Who sinned when Jesus was crucified?


Scripture, Good Friday 2020: John 18: 38b-19: 1-6; 13-16 Nigel Bunce

This morning I ask the question, Who sinned? when Jesus was crucified.  I want to focus on just one vignette in the Passion story.  It’s when Jesus appears before Pilate. Pilate, the Roman governor, has a dilemma. He sees no reason to execute Jesus, but he doesn’t want to lose face in front of an angry crowd. So he offers to release Jesus as an annual goodwill gesture. But the crowd yells that they want him to release Barabbas, a notorious criminal. As for Jesus, “Crucify him!”

Many, perhaps most, Christians follow the lead of St. Paul, who argued that Jesus had to die.  It was God’s plan all along. God’s Son had to die to atone for human sin. I have said many times that I disagree with most of that position. It’s very clear to me, as I read the Passion account, that Jesus did indeed die because of human sin.  But in my opinion, the reason was different.

Who sinned?

So who sinned? There’s plenty of blame to go round. Pilate did not stand up for what he believed. He knew that Jesus had done no wrong in the eyes of the law. “I find no fault in him.” He twice offered the crowd the chance to save Jesus. But in face of all the shouting, Pilate chose not to.  He acted unethically. 

Did Christ die to pay for the sins of the world?

Maybe Pilate didn’t really care much one way or the other. Perhaps he thought, “What’s one more Jewish troublemaker or less to me?” After all, he ordered the execution of malcontents and criminals practically every day. He already had two other crucifixions planned for today – the two bandits who were crucified with Jesus. “So OK, if you want to crucify him, go ahead.”

We can also point a finger at the Jewish Temple leadership. Jesus’ popularity threatened their position. So they arranged to have Jesus arrested and set this whole thing in motion.

It’s hard to believe that the crowd just decided that they preferred Barabbas over Jesus, or to shout ‘Crucify’ on their own. Do you really think that crowds gather in Tehran spontaneously and know exactly when to shout “Death to America” without prompting? Or that the crowds at Donald Trump’s rallies in 2016 spontaneously started chanting rhythmically ‘Lock her up, Lock her up’? So, “Crucify, crucify, crucify …”

Nevertheless, the individuals in the crowd don’t get off scot-free. An old hymn begins, ‘I see the crowd in Pilate’s hall’. The singer imagines being in the crowd that chooses Barabbas rather than Jesus. The singer feels shame for failing to stand up and call out for Jesus, but goes along with the crowd instead.

It’s not easy to stand up in the face of wrongdoing

It can be as simple as keeping quiet when someone boasts about cheating on their income tax.  Or when someone passes a derogatory remark about members of some other group.  Gays, Muslims, millennials, Aboriginals, Americans …  Pick your favourite people to discriminate against.

These omissions can seem unimportant, even innocent, because they appear to be in such a different category from calling out for Jesus to be crucified instead of Barabbas. But they should give us pause, because we promise through our baptismal vows to lead Christ-like lives.

To sum up

So who sinned”  I don’t doubt the role of human sinfulness in the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Suppose that I had gone along to see what was happening that day. Just part of the crowd. Would I have the courage to shout ‘Jesus’ when everyone else is shouting ‘Barabbas’? Would I tell my neighbours in the crowd to stop chanting “Crucify, crucify, crucify”?

I’d probably decide that it was best to keep my head down, while Pilate’s goons take Jesus away to be crucified. And like the person imagined in the hymn, I’d feel deeply ashamed afterwards.

Perhaps in the end Pilate had a twinge of guilt about what happened that Friday and recovered a tiny piece of his humanity. Most criminals were left up to rot on the crosses as an example to others. But at the end of the Passion story, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he might take down Jesus’ body. Pilate gave him permission to do so. So, with the help of the two Marys, the body of Jesus was placed in the garden tomb, where we must leave it till we revisit the scene again on Sunday morning, Easter Day.