I have a hard time hearing this passage (John 11:47-53) without inserting the deep bass voice of Caiaphas from the 1973 movie: “For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.” (The scene from the 2000 film is also good).
So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
While they are often portrayed as the bad guys, I have sympathy for chief priests. They are, after all, acting for the good of the many. Like the rest of their people, they are under the heel of Roman oppression, and don’t want to see a Roman crackdown. Seventy years later, the Roman crackdown will come anyway. According to Josephus, the Romans will crucify so many people they will run out of wood; every tree within twenty miles will be cut down in the mass executions. The chief priests have good reason to be afraid.
On the other hand, Roman oppression has been pretty good to them. They live in the nicest part of Jerusalem. They have money and social status. They have some extra incentives to throw Jesus under the bus to maintain The System.
Over the last several years, as I’ve gotten more involved with various justice-oriented organizations, I’ve heard this expression quite a bit. To be thrown under the bus means to have a supposed ally or friend act in a way that lets a larger force crush you. Throwing someone under the bus means cooperating with the forces of systemic injustice, to leave someone hanging or standing alone when you should stand by them. It’s a good metaphor for acting in such a way that lets you off the hook for someone else’s misfortune. You can be complicit in injustice simply by standing back, giving a nudge, or actively “throwing” someone under the wheels of injustice.
The chief priests conspire to turn Jesus over to the Romans because systems of power evolve ways to divide and conquer. This is why slave masters appointed some slaves to be overseers. It is why there will never be any lack of anti-feminist women in political leadership, and why racism is rampant among gay white men. There’s a lot more I’d like to say about both the betrayal mindset and the hypersensitivity of activists in justice-seeking organizations, but I’ll leave it for later—mainly because in terms of social hierarchy, I’m a lot closer to the chief priests than I’d like to admit. If Jesus showed up talking about destroying Christianity the way he talked about destroying the temple, plenty of clergy would be happy to see someone else shut him up—permanently.
The irony that John points out is that Caiaphas has no idea of the truth he speaks. He and his privileged few plan to throw Jesus under the Roman bus—and by doing so he will reveal God’s solidarity with those who are scattered and betrayed, who will ultimately bring them together.
Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here:
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