The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ Chapter 14

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ Chapter 14

‘You say that,’ said Jesus.

‘Did he speak to you in this insolent way?’ Pilate asked Caiaphas.

‘Constantly, sir.’

Pilate told the guards to set Jesus on his feet.

‘I’ll ask you again,’ he said, ‘and I expect some politeness this time. Do you claim to be the king of the Jews?’

Jesus said nothing.

Pilate knocked him down, and said, ‘You hear all these charges they lay against you? You think we’re going to put up with this kind of thing? You think we’re stupid, to allow agitators to go around causing trouble and urging the people to riot, or worse? We’re responsible for keeping the peace here, if you hadn’t noticed. And I will not put up with political disturbance from any direction. I’ll stamp that out at once, make no mistake. Well? What have you got to say, King Jesus?’

Again Jesus said nothing, so Pilate told the guards to beat him. By this time they could hear the shouts of the crowd outside, and both the priests and the Romans feared a riot.

‘What are they shouting about?’ demanded Pilate. ‘Do they want this man released?’

Now there was a custom that at the time of Passover, one prisoner of the people’s choice would be given his freedom; and some of the priests, in order to agitate the crowd and make sure Jesus didn’t escape with his life, had gone among the people urging them to plead for the life of Barabbas.

One of Pilate’s officers said, ‘Not this man, sir. They want you to free Barabbas.’

‘That murderer? Why?’

‘He is popular, sir. You would please them greatly by letting him go.’

Pilate went out on to his balcony and spoke to the crowd.

‘You want Barabbas?’ he said.

They all cried, ‘Yes! Barabbas!’

‘Very well, he can go free. Now clear the courtyard. Go about your business.

He came back into the room, and said, ‘That means there’s a spare cross. You hear that, Jesus?’

‘Sir,’ said Caiaphas, ‘if it would be possible to consider, for example, a sentence of exile-‘

‘Take him away and crucify him,’ said Pilate. ‘Put a sign on the cross saying who he claims to be ?C the king of the Jews. That’ll teach you people to think about rebellion and rioting.’

‘Sir, could the sign read “He says he is king of the Jews?” Just in case, you know-‘

‘I’ve said what I’ve said. Don’t push your luck, Caiaphas.’

‘No, of course not, sir. Thank you, sir.’

‘Take him away then. Flog him first, and then nail him up.’

The Crucifixion

Christ, among the crowd, had wanted to shout ‘No!’ when Pilate asked if they wanted Barabbas freed, but he hadn’t dared; and he felt his failure to do so like yet another blow at his heart. There was not much time now. He searched up and down among the people, looking for the angel, but saw him nowhere, and finally, on seeing a stir by the gates of the governor’s mansion, followed the crowd to see the Roman guards take Jesus to the place of execution.

He didn’t see any of the disciples among the crowd, but there were some women there whom he recognised. One of them was the wife of Zebedee, the mother of James and John, another was the woman from Magdala, of whom Jesus was particularly fond, and the third, to his great surprise, was his own mother. He hung back; he wanted nothing less, at that moment, than for her to see him. He watched from a little way off as they went with the crowd through the city to the place called Golgotha, where criminals were usually crucified.

Two men were already hanging on crosses there, having been convicted of theft. The Roman soldiers knew their business; it was not long before Jesus was hanging in place beside them. Christ remained with the crowd until it began to thin, which it did before very long: once the victim was nailed to the cross there was not much to see until the soldiers broke his legs to hasten his death, which might not happen for many hours.

The disciples had vanished altogether. Christ went in search of the man who was his informant, in order to find out what they intended to do next, but he found that the man had left the house where he was staying, and the host had no idea where he had gone. Of course, there was no sign of the angel, the stranger, and Christ couldn’t ask after him, because he still had no name to call him by.

From time to time, and always reluctantly, he went back to the place of execution, but found no change there. The three women were sitting close by the crosses. Christ took great care not to be seen by any of them.

Late in the afternoon, word got around that the Roman soldiers had decided to hasten the deaths of the three men. Christ hurried to the scene, sick and fearful, to find the crowd so thick he couldn’t see what was happening, but he heard the blows as the last man’s legs were smashed, and the satisfied sigh of the crowd, and a high gasping cry from the victim. Some women began to wail. Christ walked away very carefully, as lightly as he could, trying to make no impression on the earth.

The Burial

One of the members of the Sanhedrin was a man from the town of Arimathea, whose name was Joseph. Despite his membership of the council, he was not one of those who’d condemned Jesus; on the contrary, he admired him and was greatly interested in what he’d had to say about the coming Kingdom. Knowing that the Passover was imminent, he went to Pilate and asked for the body.

‘Why? What’s the hurry?’

‘We would like to bury Jesus decently before the sabbath, sir. It’s our custom.’

‘I’m surprised you bother. The man was nothing but a rabble-rouser. I hope you’ve all learned a lesson. Take him, if you want him.’

Joseph and a colleague from the Sanhedrin called Nicodemus, another sympathiser, took the body down from the cross with some help from the grieving women. They had it carried to a garden nearby, where Joseph had had a tomb made for himself. The tomb was formed like a cave, and the entrance was closed by a stone that rolled in a groove. Joseph and the others wrapped the body of Jesus in a linen cloth, with spices to keep it from corruption, and closed the tomb in time for the sabbath.

There was still no sign of the disciples.

The Stranger in the Garden

Christ spent the next day alone in the room he had rented, alternately praying and weeping and trying to write down what had happened, or as much of it as he knew. He was afraid of more things than he could count. He didn’t feel like eating or drinking, and he couldn’t sleep. The money Caiaphas had given him troubled him more and more, until he thought he would go mad from shame, so he paid the landlord what he owed and gave the rest to the first beggar he saw in the street. Still he felt no better.

When evening fell he went to the garden where Joseph had laid Jesus in the tomb, and sat near the grave among the shadows. Presently he became aware that the stranger was sitting next to him.

‘I have been busy elsewhere,’ said the stranger.

‘Yes,’ said Christ bitterly, ‘going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it.’

‘I know this is hard for you. But I am not Satan. The first part of our work is nearly accomplished.’

‘And where was the ram caught in the thicket? You let me believe that something would happen to prevent the worst. And nothing happened, and the worst came.’

‘You let yourself believe it, and your belief let the great oblation run its course. Thanks to what you did, all kinds of good will come.’

‘So he will rise from the dead?’

‘Undoubtedly.’

‘When?’

‘Always.’

Christ shook his head in irritated bewilderment.

‘Always?’ he said. ‘What does that mean?’

‘It means that the miracle will never be forgotten, its goodness will never be exhausted, its truth will last from generation to generation.’

‘Ah, truth again. Would that be the truth that is different from history?’

‘The truth that irradiates history, in your own beautiful phrase. The truth that waters history as a gardener waters his plants. The truth that lights history as a lantern banishes the shadows.’

‘I don’t think Jesus would have recognised that sort of truth.’

‘Which is precisely why we need you to embody it. You are the missing part of Jesus. Without you, his death will be no more than one among thousands of other public executions. But with you, the way is opened for that light of truth to strike in on the darkness of history; the blessed rain will fall on the parched earth. Jesus and Christ together will be the miracle. So many holy things will flower from this!’

They were speaking very quietly, and the garden itself was quiet. But then Christ heard a low rumble, as of stone rolling on stone.

‘What’s happening?’ he said.

‘The next part of the miracle. Be calm, dear Christ. All shall be well. Jesus wanted a state of things that no human being could have borne for long. People are capable of great things, but only when great circumstances call on them. They can’t live at that pitch all the time, and most circumstances are not great. In daily life people are tempted by comfort and peace; they are a little lazy, a little greedy, a little cowardly, a little lustful, a little vain, a little irritable, a little envious. They are not good for much, but we have to deal with them as they are. Among other things, they’re credulous; so they like mysteries, and they adore miracles. But you know this well; you said this to Jesus some time ago. As usual, you were right, and as usual, he didn’t listen.’

By the tomb, some figures were moving. It was a cloudy night, and the moon, which was just past the full, was hidden; but there was enough light to see three or four figures carrying something heavy between them away from the tomb.

‘What are they doing?’ said Christ.

‘The work of God.’

‘That is Jesus’s body!’

‘Whatever you see, it is necessary.’

‘Are you going to pretend he is risen?’

‘He will be risen.’

‘How? By means of a trick? This is contemptible. Oh, that I fell for this! Oh, I am damned! Oh, my brother! What have I done?’

And he fell down and wept. The stranger laid his hands on Christ’s head.

‘Weep,’ he said, ‘and comfort will come to you.’

Christ remained where he was, and the stranger continued:

‘Now I must tell you about the Holy Spirit. He is the one who will fill the disciples, and in time to come more and more of the faithful, with the conviction of the living Jesus. Jesus could not be with people for ever, but the Holy Spirit can, and will. It was necessary for Jesus to die so that the Spirit could descend to this world, and descend he will, with your help. In the days to come you will see the transforming power of the Spirit. The disciples, those weak and troubled men, will become like lions. What the living Jesus could not do, the dead and risen Jesus will bring about by the power of the Holy Spirit, not only in the disciples but in everyone who hears and believes.’

‘Then why do you need me? If the Spirit is so all-powerful, what help can I possibly give?’

‘The Spirit is inward and invisible. Men and women need a sign that is outward and visible, and then they will believe. You have been scornful lately when I have spoken of truth, dear Christ; you should not be. It will be truth that strikes into their minds and hearts in the ages to come, the truth of God, that comes from beyond time. But it needs a window to be opened so it can shine through into the world of time, and you are that window.’

Christ gathered himself and got to his feet, and said, ‘I understand. I shall play my part. But I do so with a bitter conscience and a heavy heart.’

‘Of course. It’s natural. But you have a great part to play still; when the records of this time and of Jesus’s life are written, your account will be of enormous value. You will be able to determine how these events are remembered right up until the ending of the world. You will-‘

‘Stop, stop. Enough. I want to hear no more for now. I am very tired and unhappy. I shall come back here on the morning after the sabbath, and do whatever I have to do.’