The transcript of our trial

By Father Ron Rolheiser

Like Jesus' original disciples, we tend to stay with Jesus more when things are going well.

Fr. Ron Rolheiser

The biblical accounts of Jesus' passion and death focus very much on his trial, and there is irony in how it is described. Jesus is on trial, but the story is written in such a way that, in effect, everyone is on trial except Jesus.

The Jewish authorities who orchestrated his arrest are on trial for their jealousy and dishonesty. The Roman authorities who wield the final power on the matter are on trial for their religious blindness. Jesus' friends and contemporaries are on trial for their weakness and betrayal. Those who challenge Jesus to invoke divine power and come off the cross are on trial for their superficial faith. And, not least, each of us is on trial for our own weaknesses, jealousies, religious blindness and superficial faith.

The transcript of the trial of Jesus reads like a record of our own betrayals.

Recently the church has tried to help us grasp this by the manner in which it has the Passion proclaimed on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. In many churches today when the Passion is read, the narrative is broken up in such a way that one narrator proclaims the overall text, another person takes the part of Jesus, several others take the parts of the various people who spoke during his arrest and trial, and the congregation as a whole is asked to proclaim aloud the parts that were spoken by the crowds.

‘Let him be crucified’
This could not be more appropriate, because a congregation in any Christian church today, and we, as individual members of those congregations, in our actions and in our words, in countless ways, mimic perfectly the actions and words of Jesus' contemporaries in their weaknesses, betrayals, jealousies, religious blindness and false faith. We too indict Jesus countless times by how we live.

For example, here is how we do it in our words: In Matthew's account of the trial of Jesus, at a certain moment in the trial, Pontius Pilate comes out to the people, the same people who just five days before had chanted for Jesus to be their king, and tells them that according to custom, at Passover time, he is willing to release one Jewish criminal being held in custody.

A crucifix is silhouetted against a stained-glass window at the chapel inside Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Elmira, N.Y. March 18. Good Friday, observed April 18 this year, commemorates the passion and death of Jesus. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)

At the time, he had in custody a particularly infamous murderer named Barabbas. So Pilate asks the crowd: "Which one do you want me to release for you, Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?" The crowd roars back: "Barabbas!" Pilate then asks: "Then what shall I do with Jesus called Messiah?" The crowd's reply: "Let him be crucified!"

We can make this extrapolation: In every moral choice we make, big or small, ultimately the question we confront is the same question Pilate asked the crowd: Whom should I release for you, Jesus or Barabbas? Graciousness or violence? Selflessness or self-centeredness?

It is the same in John’s Gospel when the crowds say to Pilate: "We have no king but Caesar!" In saying this, they were abandoning their own messianic hopes in favor of a momentary security. We say the same thing every time when, for our own well-being, we sell out our higher ideals and settle for second best.

Not much has changed
All too frequently we also mimic the words of the criminal crucified with Jesus, who challenged Jesus as he was hanging on the cross: "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” We do this every time we let our prayers become a test of God's existence and goodness. If we get a positive answer, God loves us; if not, we begin to doubt.

Of course, it is the same with our actions. Like Jesus' original disciples, we tend to stay with Jesus more when things are going well, when temptation is not too strong, and when we are not facing real, personal threat. But, like Jesus' original followers, we tend to abandon and betray him when things get hard and threatening.

Generally, on reading the accounts of Jesus' passion and death, our spontaneous inclination is to judge very harshly those who surrounded Jesus at his arrest, trial and sentencing. How could they not see what they were doing? How could they be so blind and jealous? How could they choose false security over God's ultimate shelter? A murderer over the Messiah? How could his followers so easily abandon him?

Not much has changed in 2,000 years. The choices that those around Jesus were making during his trial and sentencing are identical to the choices we are still making today. And most days we are not doing any better than they did because, in our blindness and self-interest, we say: Away with him! Crucify him!

Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Posted April 16, 2014

Father Ron Rolheiser

Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Contact him at [email protected].