© 2021 Evan D. Garner
The tragedy of the passion narrative is exacerbated by one case of mistaken identity after another. Almost no one recognized who Jesus really was. Pilate asked his prisoner if he was the king of the Jews. That inquiry was not theological in nature but political. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked. “Do you dare to rival the authority of Rome? Did you really believe that you could overthrow the empire?” To the Roman Governor, Jesus was just another political prisoner—an insurrectionist whose rebellion had been quashed before it even took off.
With the help of the religious authorities, the crowd began to see what Pilate saw. When the Governor asked which prisoner they wanted him to release, they chose Barabbas—another man who had been arrested for fomenting a rebellion. Unlike Jesus, however, Barabbas had at least managed to kill a few of the Roman occupiers during the uprising. “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?” Pilate asked. “Crucify him!” they replied. “He is worthless to us! We’d be better off with Barabbas as our leader!”
Clothing him in a royal purple robe and placing on his head a mock-crown of thorns, the soldiers danced around their prisoner, pretending to salute him and calling out, “Hey! King of the Jews!” This was no David against Goliath or Samson against the Philistines. If this was the mightiest warrior king the Jewish people had to offer in their attempt to gain freedom from the Empire, the soldiers had nothing to worry about. Their spouses could sleep a little easier at night.
Those who walked by, when they saw the helpless, humiliated prisoner nailed to the cross, gasping for breath, they couldn’t help but laugh at the outlandish claims this firebrand rabbi had made only days earlier. “Destroy the temple and rebuild in in three days?” they asked derisively. “Why don’t you start by saving yourself from that cross!” In the same way, the chief priests and religious experts taunted him, saying, “If you really are the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from there. Then, we’ll believe you.”
If only Jesus would just come down from the cross, then we would believe. If only he would gather his loyal supporters and lead them into battle against the Empire, then we would follow him. If only he would call upon God to rain down upon the earth with fire and brimstone in order to wipe out anyone and everyone whose particular brand of self-interested politics or narrow-minded religious views stand in our way, then we would hail him as the king of kings.
The problem for us is that, just because we know how the story ends, we think we have it all figured out. But we don’t. We are no different from the crowd that turned against him. We are no better than the religious authorities or the Roman soldiers. We are no more enlightened than the passers-by or than Pilate. If it were up to us to identify Christ in our midst, we would never pick the right one. The Christ we need is hanging shamefully on the cross, but we would rather look for the king whose triumph would magnify our own power instead of God’s.
We would choose the Christ who showed compassion toward sinners, not the one who elevated the law’s demand, equating anger with murder and divorce with adultery. We would choose the Savior who welcomed outcasts to his table, not the one who talked about separating the wheat from the weeds and the sheep from the goats. We would celebrate the messiah who comes to lift up the downtrodden and restore the fortunes of the poor but not if that means pulling down people like you and me from our lofty seats and taking our wealth away from us.
Thankfully, God didn’t wait for us to get our act together before sending God’s Son to suffer and die on our behalf. Jesus died not for the righteous but for self-interested sinners like you and me. That death may have been a consequence of human sin, but it is also the means by which God has reconciled the world to Godself. That is why the centurion was able to see Jesus’ death and discern within it the very essence of God’s power. If we are going to recognize Jesus for who he really is, we must learn to see what that centurion saw. We must behold God’s power not in the king of our own making but in the prisoner who yielded his life for humanity’s sake.