Holy Week Reflection: Good Friday (John 18:1 – 19:42)
Again, we continue with the perspective John’s Gospel brings to Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denials, Jesus’ ‘trial’ and ultimately the crucifixion.
A little less than a century ago Lord Chief Justice Hewart said the famous words: “justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.” A question remains: what if justice being seen to be done becomes more important than justice actually being done?
Repeatedly here, the High Priest and Pilate fail to bring coherent charges against Jesus. It is not clear what he has been accused of. It is not clear what law he has broken. Accusations and slurs are brought against him but not actual charges; not actual evidence.
Jesus challenges those who abuse or confront him: “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (18:23)
Pilate rightly recognises that Jesus isn’t being brought before him on any charges he can legitimately try him on. He asks what accusation has been made against Jesus and the response comes: “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you” (18:30). Pilate recognises the lack of substance and asks the High Priest’s associates to try him according to their own law. Their reply comes “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (18:31) Even if Jesus were to be tried under religious, rather than the secular law the punishment they seek is simply unavailable.
In this discourse, Pilate asks a pertinent question: “What is truth?” (18:38).
Truth, it seems, becomes increasingly irrelevant to the outcome. Pilate is sure that Jesus has no case to answer according to any law he has the authority to uphold. He tries to release Jesus but ultimately, he is afraid of losing control of the situation. He is afraid of losing his job. He is, no doubt, afraid of the consequences if the situation gets out of control.
Jesus comes out of the ‘trial’ with no verdict given but conjecture and rumour is enough to have the same effect as conviction. The sentence is to be torture and death.
And yet, in the midst of this, there is some good; some sign of love. His mother and a small group of friends stand by him. They accompany him, even to death. In what could be a moment of more awful loneliness, he is able to say. “Here is your son” and “Here is your mother” (19:26 and 27). Those with him help to bear the emotional burden for him. Even, as the other gospels have it, when he asks why God has forsaken him, some friends and family still stand near the cross.
Jesus said “It is finished” in his moments approaching death. But the love and respect his followers had for him did not cease in death. We see Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take charge. A detail we might miss, if we are unaware of the burial customs of the time, is the sheer excess of the mixture of myrrh and aloes. The amount Nicodemus brings is extraordinarily abundant, reminiscent of the expensive and excessive nard that Mary Magdalene had used to anoint Jesus’ feet (John 12:1-6). Other than these two having followed Jesus secretly, or under cover of darkness, in some way (John 3:2, John 19:38), we are not told much else about them – and yet they fulfil crucial roles.
Even in death, Jesus’ friends remain devoted to him. It is Mary Magdalene who will be first to return. But none of them expects what is coming. And certainly not the twelve Jesus set aside to be apostles.