Homily for Good Friday April 15, 2022

   The Price of Defending Truth and Justice

I recently read a commentary on today’s gospel reading, the Passion of Jesus according to St. John. One of the details fascinated me. It says in the gospel that Judas came with a detachment of soldiers, along with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees. The commentary points out that the Greek word “speira” refers to a detachment of soldiers, and it can mean 600 soldiers, or a cohort of auxiliary soldiers numbering 1,000 men, or more rarely it can mean a smaller group of 200 men.


I find it hard to imagine this large group amassed by the authorities to come out against the Prince of Peace, who taught that we should try to love everyone, including our enemies. The point made by the commentary, however, is that the authorities were taking Jesus very seriously. It wasn’t the case of a beat cop arresting a homeless person on a charge of vagrancy. Jesus was taken as a threat because much of his teaching threatened the established order, and it made people in power uncomfortable. Jesus said things like “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Or consider one of the lines that Mary says in the Magnificat found in the Gospel of Luke: God has pulled down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. And when you think about it, by means of his teaching and his tendency toward inclusiveness, Jesus did raise up the lowly. The Apostles weren’t Rhodes scholars. The crowds who followed him included public sinners, lepers, tax collectors, foreigners, and those from the lower classes. But there were also some learned individuals who were mesmerized by Jesus’ teaching, and some influential people were following him from a distance. And when the crowds created a triumphal parade, calling Jesus the Son of David, putting their cloaks on the ground for his donkey to march on, waving palms and proclaiming him a king, well no wonder the authorities got nervous. And then, he goes to the Temple area, and crashes into the money changers tables, calling those who administered the Temple sacrifices thieves who were robbing from the poor. Well, the religious establishment wasn’t too happy about that! The point of all this: Jesus wasn’t condemned to death because he was handing out holy cards or selling incense. He was questioning the poverty, the racial injustice, the corruption of both the political and religious authorities, and championing the cause of those at the bottom. In other words he was questioning the social order, threatening the sense of peace that the Romans demanded, and making dictators and kings uncomfortable.


You can see a parallel to this in the war started by Mr. Putin. If anyone opposes him, that person is put in jail. For leading opponents, there is death by poisoning, even outside of Russia. Dictators do not like their established order to be questioned.


But it’s not just the case in obvious places like Russia. Even here, if we feed the poor, for example, then we are seen as compassionate Christians. But if we ask why there are poor people, or if there is something wrong with the system, then we are often seen as crossing the line between church and state. In the Bible there were individuals that were called by God to speak the truth to those in power. Moses did it to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Prophets like Jeremiah were persecuted because they spoke out against injustice. And Jesus dared to take the side of the poor and defenseless who had no one to speak up for them. And that made the Caesars and the dictators nervous, and so they put him to death.


We are reminded today that there is such a thing as truth. There is such a thing as justice. People are still being treated unfairly, and persecuted, and killed if they get in the way. Good Friday reminds us that truth and justice often come at a price, and that we are called to stand for truth and justice when they are being trampled upon.