“Not my responsibility.”

“Not my responsibility.”

Palm/Passion Sunday, 2023

Matthew 27:11-26, 35-50

Jesus was brought before the governor. The governor said, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.” But he didn’t answer when the chief priests and elders accused him. Then Pilate said, “Don’t you hear the testimony they bring against you?” But he didn’t answer, not even a single word. So the governor was greatly amazed. It was customary during the festival for the governor to release to the crowd one prisoner, whomever they might choose. At that time there was a well-known prisoner named Jesus Barabbas. When the crowd had come together, Pilate asked them, “Whom would you like me to release to you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?” He knew that the leaders of the people had handed him over because of jealousy. While he was serving as judge, his wife sent this message to him, “Leave that righteous man alone. I’ve suffered much today in a dream because of him.” But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and kill Jesus. The governor said, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” “Barabbas,” they replied. Pilate said, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”

They all said, “Crucify him!” But he said, “Why? What wrong has he done?” They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!” Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that a riot was starting. So he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I’m innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It’s your problem.” All the people replied, “Let his blood be on us and on our children.” Then he released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.

They crucified with him two outlaws, one on his right side and one on his left. Those who were walking by insulted Jesus, shaking their heads and saying, “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.” In the same way, the chief priests, along with the legal experts and the elders, were making fun of him, saying, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. He’s the king of Israel, so let him come down from the cross now. Then we’ll believe in him. He trusts in God, so let God deliver him now if he wants to. He said, ‘I’m God’s Son.’” The outlaws who were crucified with him insulted him in the same way. From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. At about three Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” After hearing him, some standing there said, “He’s calling Elijah.” One of them ran over, took a sponge full of vinegar, and put it on a pole. He offered it to Jesus to drink. But the rest of them said, “Let’s see if Elijah will come and save him.” Again Jesus cried out with a loud shout. Then he died. 

The other night, Grace’s Journey Toward Racial Justice team hosted a dinner here in the Celebration Center called “Gather at the Table.” About 25 people from the community, even a couple of out of state guests, gathered at tables for a meal and conversations about where our anti-racist ministry could go next. At my table, Marilyn mentioned a line she heard at a recent leadership training event: “Culture eats strategy.” It really shook us. Our plans, our ideas, our intentions will always be subject to culture. “Culture eats strategy.” 

Perhaps Pontius Pilate skipped out on the training where that valuable piece of wisdom was shared, because during his decade-long tenure as Governor of Judea, the southern part of Israel that included Jerusalem, he never made any progress with those under his supervision. As the appointed official, Pilate served as the emperor’s proxy in this western province of Rome. Job #1 was to maintain order and peace- and he was ruthless in his use of force when necessary. Pilate knew that Jerusalem was not only Israel’s capital for a 1000 years, but it’s a religious center, housing the Lord’s Temple for more than nine centuries. Pilate knew that religious festivals, like Passover, would draw pilgrims not just from the countryside but from wherever Jews lived throughout the empire. He knew that a few times every year he would have to leave his gorgeous, modern seaside compound to set up court in Jerusalem to protect the peace from the constant threat of religious violence, and that he would be constantly interrupted from job #1 to receive requests from religious leaders to resolve disputes they should handle themselves.

During one of his ten Passovers in Jerusalem, Pilate was introduced to a traveling preacher from Galilee who was in town for the festival. He had been arrested by the Jewish authorities for blasphemy, and they wanted him executed, but Jews didn’t have that authority under Roman rule. Pilate questioned the man, found no reason for him to be arrested, much less executed, and wanted him dismissed. Even his own wife pleaded with him to dismiss Jesus- she had had nightmares about him. Back and forth they went, but Pilate could not gain any ground. So he had an idea: a choice. The people could pick: release Jesus the teacher, or Barabbas, a known insurrectionist and murderer– the kind of person Pilate had been appointed to keep under control in the first place. That didn't work either. Finally, unable to win, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion, a Roman punishment reserved for the worst of criminals. Washing his hands of the whole thing, he imagined he would not be responsible for any unfortunate outcomes.

But Pilate never appreciated that culture eats strategy. 

Last Friday, this editorial cartoon appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

It was a response to the horrifying news that at least 39 migrants died in a fire at a detention facility in Juarez, Mexico. Guatemalans were the largest group among those killed or injured. Others were from Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.

“The government must change its immigration policies,” José Guadalupe Torres Campos, the Catholic bishop of Ciudad Juárez, said during services at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral this week. “We have insisted – the Pope, the bishops – that the government has to change its migratory policies… We are all responsible by omission, by indifference… because we have not done the right thing. I assume my responsibility,” but the government still must review its actions.

“Global migration is at unprecedented levels, and requires action by many governments,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It’s a crisis of many levels,” said Brown, who has also worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations. “It’s a humanitarian crisis. It’s a resource crisis, an immigration crisis and a border security crisis.”

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society- the  world’s oldest refugee agency- said the fire reflects the “dangerous and uncertain situation” faced by those seeking safety. The fire and other losses of life for migrants also reveal the “urgent need for safe and legal pathways for refugees and migrants.”

Howard Campbell, a border anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso, has followed the humanitarian crisis for years and blames the administrations of López Obrador and President Joe Biden. The “tragedy signifies the failures of both U.S. and Mexican immigration policies,” he said. “On one hand, the mixed signals sent by the Biden administration have only increased migrant flows and created dangerous and desperate conditions for migrants. On the other hand, Mexico’s corrupt handling of the migrant issue has further endangered migrants, and also contributed to cruel events like the fire in Juárez,” he said. “The governments of both countries need to make sharp changes in policy for humanitarian reasons.”

This week I came across the image on the bulletin cover and screens. It’s called A Choice, created by Lauren Wright Pittman in 2018. It’s inspired by Mark 8:31-38, one of Jesus’ most important teachings on the nature of being a disciple: “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.” Here is how the artist describes the image:

A Choice © 2018 | Inspired by Mark 8:31-38

“Jesus offers the crowd (us) a layered and complicated choice, one that is as complex as his own dualistic nature. The first option is self-denial, a heavy burden, and a lost— but saved—life. The second is gaining the whole world, but forfeiting life. It’s easy for a seasoned Christian to take this choice for granted. This choice that Jesus calls us into may even seem like a no brainer, but in this moment, Jesus teaches of the terrors that will befall him and invites the crowd to knowingly face that path alongside him.

If we’re honest, it is extremely difficult to reject the tempting power and wealth this world has to offer and allow our life to take the shape of good news for all.

The choice isn’t an obvious one. One side looks like an opulent pile of riches, a crown, and endless power, while the other looks like tattered and worn hands with new life blooming out of wounds, work, burdens and relationships. This choice may seem like a distant decision made long ago, but it’s a decision to be made every single day, one moment at a time. In working for and with the downtrodden, poor, orphaned, widowed, ostracized, and oppressed, we will find ourselves.”

As Pilate approached Jerusalem from one direction, Jesus and his followers approached from another. The crowds but down palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna!” (“Lord save us!”). They are correct to proclaim Jesus as the one who brings God’s salvation to their lives. But they do not yet fully understand the kind of king Jesus will be. And of course neither does Pilate. After all, he has no understanding of Jewish culture, what Passover means, the place of Jerusalem or the Temple– it’s all just an annoyance and inconvenience. And when faced with the real significance of the matter, Pilate made his choice: washing his hands and abdicating responsibility. It’s your problem. You take care of it.

Now here we are, more than two thousand years later. We about as far away from Jerusalem as someone can get, but it is still Palm/Passion Sunday. We have paraded through the worship space, waved palm branches, cried out for salvation, baptized a baby, even read out Pilate’s name- forever linked with Jesus’ suffering- in an ancient act of worship. Like Pilate and every disciple from the beginning, we have to ask and answer a question: What is Jesus up to now? And how will we respond? Will we turn away from human suffering when we witness it- immigration policy, natural disasters worsened by the climate crisis, school shootings exacerbated by our culture of violence? Will we take up our cross and follow Jesus into the messiness of it all? Will we respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation and use the awesome responsibility of discipleship to improve the lives of others? Or will we say to ourselves,

(dip hands in baptismal water)

“We are not responsible. It is not our problem. We wash our hands of it.”