I tried to defend Jesus

My name is Nicodemus. I am a member of the highest council and court of appeal in Israel – the Sanhedrin. As you can well imagine, trying to get seventy strong-minded men to serve together as one governing body can produce some very heated arguments.

I was one of the few who was fully persuaded that Jesus had truly been sent by God to reform his people in radical ways. So, whenever he was in Jerusalem, I not only observed him closely but I also kept a keen eye open for the tactics of his enemies. And I mean enemies. There were many of my colleagues who hated him and wanted him killed.

So, during the autumn holiday week, the Festival of Shelters, I often dropped in at the council chambers, and then got out again and again among the crowds in the Temple courts. When I spoke to his followers at the start of the week they said he wouldn’t be coming from Galilee this time. ‘We tried to urge him to join us,’ they told me, ‘so that he could heal more of the sick and infirmed among the pilgrims; but he answered us, “I’m not ready to attend – my moment hasn’t arrived yet. They are out to get me because I expose the evil in their hearts”.’

I felt relieved, I have to admit. No one would harm his followers if he wasn’t around. But some of my colleagues were hunting for him relentlessly during the first couple of days, asking, ‘Has anyone seen Rabbi Yeshua from Galilee?’ ‘No, he’s back at home base.’ Although they heard that answer enough times, it didn’t solve their problem because, by referring to Jesus, they only triggered off discussions about him among the people.

‘He’s a wonderful man,’ someone would shout out. ‘He’s nothing but a fraud who is deceiving you all,’ they would snarl back. So, folk stopped mentioning his name after a while for fear of being overheard by ‘a spy from on high’.

Then, lo and behold, midway through the week, there he was, as large as life, teaching the people – which put the Jewish leaders on red alert yet again. Even they would marvel among themselves: ‘How does he know so much without any formal religious education?’ Overhearing them, Jesus openly took up their question: God taught me; that’s how. And, if anyone -trained or untrained – is willing to do the will of God he can test my teaching for himself. He’ll know in his heart of hearts that I’m speaking the truth.’

Then he released a broadside: ‘None of you obeys the Law of Moses.’ (It was their constant boast that they kept it literally, and some more.) ‘In fact, you are trying to kill me.’ ‘You’re crazy!’ they barked at him. ‘Your resident demons are telling you a pack of lies. Who’s trying to kill you?’

‘Well,’ he replied, ‘when I healed that paralysed man one Sabbath on my previous visit to the city, you all lost your cool with me, didn’t you. Why were you offended at a work of love by a holy God on his holy day? After all, you yourselves get your baby sons circumcised even if their eighth day of life falls on the most holy of days! Just give a bit of thought to your own inconsistent practices.’

So, yet again he had made them lose face before the crowds. They sloped off, chuntering into their beards that they’d get him for this, while the people started asking one another if Jesus could even be the Messiah. They were evenly split in their opinions on that.

The leading priests immediately sent Temple police to arrest him. I was in HQ when those guards reported back. ‘Why didn’t you bring him in, then?’ ‘Because we’ve never heard anyone talk so much sense and offer such hope – things like: ‘the prophets said, ‘Out of your inmost depths branches of God’s great river of Paradise will flow”‘- after I’ve entered the glory of Paradise myself.” Marvellous promises.’

The chief priests pointed their fingers at those security guards like a volley of arrows and yelled, ‘Have you been taken in by him, too? Not one of us rulers or Pharisees believes in him.’

That’s when I knew I simply had to speak up – cautiously but boldly. I gestured for them to calm down then asked, “Is it legal to convict a man before we’ve given him a full and fair judicial hearing?’ But I might as well have been talking to the wall. ‘Are you from Galilee, too? Go study your Scriptures. No prophets ever come from Galilee.’  (Well, actually, Jonah did, but what was all this to do with the price of eggs?) I could do no more for the moment. I would just have to wait for an official trial and hope to inject some sanity into it.

Next day I was horrified with a scene that erupted while Jesus was teaching in public. The gang of antagonists was back – with a vengeance. They dragged in a young woman in a state of shocked anxiety and dumped her in a heap on the floor at his feet. ‘Teacher,’ they leered; ‘this woman was caught in the very act of adultery.’

Let me say: there are many smells in the Temple – not only roast beef, roast lamb and incense, but also blood, sweat and fresh animal dung. But never such a stench as this! these fellow-leaders of mine had actually set this vulnerable woman up with some charmer and bribed him so that they could spy on them actually indulging in extra-marital sexual activity. They weren’t going to risk what happened when the legendary case of Susana came to court – the woman falsely accused of adultery who was acquitted because the witnesses couldn’t agree on what kind of tree she had supposedly rocked and rolled beneath.

But, I nearly added human vomit to the confusion of the regular Temple smells when I realised they were not going to bring this seduced girl to trial – because they had already released the equally guilty man. Oh no! They were in fact about to put Jesus on trial: ‘Moses said to stone her. So, what do you say?’ As blunt and as brief as that. They were gloating, confident that they had him trapped. Let this prophet of grace demand, ‘Let her go’ and everyone would know he really did despise Moses’ Law, as they themselves were convinced he did. However, if he should say, ‘You must try her, condemn her and stone her to death’, then he would lose all his charismatic appeal with the public who favoured his way of relief from the harsher demands of religion.

I held my breath as I watched what followed. It was pure theatre. No Greek dramatist could have improved on the show that he produced. It was inspired genius! Into that pre-thunderstorm silence he said absolutely nothing. He merely stooped down and, ignoring their question, began to write with his finger in the dust. The Law, I recalled, had been written down by Moses originally – except the Ten Commandments; they were inscribed by the finger of YHWH personally. So, was he hinting that he was the new Moses? Was he even demonstrating that he himself was YHWH, the majestic I AM? I was covered with goose-bumps. I felt like a plucked chicken, stripped of all my robes of office. I was in the dock – all alone!

Although I couldn’t see what words or symbols he was forming on the dusty ground, I imagined it would read like a summary of the essential commandments of the Law:

[] No idols, no blasphemy;

[] No stealing, no lying, no murder, no adultery, no coveting;

[] Love God, honour your parents, love each of your neighbours.

His silence soon got up the noses of the Inquisition: they found their voice again and started to badger him for his answer, like hounds baying for blood. So he sat up tall and announced: ‘All right, go ahead and stone her!’ Their mouths gaped open. They clearly had not expected him to say that in such a bold-as-brass tone. He paused, looked at them one by one, then delivered the punch line; But let those who have never sinned throw the first volley of rocks at her.’ After sweeping their faces with those soul-searching eyes, he bent over once more and continued quietly writing in the dust. This time the silence seemed to convey a post-thunderstorm atmosphere. The eldest in the group shuffled off, head bowed, followed, in eternally slow motion, by every last man of the prosecution.

When the final embarrassed gang member had left the stage, Jesus straightened himself up again. Ignoring the great circle of his statuesque audience, he proceeded to bring the drama to a stunning climax with the simplest piece of dramatic dialogue that even the most inspired Greek script writer would have given his right eye to have written. There was nothing sentimental (‘You poor, misused woman, let me open my arms wide to you’). No histrionics (‘Come back, you cowardly hypocrites’). No oratory (‘And on that final judgment day when God conducts his own assizes . . .’) No! Just a few, short, whispered sentences that brought the play to a successful closure – that allowed all of us to go home to write the conclusion to the woman’s story out of our own imagination, and even for each to complete his own potential, personal story.

‘Where are you accusers?’ he asked the shamefaced woman in a subdued tone of voice. Her eyes had never once left his upside-down writing. Suddenly, lifting her head, she looked around nervously, eyes darting hither and thither in a series of quick nervous jerks . . . in wordless silence.

‘Didn’t even one of them condemn you?’ She surveyed the scene afresh with a more calm and steady gaze as she gradually took in the actual outcome of the trial. Relief spread across her features, and she sighed, ‘No, Lord.’

Ah, not just Rabbi, I observed, but Lord!

‘Neither do I.’ He paused and held her gaze to make sure his words of grace and hope would sink in. ‘Now, off you go, and quit any old habits of sinning.’

Exeunt and final curtain! as they’d say in the theatre.

After she vanished into the greater crowd and resumed her anonymity, the audience began to buzz like swarming bees. Question, question, question: What will she tell her husband? her mother? her neighbours? her priests? Whatever would I say if it had been me?

As I, too, quietly departed, I was sure of one thing. Her testimony about Jesus would be much more effective than my feeble effort had been earlier that day.

Click here to listen to Hugh Thompson read the above as a podcast

Hugh Thompson (July 19, 2002)

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