At the end of World War II an international military tribunal was set up at Nuremberg to try the leading members of the Nazi regime, who were charged with crimes against humanity. These were the men who had made the whole of Europe shiver with fright. Yet they weren’t devils incarnate. They were just human beings making evil choices. One observer, on being asked what the accused looked like, replied, “They looked so ordinary, like men who had sat up all night in a third-class railway carriage.” The people who put Christ to death were not a uniquely evil bunch of people, acting from the vilest possible motives. They were ordinary people. They belonged to the same human family as we do. In each we glimpse something of ourselves, of our failings, and the need of grace. This may be a troubling kinship but we cannot reject it. Let us look briefly at the main characters in the Passion Story and the motives out of which they acted.
The Pharisees: These were austere, religious men, who devoted all their energy to doing good and the study of God’s Law. But they were convinced of their own rightness, and history shows that such people are capable of the most appalling evil. Examples: the unconverted Paul; the Crusades; the Inquisition; the torture of suspects by governments, the atrocities of guerrillas…
Caiphas: He was perhaps thinking mainly about religious orthodoxy and how easily people get led astray by false messiahs. The Church condemned heretics to burn at the stake, thinking it was doing a service to God.
Pilate: He was thinking about his high office and the preservation of law and order at a time of great unrest. He knew that Jesus was innocent, but he feared that trouble would ensue if he did not give the religious leaders what they wanted. No doubt he was also thinking about his own job. Most people know what is right, but they don’t always have the courage to do it.
Judas: Most likely he was a disillusioned man. But even he came to recognize and condemn the evil he had done. He could not live with the killing of an innocent man. Plenty of people today seem to have no such problem. Think of executioners, abortionists, terrorists, death squads. At times we all betray our ideals, if not our friends.
Peter: Here we have a man who was simply weak and cowardly. Any one of us would probably have denied Jesus in the same circumstances. Peter at least shed tears over his denials. How many of us shed tears over our denials?
The soldiers: They were simply carrying out orders. The Nazi leaders made the same excuse. At the Nuremberg trials they tried to convince their accusers that they really were men of good character whose only crime was loyalty. We too are rather good at blaming others for our sins. We refuse to accept responsibility for our cowardly acts and evasions.
The crowd: It was a highly emotional occasion. They simply got carried away. They didn’t really know what was happening. Do we not often take refuge in the crowd? ‘Everybody is doing it,’ we protest.
But we must not lose sight of the central character in this sordid story, namely, Jesus himself. He shows us that the only way to overcome evil is by good. He loved us to the point of dying for us.
He will help us to become instruments of truth, justice, peace, and love in the world.