The chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they could put him to death. They didn’t find anything they could use from the many false witnesses who were willing to come forward. But finally they found two who said, “This man said, ‘I can destroy God’s temple and rebuild it in three days.’”
Then the high priest stood and said to Jesus, “Aren’t you going to respond to the testimony these people have brought against you?”
But Jesus was silent.
The high priest said, “By the living God, I demand that you tell us whether you are the Christ, God’s Son.”
“You said it,” Jesus replied. “But I say to you that from now on you’ll see the Human One sitting on the right side of the Almighty and coming on the heavenly clouds.”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He’s insulting God! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, you’ve heard his insult against God. What do you think?”
And they answered, “He deserves to die!” Then they spit in his face and beat him. They hit him and said, “Prophesy for us, Christ! Who hit you?” (Matthew 26:57-68, Common English Bible).
I answered the call to write a meditation for the Common English Bible Lenten Blog Tour, and due to a misreading of the schedule, I wrote a meditation on Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Fortunately, I realized my error in time to take up the assigned text, which is the one that follows after the arrest of Jesus. In the former story, a sword wielding mob, led by one of Jesus own disciples, comes looking for Jesus in the night so that they might arrest him. We watch as Judas betrays him with a kiss, while another disciple lashes out with his sword. In the end Jesus is taken into custody and his disciples flee into the night, though as see in the passage under consideration today, Peter does follow the crowd at a distance, and then finds a seat in the company of the officers of the guard. In their company, at a distance, he watches as Caiaphas the High Priest seeks to find a way of getting rid of Jesus.
The “trial,” like the arrest, takes place under the cover of darkness, reminding us that this is all a battle between light and darkness, good and evil. As we watch this trial unfold – at a distance – perhaps our thoughts will go back to the prayer that Jesus taught Disciples (Matthew 6:9-13), wherein he instructs followers to make this request of God: “And don’t lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one” (Mt. 6:13). This phrase from the prayer is important, because Jesus now finds himself in that very place of being tempted by evil. I realize that in making this assessment I have to be careful, because there’s a long tradition of using passages like this to tar the Jewish people with blame for Jesus’ death on the cross. While it’s true that Matthew couches this “trial” in doctrinal terms, we must remember that Caiaphas serves at the behest of the Roman government, and though they are looking for an excuse to kill him, any authority to do so must come from Rome, and Rome really doesn’t care about intra-Jewish doctrinal debates. They are, however, interested in political rabble-rousers, and in the eyes of both the Temple Leadership and the Imperial Leadership, Jesus has the marks of a troublemaker.
What is very interesting in Matthew’s portrayal of this trial is that the leadership is acting in ways that are contrary to the very Law they are sworn to uphold – not Roman Law, but the Commandments of God. In suborning perjury, which they’re doing as they seek out false witnesses to provide suitable evidence to send him on for execution, they face the dilemma of needing two witnesses who will agree in order to convict (Deut. 17:6). Although they find two witnesses who testify that Jesus allegedly said that he would destroy the temple and then rebuild it in three days (no textual evidence for this), they had what they needed, even though in getting it they break one of the Ten Commandments – the command to not bear false witness (Deut. 5:20). This encounter reminds us that it’s easy to fall prey to temptation, if it seems to achieve our desired results.
There’s another issue, however, that stands out in this passage and it’s the one that triggered the question that forms the title of this meditation. Caiaphas thinks he has an answer to the question of Jesus identity, and to paraphrase, he says to Jesus I believe that you believe that you are “the Christ, God’s Son?” So, own it, won’t you! What’s interesting in this “accusation” is that Caiaphas is quoting, in a sense, Peter’s Good Confession (Mt. 16:16), the one Peter made in answer to Jesus’ question – who do you say that I am?
All that Jesus will answer is –“You said it.” That is, you’ve made the confession, but do you believe it? The fact that Caiaphas is grilling Jesus in this possibly illegal “trial” makes it clear that Caiaphas is making no such confession. What gets Caiaphas really upset is Jesus’ next statement, which takes on an apocalyptic tone. Jesus says in essence, I am the Human One (Son of Man) and soon I’ll be sitting at the right hand of the Almighty (that is, next to the judgment seat of God), and I’ll be returning riding on the heavenly clouds. You have the sense here that Jesus is promising to get his revenge. Now, of course, that kind of language makes me uncomfortable, so I have to wrestle with it. As for Caiaphas, this is all he needs – Jesus has blasphemed God, or to use the CEB rendering – he is “insulting God.”
As we continue our journey toward Good Friday and then Easter, the question that Caiaphas raises still stands: Who is Jesus? This is an important question, because how I answer that question will help define my identity. Am I like Caiaphas and find Jesus’ claims to be God’s right hand blasphemous? Or is this my own confession of faith? But pushing this farther, how does this conversation fit with the question that Jesus posed to Peter, which elicited from Peter to confession that Jesus was the Christ and God’s Son (Matthew 26:69ff). But not only that, when we make such a confession are we willing to go all the way with it, or as we see with Peter in the passage that follows, will we deny even knowing him? Perhaps not in words, but in deeds? Or, maybe, going back to the beginning of this passage, are we simply follow Jesus at a distance?
As I was thinking about how to deal with this passage I picked up Stanley Hauerwas’s theological commentary on Matthew and I came upon this intriguing comment:
“Following at a distance” is a wonderful description of the way most of us follow Jesus. We want, as Peter wanted, to see how all this will end before we commit ourselves. Unfortunately, that strategy means that we cannot help but end up sitting with the guardians of the established order. (Hauerwas, Matthew, pp. 225-226)
So, where are we in this mix? Are we back with Peter making the Good Confession (Matthew 16:16)? Are we denying we know Jesus? Or, are we simply hanging back, waiting to see how this thing plays out before committing ourselves to something? And if we do the latter, do we not, as Hauerwas suggests, place ourselves at the disposal of the established order?
These are questions that are worth considering as we make our way through Holy Week and wrestle with the question – who is Jesus and what does my answer to that question demand of me as a person of faith?
This meditation on Jesus’ trial is provided as part of the Lenten Blog Tour that is designed to highlight and support the new Common English Bible. During this Lenten tour, 41 bloggers have offered their own reflections on the biblical text, using the CEB as their starting point. (See all of the reflections here.) The people from the CEB have offered to provide a copy of the CEB New Testament to a random commenter willing to provide me with their email address.