The Caiaphas Solution
John 18: 28ff Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ 30They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ 31Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’
To get a grasp on what is happening in this passage we have to go back in John’s chronology to late in the eleventh chapter. (46 – 57). It is right after Jesus restored Lazarus to life. The event was unprecedented and the news of it spread quickly and as a result many people came to believe that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. The religious leaders already knew Jesus to be a genuine threat to the standards they felt should be carefully maintained. The bill of particulars against him was long. He refused to keep himself separate from publicly profane people. He took lightly the fences built up over time to keep Jewish people from breaking commandments. His followers violated the requirement that no work be done on the Sabbath – they picked corn and to add insult to injury they didn’t wash their hands before eating. When Jesus had healed a person on the Sabbath he was accused of breaking the same rule. Jesus’ messages seem to turn everything holy and righteous upside down. But this last thing, this bringing Lazarus back to life, was too much. So let’s go back to John 11 and read what happened then.
But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Here’s the important line: If we let him go on like this, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
There must have been someone in that community with the insight of Edmund Burke who penned the phrase: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” That’s the underlying fear that inflamed Caiaphas. Inflamed him enough to rationalize killing Jesus. He said: it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed. He was a student of Jewish history. He understood what was at risk for the Jews in breaking the covenant with God.
He was aware of the consequences of the often repeated refrain found in the Books of the Kings of Israel and Judah – “and they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord”. He knew that the prophets consistently tried to call Israel back to keeping the covenant God had made with them and how it was repeatedly violated and ignored. From the time of David through the last kings of Judah and Israel the prophets obediently spoke God’s word about covenant loyalty and the consequences of violation. Is it true that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it?
Let’s give Caiaphas his due. He lived in fear of violating the ritual requirements of covenant obedience. Disobedience had led to the destruction of the Temple, more than once. It led to national embarrassment as the leaders of the nation were carried off to exile, more than once. I think we do Caiaphas a disservice if we discount his zeal for his faith and his faith community. Caiaphas was deadly serious. He reminds me of the voice in our culture that continues to call our nation to never forget the lesson of Pearl Harbor. Caiaphas would want to scream the slogan “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Despite what you may have read or heard, there is no evidence that Thomas Jefferson ever spoke or wrote the phrase “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. It was American Abolitionist and liberal activist Wendell Phillips who spoke those words on January 8, 1852 to members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. It was a warning that persons elected to public office can become corrupt and can become despotic. The quotation seems quite timely. It goes “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.” Someone ought to make a counted cross stitch of that one.
But back to Caiaphas. Wouldn’t God do it again? That was his worry. Because of the practices of Jesus and his followers were the Jews again guilty of a breach of covenant correctness? Would God again reduce the Jewish nation to a mere remnant of their former glory as a people? And Jesus, wasn’t he pushing at the boundaries and taking the gullible population with him. Jesus even had the audacity to leave the impression that he was the long awaited Messiah – that in itself was the worst blasphemy. Saving the whole people from certain destruction could certainly justify the taking the life of this one. That’s what Caiphas thought and that’s what Caiphas did. It should cause us to listen carefully to the rationale for resorting to violence prevalent in our own day and time.
Our Governor recently announced that during his term of office the State of Washington would not carry out sentences of death on convicted criminals. As the State considers the death penalty it may be important to recall this story of Caiaphas.