In both our piety and our agnosticism we sometimes put God on trial, and whenever we do that, it is we who end up being judged. We see that in the Gospel accounts of the trial of Jesus, particularly in John’s Gospel.
John’s Gospel, as we know, paints a portrait of Jesus from the point of view of his divinity, not his humanity. Thus, in that Gospel, Jesus has no human weaknesses whatsoever. He’s God from the first line to the last. This is true to the tiniest detail. For instance, at the feeding of the multitudes in John’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples how many loaves and fishes they have. John notes in brackets: “He already knew.” There are no gaps on a divine radar screen.
We see this most clearly in how John writes up the Passion and death of Jesus. Unlike the other Gospels, wherein Jesus is shown as afraid and cringing before his bitter fate, in John’s Gospel Jesus is unafraid throughout his entire Passion journey, in complete control, serene, carrying his own cross and the antithesis of a victim. Instead, throughout the whole account, Jesus is someone who is acting freely, out of love, and has complete power over the situation.
John makes this point very strongly. When they come to arrest him, Jesus stands up and all those who are apprehending him fall to the ground so that, in contrast to the other Gospels, it is not he who is prostrate on the ground but rather it’s the Roman soldiers and temple police who are prostrate – and in that prostration symbolically doing him reverence. And the symbolism continues: Jesus is sentenced to death at noon, at the exact hour when the priests began to slaughter the Paschal lambs.
After his death, he is buried with a staggering amount of myrrh and aloes, as only a king would have been accorded, and he is laid in a “virgin” tomb (just as he was born from a virgin womb). John makes it clear that this is God we’re dealing with.
With this in mind – namely, that Jesus was always divine and in charge – we will be able to understand more clearly what John is trying to teach in his account of Jesus’s death. What John focuses on most is the trial of Jesus. The bulk of his Passion story is centred on the trial and the main characters in that trial. But his account has this ironic twist: seemingly Jesus is on trial, but, in actuality, he is only one who isn’t on trial. Pilate is on trial, the religious authorities are on trial, the people are on trial, and we today reading the story are on trial. Everyone’s on trial, except Jesus.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection