In Mark’s gospel, this was Jesus’ response to the high priest’s question “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” It was spoken on Thursday of the passion week, just before Friday’s dawn. From a legal standpoint, his words at that moment were absolutely critical. Jesus had been arrested in the middle of the night, while no crowds were present. Doubtless, the plan was to hand him over to Rome for execution before dawn, claiming that he was purporting to be the true king over the Jews. With any luck, Jesus would be in the hands of his Roman executioners, and as good as dead before any of his followers could take action.
The cruel genius of the plan was that – by charging him with a violation of Roman law, as well as Jewish law – the temple leaders could quickly distance themselves from the whole affair. Jesus would be found a criminal under Jewish law, of course – since he made the false (or so they presumed) claim that he was the Messiah. But he could also be executed under Roman law for being a traitor. “He did deserve to die,” they could tell the people, but they wouldn’t have to take all of the heat for the execution, because the Romans would do the dirty work for them.
At the moment Jesus spoke these words, however, the trial was not going according to plan. The witnesses that had been carefully selected (possibly roused from their post-passover sleep) to attend could not agree with each other. This doesn’t surprise me, since the whole point was to bring them to agreement on something Jesus said.
Jesus never seemed to say much of anything with clarity. It was always a parable wrapped around a vague teaching springing from an answer that didn’t seem to quite fit the question that was posed. I can hear the confusion:
He said he was going to destroy the temple!
No, he said someone else would destroy the temple, didn’t he?
Well, he said something about the temple, thats for sure – but I thought he really meant something else.
Wait! Didn’t he say he was going to rebuild the temple?
Its not hard to imagine that – given Jesus’ continual refusal to explain anything that he meant in a public way – the entire trial was quickly thrown into chaos. Thus, the importance of the question of the high priest. Without witnesses, the only hope for a legitimate conviction was a confession from Jesus himself.
Experts in greek say that this phrase can be translated two ways. It could mean “I am.” It could also mean “Am I?” Thus, when Jesus goes on to talk about “the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming in the clouds of heaven,” you really can’t say for sure whether he is talking about himself or not.
Interestingly, both Matthew and Luke also include these ambiguities – in Matthew, Jesus responds by saying “You have said so” (26:64), and in Luke, Jesus says “You say that I am.” (22:70). In John, Jesus’ encounter with Pilate is fraught with similar ambiguities (Chapter 18).
Why do this? It is something that has puzzled me for a long time. Why didn’t Jesus clearly state exactly who he was before he died? The answer to this question may lie in two themes that run through all of the gospels:
First, it seems that Jesus was trying to draw out into the open the very nature of the evil that was destroying him. By refusing to give a confession, he forced the hand of the temple leaders. They must hand him over for execution, in accordance with their plan, without any evidence. It becomes clear that they are motivated by their fear of what he stands for, rather than their commitment to justice. Clearly, they are not on the side of God’s kingdom.
Second, Jesus contiues to provide us with an example of the way of submission. He doesn’t try to “play the Messiah card” here, demanding that he be released and recognized as king. Instead, he leaves it up to the temple leaders to answer the question themselves. Again, instead of asserting his own rights, he will leave it to God to vindicate him on Easter Sunday.
Tomorrow – why did Jesus die?