Storytelling series A2: Bible tales revisited

2: I tried to defend Jesus (John 19:38 – 20:31)

[] The missing Celebrity . . .

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 men to serve together as one governing body can produce some heated arguments because of the range of strongly held conflicting opinions.

I was one the few who were fully convinced that Jesus had truly been commissioned by God to reform his people in radical ways. So, whenever he was in Jerusalem I not only observed  him closely, but 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 by each day 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 up from Galilee. ‘We tried to urge him to join us so that he could heal the sick and infirmed among rhe pilgrims,’ they told me, ‘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. They would be safe enough – no one would bother his followers if he was not around, of course. And, believe me, some of our lot were hunting for him relentlessly during those first few days, asking: ‘Has anyone seen Rabbi Yeshua from Galilee?’ ‘No, he’s back at home.’ Although they heard that said enough times it didn’t set their minds at rest, because referring to Jesus only triggered off discussion about him among the people.

‘He’s a wonderful man,’ someone would shout out. ‘He’s nothing but a frau who is decieving 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’.

[] . . . appears unexpectedly

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. ‘How does he know so much when he has never had any formal religious education?’ they’d marvel among themselves. Overhearing them, Jesus openly took up their question: ‘God taught ,me, that’s why. And, if anyone – trained or untrained – is willing to do the will of God, he can test my teaching for himself. He’ll know me in his own 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?’

‘When I healed that paralysed man one Sabbath on my last visit to the city, you all lost your cool, didn’t you?  Why were you so offended at a work of love by a holy God on his holy day? After all, you yourselves get your baby son circumcised even if his eighth day of life falls on the most holy of days! Just give a bit of thought to your own 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 opinios on that.

The leading priests immediately sent temple police to arrest him. I was in H.Q. when those guards reported back. ‘Why didn’t you bring him in, then?’ ‘Because we’ve never heard anyone talk so much sense, offer such hope. “The thirsty can drink of God’s living water till they overflow, if they come to me.” The Prophet 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 officers like a volley of arrows and yelled: ‘Have you been taken in by him too> Not one of us rulers or Pharisees believe in him.’

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

[] So, who’s really on trial?

Next day I was horrified with a scenario 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 of roast beef, roast lamb, and fragrant burning of incense, but also of 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 in the famous case of Susana, the woman falsely accused of adultery who was acquitted because the witnesses couldn’t agree on what kind of tree she supposedly rocked and rolled beneath (See John 8:1-11).

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 – having released the equally guilty fellow. Oh no! They were in fact about to put Jesus on trial. ‘Moses said to stone her. So, what do you say?’ They were gloating, confident that they had him trapped. Would this prophet of grace say, ‘Let her go’? In which case he certainly did despise the Law, as they were convinced he did. But if he said, ‘You’ll have to try her, condemn her and stone her to death’, then the public who favoured his way of relief from the harsher demand of religion would show contempt for the Law.

[] It was pure theatre

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 nothing. He merely stooped down and, ignoring their question, began to write with his finger in the dust. The Law, I recalled, was written down by Moses originally – except the Ten Commandments; they were inscribed by the finger of YHWH personally. So, was he indicating that he was the new Moses? Was he even demonstrating that her 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 – alone! Although I couldn’t see what words he formed on the dusty ground, I imagined it would read like a summary of the essentials of the Law: no idols, no blasphemy; no lying, no adultery, no covetousness; love God, honour your parents, love each of your neighbours . . .

His silence was getting to the Inquisition; they found their voices again and they started badgering him for his answer like hound 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 he.’ 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 embarrasses gang member had left the stage, Jesus straightened himself up again – ignored the great circle of his statuesque audience and proceeded to bring the drama to a stunning climax with the simplest piece of dramatic dialogue that the most inspired Greek script-writer would have given his right eye to have written. There was nothing sentimental {‘You poor, misused woman’). No histrionics (‘Come back you cowardly hypocrites’). No oratory (And on that final day when God conducts his cosmic assizes’). Just a few short whispered sentences that brought the play to a successful closure – and left us all to go home and write our own conclusion to her story – even to compete our own individual stories.

[] The case is dropped

‘Where are your accusers?’ he asked the shamefaced woman in a subdued tone of voice. Her eyes had never left his upside-down writings. 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 morecalm and steady gaze as she gradually took in the actual outcome of her trial. Relief spread across her features, and she gasped, ‘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 goo, and quit any old habits of sinning.’

Exeunt and 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. Questions, questions, questions: ‘Whatever will she tell her husband? . . . her mother? . . . her priest? . . . her neighbours? . . . Whatever would I say if it were 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.

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