Who sinned when Jesus was crucified?


Scripture, Good Friday 2022: Luke 23: 1-5; 13-25 Nigel Bunce

Who sinned when Jesus was crucified?  Although I reject the idea that Jesus died to atone for human sin, his death was clearly the result of human sinfulness.  And, there was plenty of blame to go round.  Pilate, the crowd as a group, and the individuals in the crowd. All contributed.  But how would any of us reacted in that situation?



This morning, I will focus on just one vignette in the Passion story.  I ask the question, “Who sinned?” when Jesus was crucified. 

Pilate’s dilemma

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 Pilate offers to release Jesus as an annual goodwill gesture. But the crowd yells that they want him to release Barrabbas, a notorious criminal. As for Jesus, “Crucify him!”

Traditional Christian teaching

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. in that vew, the answer to ‘Who sinned?” is all of humanity, past present, and future.

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 not atonement.

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.

Probably, Pilate didn’t really care much one way or the other. “What’s one more Jewish trouble-maker or less?” After all, he ordered the execution of malcontents and criminals practically every day. He already had two other crucifixions planned for today – 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.

What about the crowd? Who sinned?

I doubt that the crowd just decided that they preferred Barabbas over Jesus or to shout ‘Crucify’ on their own.

It would have been like the crowds that gather in Tehran, allegedly spontaneously. But they all know exactly when to shout ‘Death to America”. Likewise, the crowds at Donald Trump’s rallies in 2016 didn’t spontaneously started chanting rhythmically ‘Lock her up, Lock her up’.

So, “Crucify, crucify, crucify …”

Who sinned? The role of individuals

Nevertheless, let’s not let the individuals in the crowd 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 and confront wrongdoing

This 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.

Often these omissions seem unimportant. That’s because they seem trivial compared with 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 my quession, ‘Who sinned”, I don’t doubt the role of human sinfulness in the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. But yet …

What if I had been in that crowd?

Suppose that I had been in Jerusalem that day. Maybe, I’d have gone along to see what was happening. Just part of the crowd.

But would I have had 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 have decided to keep my head down.

And then, Pilate’s goons take Jesus away and crucify him. And like the person imagined in the hymn, I’d feel deeply ashamed afterwards.

Did Pilate show that kind of remorse?

Perhaps in the end Pilate had a twinge of guilt about what happened that Friday. Maybe, he recovered a tiny piece of his humanity. Because, most criminals were left up to rot on the crosses after they died. 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. And, Pilate gave him permission to do so. So, with the help of some women disciples, they placed Jesus’ body in the garden tomb. Amen.