffered and lost his life
At the hands of a corrupt and unfair community


Twenty-Eighth Day of Lent

Luke 19:11-28
11 While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. 12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’

14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’

15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’

17 “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’

18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’

19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’

20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’

22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’

24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

25 “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”

28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

This is another parable about power, which follows yesterday’s in a startling way. I want to ask one question about this one, is there any evidence in the story to suggest that the third servant, who wrapped the money in a handkerchief, was wrong in his assessment of the character of the King? (Luk 19:20-21).

If we examine the evidence from the clues given in the story what picture emerges of this king.

  • He had sufficient power and authority to go to a different country to be made king (Luk 19:12). Incidentally, how did this happen? Was this through conquest and the forceful expansion of empire?

  • He was hated by his subjects who engaged in public protest against his kingship and he had sufficient power and was sufficiently secure that he could ignore them. (Luk 19:14-15)

  • He grew more wealthy off of the efforts of others (though if course he risked his own capital) (Luk 19:15-19).

  • The first law he passed as the new king was to enrich the wealthy and further impoverish the poor (Luk 19:26). This came even after some of his subjects advised him that the one who was getting the third servant’s money already had plenty (Luk 19:25).

  • He murdered his subjects and did it in such a way that he could watch (Luk 19:27).

Seems to me that the third servant’s assessment, in his fear, was absolutely accurate. This king was a hard man, taking whatever he wanted (like the kingship itself) and reaping personal benefit in places and in ways that he had never worked for. He was therefore a violent, greedy despot. And the political and social culture he promoted was one in which, if you bought in to it like the first two servants, you stood to gain more. But if you weren’t prepared to buy into it, or you resisted it, at best you were impoverished, at worst you were executed (Luke 19:26)

No wonder some of his subjects objected to this man becoming king. Who would want to live in such a kingdom? Who then is our example in the story? I would argue that it is certainly not the first nor the second servant who most closely model their behaviour on the attitude and behaviour of the king. So maybe it’s the third servant.

But what did he do that is worthy of emulation? His was behaviour motivated primarily by fear. And in his fear he did nothing and said nothing until confronted by the king.

I’m reminded of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Such was his power to make or break careers in the movie industry that no-one said anything against him even though people knew what he was doing, and so the women who suffered were forced to suffer in silence.

If the third servant’s assessment of the king is accurate then his silence is not to be admired or copied, rather his cowardliness is to be pitied or criticised. Or maybe he is as much a victim of bullying as others were in the country.

The third servant stayed quiet when he should have spoken out. He had first hand experience of the values of this powerful man, living with him as a valued servant (after all he was chosen as one of ten to be trusted with money). And I find myself wondering how many times I have stayed silent when I should have spoken. I find myself thinking of those who have suffered because I lacked the moral courage to speak out against wrong and injustice. I think about the Church in all its forms and how we have favoured being on the inside rather than standing with those on the outside and exposing oppressive behaviours. Or worse, where we have sided with the forces of injustice and oppression to preserve power and position.

The third servant is not one to be mimicked.

Scarily enough our example in the story may very well be the protestors. Yes. The ones who lost their lives. They knew the king and his value system but refused to live under such a regime (Luk 19:14). So they protested his coronation. Protested when he proposed taking wealth from one and giving it to another who already had plenty. They resisted his regime even to the point of being killed in a gratuitous way by that king for his entertainment. Whereas the third servant didn’t say anything but buried what he had, these people protested publicly at great personal cost.

These are the days of the overhaul of the benefits system in the UK when research consistently says that the impact of welfare reform hits hardest on the most vulnerable and that it doesn’t incentivise work.

These are the days of confused and confusing government regimes in the UK and in the US when those on the bottom rungs of the social ladder appear to be of least concern to government. Days of Brexit chaos. Days of wars and rumours of wars. Of the rise of the extreme right wing and renewed racism, anti-Islamism, anti-semitism and white supremacy.

Here in Northern Ireland the bar of orthodoxy is being set by those with power and those who fail to measure up are being excluded. Even theological issues which we believed had been settled long time ago, like the role of women in our churches, are being questioned, and dissent is growing, because the issue of the inclusion of women is a wedge issue for other inclusion debates like that for the LGBT members of our congregations.

Some of us don’t want that type of rule to be king over us. But nor do we want to slink away quietly and make no fuss, in these days when ministries and reputations are being killed stone dead.

This parable sounds frighteningly contemporary. Protesting the powers is a scary thing. This parable serves as a warning, that if you buy into this radical Jesus paradigm for the organising of the world, or the church, then be prepared for the fact that not everyone will be up for it. In fact the dominant powers may be set against it and you may have to bear a great cost. And of course, we know in the history of the church that many have suffered and died for kingdom values and still the Kingdom of God hasn’t come in its fullness.

After the recent killings at the Linwood and Al-Noor mosques in New Zealand many inspiring and moving stories emerged of communities, including Christian communities who acted in solidarity with their Muslim neighbours⁠.1 In Manchester, a photo of a local Christian man went viral as he stood outside a local mosque vowing to keep watch while they prayed.⁠2

Is there an injustice you need to speak out about, or a victim to whom you need to offer support. Why not make a call or write a card oR letter, or assure them personally of your solidarity?

God of gentleness and compassion
In Jesus you know of the violence
Of human injustice

Forgive us for failing to speak out
When we see a wrong being done
To a fellow human being.
Because of a concern for personal safety
Or reputational advantage
Or lack of concern

Give us the courage to speak out
When words are needed,
And courage to act
When righteous deeds are required.

May we be clearly seen and heard
As children of our good God


1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-47601844/christchurch-shootings-the-new-zealanders-rallying-to-help-victims

2 https://lovinmanchester.com/news/manchester/manchester-new-zealand-shooting