Dear Sisters and Brothers,
In the ancient world cities closed for night more than they do today. Today, you can go out at any time of night and find a place to buy food or call for medical attention. With the internet, the time of day means less than it ever did before. In cities like Jerusalem, shops closed before sunset and would not open again until hours after sunrise. There were no streetlamps, and keeping rooms lit was both expensive and ineffective. Only on nights with a nearly full moon, allowed for outdoor activity other than watchmen and gatekeepers with their fires, lamps, and torches.
Since Passover was always timed for the full moon in the Hebrew month of “Nisan,” we know that the events of Maundy Thursday happened on a well-lit night. Chapter 14 of Mark continues through the same moonlit night that led from the last supper to the arrest of Jesus. Shortly after the arrest, long after most of Jerusalem was sound asleep, Jesus was taken to an odd meeting in the home of the high priest. It is a makeshift trial that is happening at this late hour to avoid notice.
They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, the elders and the teachers of the law came together. Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.
The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.
Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’” Yet even then their testimony did not agree.
Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
This trial did not go as planned. Witnesses were brought forth with honest and dishonest claims about Jesus, but their stories didn’t add up into a sensible picture. He was falsely accused of saying that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it. Some of the elders wanted proof of the charges. Any charge this gathering of religious leaders could do was some variation on heresy or blasphemy. Some people were finding it hard to agree that Jesus had done anything so wrong.
But then the high priest and asks Jesus if he is the messiah, and the son of God. Jesus replies by saying that he is the messiah and the “Son of Man,” the judge of humanity foretold by Isaiah. And he tells them that they will see him sitting at the right hand of God, coming from heaven.
Assuming that he is either power-mad or crazy, it is all the proof they need to condemn him. They may have even taken offense at his use of the words “I am” (which in one Hebrew phrasing is the name of God).
The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”
They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” And the guards took him and beat him.
The priests and the guards unleashed their anger and violence upon the Messiah. There is a terrible quality of human nature that comes out when people feel justified in being cruel. They began to treat him with an evil glee that has been seen in every era of history. Anyone who feels justified and righteous as they inflict pain and injury become something sub-human: This behavior is where we get most of our ideas of demons (from our own vicious spite).
This is Jesus, refusing to perform a miracle that could save him. The last miracles Jesus performed were the healing of blind Bartimaeus before he came into Jerusalem and the cursing of the fig tree outside of the city walls. He had even chosen words to say that would turn the court against him, by speaking specific claims needed to condemn someone for blasphemy. In previous days he had clearly evaded direct answers, but now he gave his captors what they need to condemn him. He did not give them any proof that he was the messiah.
Since people had been waiting for the messiah for almost a thousand years, they assumed the messiah might never come. They would not have imagined that the messiah would be such a common man as Jesus. He might have been believable to them as a humble prophet, but he was nothing like the mythical king they imagined. Jesus had the bravery and intelligence of King David, but he was not a man of war.
The story turns to Peter, in the courtyard of the house. Peter had run off like the others, but loyalty or curiosity had drawn him to be near Jesus. Peter is overwhelmed and afraid.
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.
“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.
But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.
When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” Again he denied it.
After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”
He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”
Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
Inside the house, Jesus remains strong and resolute through taunting and severe physical abuse, but Peter is nearly destroyed by his own guilt for disowning Jesus. At this point, the two people who have betrayed Jesus the most are Judas and Simon Peter. By “calling down curses and swearing to the crowd,” Peter had committed the extreme sin of using God’s name in vain to disown God’s son. If you asked Peter to compare himself to Judas as he walked away in tears, he would have judged himself a worse villain than Judas.
It is a remarkable thing to remember that the Gospel of Mark was written by Peter’s student and scribe. In telling this story through Mark, Peter is confessing to a sin of betrayal that would have been thought worse than murder. Rather than laying down his life to save his friend and teacher, Peter had disowned the Messiah to save his own skin. This confession is remarkable and shows Peter’s later strength of character. More than that, it shows that the worst sin can be forgiven.
Question to Ponder: Peter was so distraught that he might have considered killing himself or holding onto self-hatred forever. He would not go to stand with Jesus’ most loyal friends at the crucifixion. What do you think made it possible for Peter to live with himself all the way to Easter morning?