Column: Son of God cannot be reduced to wise teacher

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

As we continue our walk through the Passion, we come to the trial — actually trials — of Jesus. The first trial is before the Jewish Sanhedrin. After Jesus is apprehended, he is brought before the Jewish religious authorities — the Sanhedrin. It was composed of 71 members selected from the chief priests, the elders of the four high priestly families, and the scribes — professional lawyers who were predominantly Pharisees.

The Sanhedrin was the Supreme Court of the Jews. It had authority over both religious and secular matters. The Sanhedrin was presided over by the high priest.

In the provinces, the Roman manner of governance allowed for native law to remain in force, with some restrictions, and permitted its enforcement by native officers. One of the restrictions, however, for the local law enforcement was that they could not sentence an individual to death.

This was a trial where the judgment was predetermined. In John’s account, we are told that Caiaphas, the high priest, was already on record having counseled the Jewish leaders that “it was better that one man should die rather than the people” (Jn 18: 14).

The Sanhedrin was not looking for the truth, but to find evidence or, if necessary, to manufacture evidence to support its predetermined conclusion. Mark’s Gospel describes the scene in this way: “The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin kept trying to obtain testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they found none. Many gave false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree” (Mk 14: 55-56).

Once the trial begins, Jesus remains incredibly serene as contrasted with his prayerful anguish in Gethsemane. For the most part, Jesus does not respond to the charges made against him. However, when he does speak, Jesus does not compromise the truth about his identity, even though he knows this will be used against him.

In St. John’s account, when Jesus is questioned by Annas, one of the chief priests and the father-in-law of Caiaphas, he responds: “‘I have spoken publicly to the world. I have always taught in a synagogue or in the temple area where all the Jews gather, and in secret I have said nothing. Why ask me? Ask those who heard me what I said to them. They know what I said.’ When he had said this, one of the temple guards standing there struck Jesus and said, ‘Is this the way you answer the high priest?’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’” (Jn 18: 20-23)

Without ever really getting the testimony to agree, eventually the high priest, as a sign of indignation, tears his robes and declares that Jesus has blasphemed: “He (Jesus) deserves to die!” Then they spat in his face and struck him, while some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy for us, Messiah: who is it that struck you?” (Mt 26: 66-68). Then, they led him off to Pilate, who had the authority to issue a sentence for capital punishment.

It is easy for us to wonder: How could the high priest and the Sanhedrin have gotten it so wrong? How could they have been so cruel? In part, the answer to these questions is that they took seriously the claims made by Jesus of his unique relationship to the Father. They understood that if Jesus’ claim to divinity was true that this changed everything.

In recent years, there are many who wish to reduce Jesus to a very good man and wise teacher. They prefer to ignore the claims of Jesus to be the Son of God. In his book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Pope Benedict refers frequently to Rabbi Jacob Neusner’s book, “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.”

Rabbi Neusner is attracted to Jesus. He appreciates Jesus’ mastery of the Jewish Scriptures and the wisdom of his teaching. However, in the end, he must reject Jesus because of whom Jesus claims to be. Rabbi Neusner believes that to accept the claims of divinity by Jesus is in effect to reject monotheism — the core of Jewish theology.

As we meditate on the Passion, it challenges us to ask ourselves: How seriously do I take Jesus and who he claims to be? The “modern” approach, to accept Jesus as a wise moral teacher, simply makes no sense. If Jesus is not the Son of God, then he made insane claims.

The chief priest and the Sanhedrin were correct in taking the claims of Jesus seriously. They erred in refusing to accept the truth that the God of Israel was revealing in his Word made Flesh. Jesus revealed that the one God can only be understood as a community of persons — the Trinity. It is only with this revelation that we understand that, indeed, God is love.

The Sanhedrin’s blindness to the goodness of God, revealed in Jesus, would be an instrument used by God to show the depth of his love for humanity. It was not enough for God to take our flesh, but he was willing to suffer the hatred and cruelty of our sin-fractured humanity in order to demonstrate the depth of his love for us.

Being a Christian is not about accepting the wisdom of some of the teachings of Jesus. It is about accepting Jesus for who he is, both God and man. Being a Christian is about a relationship with the Son of God, who desires to transform us with his mercy and love and share with us the gift of his life — eternal life.

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