Murder Mystery in Jerusalem

Given by David Teall
Palm Sunday – 25th March 2018
Mark 11: 1-11

One of the things Pat and I enjoy watching on television is a good Murder Mystery.  One of my current favourites is Death in Paradise, not least because, early in every episode, there is a clear introduction to each of the main characters.  That doesn’t entirely remove the need for me to stop the player every so often to ask Pat who the character is we are now listening to, but it does make it easier for me to follow the plot.

So, on this Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the week in which we re-live the events leading to the death of an innocent man, I thought it might be useful to use the same technique.  Today I would like to introduce you to some of the key individuals and groups in the story, some of whom you may conclude played a part in the death of Jesus.

Today’s Gospel reading introduces us to three of the important individuals and groups that will play a key role as the story unfolds.

First, of course, comes Jesus, the hero of the story.  Jesus is an itinerant preacher from a humble background who has caused a bit of a stir in his home area around Lake Galilee.  He has a gift for healing and he is an outspoken champion of the poor and the oppressed.  He has never been afraid to criticise the religious leaders of the time when he considered they were at fault, which has not made him very popular in some circles.

Next, we hear about the ‘Disciples of Jesus’.  The word ‘disciples’ is used in a variety of different ways in the New Testament, but in this morning’s reading it appears to refer to a specific group of twelve men from a variety of backgrounds who have given up their day jobs to follow Jesus wherever he goes.  Known as ‘The Twelve’, they are all intensely loyal to Jesus – or are they?

Finally, we are introduced to a somewhat nebulous group described first as ‘bystanders’ and later as ‘many people’.  Aficionados of murder-mystery stories will be aware that the person or group that is given the sketchiest introduction often turns out to be a key player, so keep your eyes on this ‘crowd’ as the story progresses.

We shall hear about the remaining characters and groups as the story of Holy Week unfolds at our services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  To help you understand the story, here is a preview of the remaining players.

Some, but by no means all, of the disciples will be named suggesting they might have a more important role than others.  These include Peter, James, John and the keeper of the purse, Judas Iscariot.  Make a mental note each time one of the disciples is mentioned by name and ask yourself why.

Next comes a group that is best described as Jewish Leaders.  This includes some named individuals including Annas to whom, in the Gospel of John, Jesus was taken first after his arrest.

Annas was appointed by the Roman Quirinius as the first High Priest of the newly formed Roman province of Judea in 6 A.D.  He officially served as High Priest for only ten years but, even though he had officially been removed from office, he remained one of the Jew’s most influential political and social individuals, aided greatly by his five sons and his son-in-law Caiaphas who became puppet High Priests.

Caiaphas was no lover of Jesus and is mentioned several times in the Holy Week gospels, so keep an eye open for him.  What is his culpability in the death of Jesus?

Other groups of Jewish Leaders who get a mention include the Chief Priests, a level below the High Priests and the Scribes.  Together with the High Priests, former High Priests, Doctors of the Law and representatives of the most prominent families they formed the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jewish people.  It was the Sanhedrin who condemned Jesus and sent him to Pilate for sentencing.  Do they share collective responsibility for his death?

That brings us on to Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect or Governor of the Roman Province of Judaea responsible to the Emperor Tiberius.  He normally lived in Caesarea-by-the-Sea rather than Jerusalem, the stuffy, crowded, provincial capital of the Jews.  However, as the Passover always resulted in huge crowds descending upon the capital, Pilate had come to the city along with a large contingent of Roman soldiers to help keep the peace.  Indeed, in their book The Last Week, theologians Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan paint a vivid picture of Pilate and his soldiers entering Jerusalem by the main Western gate at the same time as Jesus made his Triumphal entry from the East.

The Roman Governor was the only person with the power to impose the death sentence which is why the Sanhedrin took Jesus to him.  It is not in dispute that Pilate eventually passed the death sentence on Jesus, but does that make him responsible for his death?

Next on my list of characters is Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea which he ruled as a so-called ‘client state’ of the Roman Empire.  We only hear about Herod in the Gospel of Luke who tells us that Pilate referred the case to him on the basis that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore subject to his rule.

Herod makes a half-hearted attempt to interrogate Jesus but soon gives up and sends him back to Pilate.  Could he have saved Jesus if he had behaved differently?  If he could, does that make him culpable?

Finally, I would like to return to one of the groups I mentioned at the beginning – the crowd.  They appear again towards the end of the story when Pilate offers to release Jesus.  “Crucify him, crucify him” they chant.  “Crucify him, crucify him” they persisted when Pilate offered for the third time to have Jesus flogged and then released.  Were they just engaging in a peaceful protest, or were they to blame for the death of Jesus?

Now, I said finally, but because I have been looking at the story as a murder mystery, I have so far missed out a very important group who play a very significant role in the final three days.  This group, often known collectively as The Women, are an unspecified number of female disciples, in the more general sense of that word, who supported Jesus throughout his ministry and often welcomed him into their homes.  Many had followed Jesus to Jerusalem and, whereas most of The Twelve abandoned him after his arrest, rather more of The Women remained by his side through his death, burial, and resurrection.

As with the Disciples, some of The Women are mentioned by name including the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany, identified by John as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  Later, at the foot of the cross we find, amongst others, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, who was possibly the mother of the disciples James and John and, of course, Mary Magdalene.

As the story progresses to Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene is there again, centre stage this time, as the first person to witness the risen Christ and to declare that Jesus had risen from the dead.

So, that does now complete my list of characters, but was I correct in looking at the story of Holy Week as a murder mystery?  Had not Jesus predicted his death and resurrection?  On the Second Sunday of Lent in Mark 8: 31 we heard:

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

In the view of the Gospel portrayed in the rousing modern Resurrection Hymn by Stuart Townend, the events of Holy Week are portrayed as ‘God’s Salvation Plan’.  Doesn’t that change everything?  If God planned it all in advance, then the characters all become puppets in his hands with no will of their own.  Judas, for example, far from being a traitor, becomes one of God’s chief ‘fixers’ helping to make it all happen.  There was no murder and very little mystery; just the carrying out of a pre-determined plan.

Whichever view you take, the events of Holy Week are a very compelling story which we will unfold through our services.  At 8.00pm on Maundy Thursday we shall have a service of Holy Communion at King’s Cliffe and on Good Friday we shall commemorate The Final Hour with a service at Bulwick at 2.00pm.  If you have not attended these services before, and you are able to do so this year, I do encourage you to come.  Without them it is difficult to make sense of the celebrations we shall enjoy at our service on the great Feast of Easter Sunday.

Whether you come to our services or read through the Gospel accounts at home, as you listen to the story unfold, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Which of these individuals or groups do you most readily identify with?
  2. If you take the view that the death of Jesus was brought about by the actions, or inactions, of one or more individuals or groups, who do you feel is the most culpable? Think carefully about this, particularly in relation to your answer to the first question. Your two answers taken together could well prove to be very uncomfortable.
  3. What situations in today’s world do you feel have parallels with what happened in Jerusalem during Holy Week?

The Passion of Christ is not an easy subject to grapple with, so it would be inappropriate for me to end by saying ‘enjoy your week.’  However, I do wish you bon voyage for your journey and I look forward to discussing your conclusions with you on Easter Sunday.