“The defendant is not guilty. But somebody in this courtroom is.”
“One more thing, gentlemen, before I quit. Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the Executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us…We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe—some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cake than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men.
But there is one way in this country which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man equal of an Einstein, and an ignorant man equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human constitution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.”
This excerpt is taken from Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which tells the story of Atticus Finch, a small-town southern lawyer who defends an innocent black man from the false accusation of raping a white girl. This passage comes from Atticus’ closing argument, after he had already established an incontestable case for Tom Robinson’s innocence. He calls on the court to make the right judgment, but tragically, in a gross miscarriage of justice, the all-white jury convicts Tom. He is later shot in the back and killed while trying to escape from prison. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most tragic tales of injustice ever told.
But there is a better one—one not fabricated from fiction, but one rooted in historical fact. We find the story recorded right here in this morning’s Scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells the story of human history’s supreme act of injustice—the false conviction and crucifixion of Jesus Christ!
An Unfair Hearing (22:66-71)
On the night before Jesus was unjustly executed, he had already suffered several injustices. He was the victim of religious profiling, false arrest, and police brutality. Now in the morning, he was about to become the object of an unfair hearing. As the council convened at the high priest’s house, it is curious that no formal accusation or charge is brought against Jesus, nor are any witnesses called. Instead, the council invites him to incriminate himself by telling them that he is the Christ. But Jesus knew exactly what they were doing and he decided to beat them at their own game. Rather than answering their questions with a direct “yes” or “no,” he used veiled language and kept hitting the ball back into their court.
Even though this hearing was completely unfair, you will notice that the dialogue contains three titles for Jesus, and they are all correct: Christ (67), Son of Man (69), and Son of God (70). Contrary to popular belief, the term “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name or a word you should shout when you accidently smash your thumb with a hammer. The term “Christ” is another word for “Messiah” which simply means “Anointed One.” This title carries kingly overtones, which explains why Pilate would ask Jesus if he was a king. Everyone in Israel knew that the Christ would be a descendent of the royal line of David. If they could get Jesus to claim kingship, they could charge him for treason.
The title “Son of Man” comes from the Old Testament Book of Daniel and refers to Jesus as the divine Judge. The Son of Man will sit at the right hand of God, which is the place of power and authority. Likewise, the title “Son of God” is an explicit declaration of Jesus’ deity. He is the supreme, unique, divine, eternal Son of God. And therefore, the council concluded that they need no further testimony. They charged Jesus with blasphemy because he claimed to be God. (Ryken 546)
These titles still point us to Jesus’ identity as God in human flesh! But like ancient priests and scribes, many people in our modern world do not believe this. Today people are apt to think of Jesus as a good moral teacher, a wise philosopher, or a promoter of pacifism. People love to quote Jesus’ words about peace and love and heaven, but they conveniently ignore his warnings about sin, judgment, and hell. People are quick to remind us that Jesus said, “Judge not lest you be judged,” (Matt. 7:1) but they do not remember “Jesus will come to judge the quick and the dead!”
Jesus cannot be cherrypicked! He is not just one option on the smorgasbord of spirituality. Either you believe everything he said or nothing he said! He is either God or he is a liar! Either you are with him or against him! There is no middle ground!
Who do you say Jesus is? Do you believe that he is the Christ, the Son of Man, and the Son of God? Have you bowed to him as your king? Do you revere him as your judge? Have you trusted him as your Savior? On Good Friday morning, Jesus was the victim of an unfair hearing! Have you given him a fair hearing yet?
A Coward in the Court (23:1-25)
After the unfair hearing, the chief priests ushered him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. The Jews had convicted Jesus of blasphemy and they wanted him to be executed for it, but the Romans didn’t even consider blasphemy as a crime. To complicate the case further, only the governor had the authority to sentence a criminal to capital punishment. So, the council presented some “alternative facts” about Jesus in hopes of getting a Roman conviction. Contrary to their claims, Jesus did not mislead the nation, forbid tribute to Caesar, or directly claim to be a king (which would challenge Roman rule). After questioning him, Pilate found no basis for a charge against Jesus. But rather than acquitting him, he passed the buck to King Herod when he found out that Jesus was from Galilee.
Herod was surprisingly happy to see Jesus coming. He had long heard about Jesus and his miracles and now he had the opportunity to see Jesus’ magic show for himself. But Jesus refused to perform for the king; he even refused to speak to him. Herod was so disappointed by Jesus’ lack of response that he and the chief priests resorted to ridicule. They dressed Jesus up in regal clothing and mocked “the king” who in their view possessed little power and sent him back to the governor. Pilate’s slick political maneuvering paid off; from that that day on, instead of being adversaries, he and Herod became bosom buddies.
At this point, Pilate could still find no basis to charge Jesus and he genuinely desired to release him. He even appealed to the custom of the governor pardoning one prisoner in honor of the Jewish Passover, but in one of the greatest ironies in history, the chief priests began crying out for Pilate to release Barabbas instead. Barabbas was an infamous criminal—an insurrectionist and a murderer. Pilate was stunned by this preference, and he declared Jesus innocent for a third time. But the crowd shouted louder demanding Jesus’ blood.
On three different occasions Pilate found Jesus innocent of all misconduct, let alone a crime deserving of capital punishment. But in that moment, Pilate had to choose. As governor, he had the authority to either convict or acquit. He had to decide between doing the right thing or caving to political pressure. He had to pick to the road of justice or the path of self-preservation. Although the evidence in the case was clear, he chose the latter. Pilate was a coward in the court, and it led to the crucifixion of the only truly innocent man who has ever lived!
When we hear this insidious story of superlative injustice—Jesus’ unfair hearing, the crooked court, and the cowardly conviction—we are reminded that every single person sitting in this congregation will someday come to the place where they have to choose between standing for justice or caving to convenience. We may have to choose between standing for racial justice or cowering to the pressures of prejudice! We may have to choose between standing for workplace justice or preserving our own job! We may have to choose between doing what is right or maintaining a relationship with a family member or friend. We may be forced to choose between doing what we know is right or listing to the crowd of voices telling us to do what is wrong.
Political pressure has prompted decent men to do despicable deeds! Peer pressure has provoked good girls to compromise their convictions! We all must decide: Are we going to listen to God or follow the crowd. So, whenever you ever find yourself standing in the place of Pontius Pilate, what will you do? I hope that we will all learn from Pilate’s plight—may we always do what is right, no matter what the cost!
Likewise, many of us sitting here today have been victims of injustice. Perhaps you have been the object of racial prejudice, social discrimination, religious bias, or an unfair labor practice. Maybe you have been misunderstood, misrepresented, or even mistreated. Maybe you have been falsely accused or falsely convicted of something and you are still facing the consequences today. Some things in this broken world just aren’t fair!
If you are ever the victim of injustice, take comfort from the fact that Jesus knows your pain! Remember that he has suffered a greater injustice than any human being, and yet he forgave his offenders! Jesus died on the cross to atone for the injustice in our world.
And some day he will return in all power and glory and will restore justice to the earth once and for all! But until that day comes, may we all do our part!
Allow me to conclude with another allusion from Harper Lee’s classic. The memorable title “To Kill a Mockingbird” comes from a key conversation in the novel, which introduces the metaphor of “mockingbirds” as good, innocent people who are destroyed by evil.
Listen to these powerful lines:
“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
When Pontius Pilate and the chief priests collaborated to kill Jesus, they murdered a mockingbird. As we consider justice in our society, may we all be like Atticus Finch, not Pontius Pilate! Let us pray!