Death by the Law (Lenten Lectio Reflection for Good Friday – John 19:5-7)

Ecce Homo – “Here is the Man” by Antonio Ciseri, 1871.

When Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here’s the man.”

When the chief priests and their deputies saw him, they shouted out, “Crucify, crucify!”

Pilate told them, “You take him and crucify him. I don’t find any grounds for a charge against him.”

The Jewish leaders replied, “We have a Law, and according to this Law he ought to die because he made himself out to be God’s Son.”
John 19:5-7 (CEB)

It’s easy to read the story of Good Friday and let some of the nuggets the Gospel author left for us slip by. One of the things I’ve grown to appreciate in reading the Gospels is understanding that each and every element and story was placed with a reason. Since the Gospels are not a simple, dry, retelling of a historical act but instead present the “Good News” about the life of Jesus, every phrase choice by the Gospel writers is meant to direct our attention back to Jesus and his work. Today, as I re-read the Good Friday narrative from the Gospel of John again, one phrase from the Jews shouting back to Pilate stuck out to me. In trying to convince Pilate to pronounce the death penalty of crucifixion on Jesus, the Jews shout in verse 7, “We have a Law, and according to this Law he ought to die because he made himself out to be God’s Son.”

The incensed Jewish crowds felt that their law gave them the precedence to pronounce a sentence of death upon Jesus. This Law they are referencing, by the way, was the same Law God gave them to follow when they agreed to be his covenant people at Mount Sinai. The same law that, right in the middle of the Ten Commandments states, “You shall not murder.” The same law that later says in Deuteronomy, “I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live…” God encourages his people to choose life, yet here they demand death. Does this seem strange to anyone else?

Laws tend to do this though. Whether we live in our Western democracy, a monarchy or even some kind of socialist system, laws help set the limits within our society. While, this is typically a good thing, laws can be wielded in such a way that they are oppressive, segregating, and depressing. You don’t have to look to far back in human history to find such laws and, honestly, you just have to turn on the TV to see modern laws being used towards oppressive ends.

Here Jesus stands innocent of any wrong doing, yet also accused and condemned to death on account of the Law. A Law that is not being used to set limits, keep the peace or give life. The Law is instead being used to segregate and to call for death.

This is one of the often overlooked elements of the Good Friday story. We all tend to agree that Jesus is innocent and was wrongly accused, what we may miss is how this demonstrates the potential for our own laws and power structures to be used in negative ways against those who find themselves at the margins of society. Here, Jesus stands in for all those who do not have the power to fight back. Jesus is an example of those who do not have the luxury of the Laws being used for their defense but instead find themselves as the target.

Here Jesus stands as the homeless person pushed further to the margins because people do not want to see them in their city.

Here Jesus stands for the ethnic minority denied basic rights because they were trying to escape a life of violence and fear in their home country.

Here Jesus stands for the Christians drug out on a beach and martyred because of their killers believe they have a Law that allows them to do so.

Here Jesus stands for the gay couple who’s relationship is denied legal recognition preventing them from taking medical leave to care for a sick partner.

Here Jesus stands for the child seriously injured by a “non-lethal” device during a police raid of his home.

The accusations against Jesus and his death on the cross are not simply unjust acts, but they shine light on the ways laws and power can be used in harmful and destructive ways even in our time.

Here Jesus stands not for the powerful and the “blessed”, but with the weak and the “cursed.”

“God’s curse is on those who are hanged.
Deuteronomy 21:23 (CEB)

“…because what is written kills, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthains 3:6 (CEB)

Finally, yes…the verse says Jesus wore a purple robe and the artwork has him wearing a red robe. Let’s forgive the artist his scriptural oversight but applaud his use of the traditional color for Good Friday.

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