5 min. to read.
We’re up to the 27th day of Lent. As a part of my practice this year, I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations that emerge.
Matthew 26:57-68 is the scripture today, the scene of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin.
Today’s scripture presents the scene that follows Jesus’ arrest in the garden. He was taken to the house of the high priest and tried before the Sanhedrin. If you imagine a government body that’s a cross between the Senate and the Supreme Court, only all the members are mega-church pastors and religious studies professors, you’ll have a pretty good sense of the Sanhedrin. They already had an outcome in mind. They were going to convict Jesus of a capital crime so they would have a legal basis to have him killed. That would solve their problem of his growing influence with the people and his teachings that disturbed their position and power. They wanted the trial to look proper. They had false witnesses lined up to give testimony, but the law required two witnesses to agree, and none of them did.
In the end, it was Jesus’ own words that convicted him. The high priest asked if he was “the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus responded, “You have said so, but I tell you, ‘From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.'”
In these words, Jesus referenced scripture most in that room would have been familiar with (Daniel 7:13-14): “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, and all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
That did the trick. Blasphemy was a capital crime, and those words from Jesus were a direct claim of divinity. Jesus said the words himself in front of the Sanhedrin, which meant they could all stand as witnesses. Done and done.
In this moment, the paradox of power shows itself. Who was really in control? The Sanhedrin had all the power. They were the rulers who could make decisions of life and death. They had arrested Jesus and brought him here by force. And yet, with all their resources, they couldn’t convict Jesus. He was only convicted because he chose to give them what they needed. Who was really in control?
Jesus cited an apocalyptic text that portrayed God granting all power and dominion to “one like a son of man,” who had ascended through the clouds from earth to stand before God. He was claiming this power for himself. Yet Jesus didn’t seem to have the kind of power portrayed in that text. Was he out of his mind? From this moment forward, what happens? Jesus is beaten, dragged before Pilate to finalize the death sentence, tortured, and crucified. Either he didn’t have the power he thought he had, or Divine power is about something other than control.
We’re so used to people scrambling for power and control, chasing it through every possible means–Influence, celebrity, wealth, platform, followers, political power, and finally, the ability to leverage violence to get what we want. We want to be in control, to make sure bad things can’t happen to us, to manage the narrative. We want our team in charge. Human history is just a parade of names we remember because of the role they’ve played in the never-ending quest for control.
Even Christians fall into this. Our pursuit of power is worse because we justify it under the banner of doing good, spreading the gospel, and building Christ’s kingdom. Because we consider this the ultimate good, we start to think we can justify any means to get there. In this way, we pervert Christ’s mission and become just one more group trying to take control, building a self-serving empire.
Watching Jesus stand before the Sanhedrin ought to challenge our view of things. The one who has real power in this scene is Jesus. He chooses the path of self-sacrifice. He has the highest possible authority yet doesn’t defend his reputation or provide a shocking rebuttal of his accusers. He doesn’t leverage his popularity calling people to assemble in his defense. He doesn’t use miraculous abilities to prove his identity or stop those attacking him. He does nothing that registers as powerful by human standards. He doesn’t look like he’s in control.
His singular goal is to complete the mission that began in God’s love for the world, and that would provide the final and conclusive demonstration of God’s character. To follow Jesus means more than accepting certain claims about him as truth. It also (and perhaps more importantly) means that we follow in his footsteps.
This may not be very comforting to consider, but the way of Jesus is the path that leads away from the pursuit of control. It’s the path of giving away power. We abandon coercion and manipulation. When put in a position to choose between self-protection and love for others, we choose love for others.
Lent invites us to trade the illusion of control for other-centered co-suffering love. This way is life.