Resource Materials for Preachers on Topics Related to Mass Incarceration
The title we have given to these materials is meant to trip readers up ever so slightly. The premise most preachers take for granted is that they will preach about the evil of mass incarceration to their congregation, and it goes without saying that in most cases the congregants won’t be physically restricted. Most preachers do not preach to “captives” in that sense. Yet the assumption made here is that many of the sincere believers who come to church regularly are nevertheless held captive to some degree to ideas about crime and “criminals” that are part of this culture’s dominant narrative. That narrative insists that we lock a lot of people up in the United States because we have a lot of bad people here. And further, that locking them up has made us significantly safer over the past 40 years.
To use a word that our 16th president used most appropriately in 1862, we must “disenthrall” ourselves in relation to this narrative. White people in particular must look squarely at the hard-to-miss racial dimension within the narrative. And all of us must seriously interrogate the part of us that is content with a system in which we respond to violence and threat with yet more violence and threat: a way of engaging others that is about as far removed from the Jesus way as can be imagined. We must, in theologian Walter Brueggemann’s words, “emancipate our imaginations” in order to participate in the larger emancipatory project.
For each of the 10 preaching texts given here — one a week for 10 weeks in all — we provide some of the biblical context first. Then we invite the preacher to ponder a set of questions. And finally we suggest some possible homiletic directions.
There is no doubt that some of the messages proposed here will be hard for congregants to hear and thus hard as well for preachers to preach. We urge our colleagues in pulpit ministry to pray earnestly for their personal strength and courage, even as we pray earnestly for God to bless and sustain the prophets whom these difficult times require.
Past texts in this series:
- Luke 4:18-19 – Jesus Identifies Himself with Radical Liberation
- Luke 14:24 – Unexpected Guests at God’s Abundant Table
- Luke 15:11-32 – Welcoming the Prodigal’s Return
- John 8: 1-11 – Neither Do I Condemn You
- Mt. 7:1-5 – The Measure You Give Is the Measure You Get
- Mt. 12:1-14 – Higher Laws
- Mt. 18:21-35 Forgiveness Without Limit
- Jeremiah 31:29/Ezekiel 18:2 – No Multi-Generational Curse
- Hosea 6:6/Isaiah 58:6-9 – The “Worship” That Pleases God
Please note that the 10 preaching texts have been developed for use in Christian pulpits. Materials relevant to other faith traditions will be forthcoming.
VIII. Mt. 26:59-60 – The Trial of Jesus: Justice or “Just Us?”
Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, although many false witnesses came forward.
All preachers know that the accounts of the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus vary slightly among the four gospels. They also know, however, that the crucifixion/resurrection narrative was by far the most frequently repeated story told about Jesus when all information about Jesus was still being orally transmitted within the company of believers—i.e., before around 400 BCE when the New Testament as we know it was put into canonical written form.
None of the gospel accounts of Jesus’s end amounts to what we today would call eyewitness testimony, immediately recorded. Each of them reflects the perspective of a distinctive Christian community that was formed later. Each of these communities had its own distinctive take on who Jesus was and what he was about. For this reason, it is especially significant that all four of the different narratives include revealing information about the flawed multiple trials that Jesus was subjected to.
Mark’s gospel, the earliest of the four to be written down according to biblical scholars, has Jesus protesting his innocence upon his arrest in the Garden of Gesthemane (14:48-49). This account goes on to say that while the religious council known as the Sanhedrin was intensely interested in securing false testimony, its various false witnesses could not agree on their accusations (14:59), thus creating a legal impasse. Mark also says that Roman governor Pilate was simply “amazed” when Jesus declined to answer the charges against him (15:5). In Mark, Pilate still protests when the crowd shouts “Crucify him!” This regional representative of Roman justice asks them, “Why? What evil has he done? (v. 15)” But then Pilate, sensing which way the wind is blowing, gives up on justice and passively hands Jesus over to be crucified.
In Luke’s account Pilate asks three separate times (23:22) why this Galilean preacher should die, for “what evil has he done?” In Luke, Pilate is even willing to break with his new-found friend, King Herod, over this matter in order to maintain some semblance of justice. But he eventually gives in to the mob.
In John’s account, Pilate first has Jesus flogged and has a crown of thorns placed on his head but still protests against the bloodthirsty crowd’s demand that Jesus be killed: “I find no case against him” (19:6). Upon interviewing Jesus privately, Pilate becomes still more reluctant to turn Jesus over to the mob and attempts once more to secure his release. But it is all of no use. The fix is in. Week-kneed Pilate will not buck a crowd that intimidates him with these words: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor (19:12).”
Following Mark’s narrative, Matthew’s account stresses how the religious authorities, who first subjected Jesus to trial for blasphemy, sought to use false testimony against him but failed in this attempt. Matthew also includes the significant detail, omitted in the other accounts, that Pilate’s wife was dismayed to see her husband involved in the condemnation to death of an innocent person (27:19). Pilate, of course, washes his hands of the whole affair after finally yielding to what amounts to mob justice.
Questions for the Preacher’s Meditation and Preparation
- How much, if ever, have I previously thought about the state execution of Jesus as a gross miscarriage of justice, even of peremptory Roman justice?
- Even today, what role do I think that simple hatred—ethnic or racially-based hatred—plays in the trials of the accused? (Recall that in John’s gospel, much is made by the accusers and by Pilate of the fact that Jesus is an outsider – a despised Galilean with a “bad” regional accent.)
- To what extent to I perceive that most of those arrested by law enforcement officers in contemporary America have already been “found guilty” by virtue of the contempt that others in society hold them in?
- What role do I think that false or suborned testimony plays in today’s criminal justice trials?
- Related to #4, have I paid much attention to the “snitch” factor that causes some to be condemned harshly while those who snitch get special deals? Do I realize how brutally many prosecutors will play defendants off against one another in order to get convictions?
- At times Jesus doesn’t answer his accusers. And when he does answer, he often says only, “You have said so.” Can I see how the silence of many of today’s accused, many of whom lack adequate legal counsel, is held against them?
- Am I sufficiently conscious of how the account of the baying of the mob before Pilate has reinforced anti-Semitism over the centuries? Will I reference this toxic history in my sermon?
Possible Homiletic Directions
- Take your congregation through a review the whole sordid mess: i.e., the various attempts to entrap Jesus in blasphemies, the fact that his arrest is arranged by a posse of his religious enemies who “try” him before he is brought before a proper trial venue, and the fact that his official judge—Pilate—is finally intimidated and shouted down by the bloodthirsty mob.
- Delve into the false testimony problem in contemporary American justice: the fact that prosecutors will put the screws to some of those they arrest in order to obtain the conviction of others through false testimony in a context in which none of the accused has anything remotely like adequate legal counsel.
- Delve into the “pre-judgment” factor that causes certain people—low-income people of color—to be “found guilty” before or without anything remotely like a fair trial.
- Reflect on the question of who constitutes the angry “Crucify him!” mob in our contemporary context. Discuss how mob anger is still manipulated by powerful forces who actually know that innocent people are being punished. Be sure to reference the toxic anti-Semitic uses of this text.
- Do a lament meditation using as your text the Spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” and then also bring in some of the other angles mentioned above.