13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” (Luke 23:13–16)
You’ve experienced this kind of thing before, I think – especially in years past. You’re with a group at a restaurant and you make a group order – everyone puts in for what they want. When the bill comes you have to figure out what everybody owes. Usually someone will say, “Aw man, I only do cash…” And sometimes it goes like this: their part of the bill is $17 but they only have $15. And, because you’re nice, you say, “Sure, whatever, it’s just a couple bucks…” You and your friend came to an agreement – it was a part for the whole – you only received partial payment but counted it done; especially because the difference was so little.
Sometimes the calculation is a bit different – it’s about who’s holding the cards. This happened to me, recently, over Spring Break. In the middle of a long drive, we booked an overnight stay at a hotel. At the counter, the clerk told my wife, “I’m really sorry – I know you wanted two queens and a pullout couch – but we’ve put you in a room with just two queens.” now, I probably would have protested, but the clerk’s really holding all the cards… She would have said, “Well that’s fine. But it’s a post-COVID Spring Break and ⅔ of the world’s population has descended upon Goodlettsville, TN, and this is actually the only room we have left – so you can take it, or you can sleep in your minivan…” To which you can really only say, “You know, that room sounds great…”
This happens tonight in our reading. It seems like Pilate’s holding all the cards and the Jews need to accept his offer so they don’t go home empty-handed. Pilate’s determined their charges to be false. Pilate could declare Jesus innocent and let him go immediately, and there would be nothing the Jews could do to overrule his decision. The Jews would be left with nothing but their unfulfilled demands.
But that’s a big statement to make – to deny their request and dissatisfy a crowd in a nation characterized by insurrection. So Pilate offered a part for the whole – beat the prisoner bloody and then release him – hoping they’d accept and walk away partly satisfied. Maybe they’d realize, it was all they were going to get.
As we heard in our Passion reading, Jesus’ death went forward… in part, because the leaders of the Jews were the ones holding the cards. They’d implied that Pilate wasn’t taking seriously the challenge to Caesar’s authority that Jesus represented. They knew that Pilate feared Caesar more than anything else. And they knew how to work a crowd and that Pilate was equally afraid of another riot. They knew they didn’t need to settle for half-measures. They would get their way.
But it’s also because, by now, they wanted their way. They’d dreamed of this and plotted and planned and fallen head over heels in love with a purely evil desire—the murder of an innocent man. Once they’d given themselves over to evil like that, they couldn’t settle for anything less.
Pilate and the Jews are instructive for us. When it comes to dealing with evil and the temptations of the devil, this is a familiar game: a part for the whole. We might figure that if we give in to temptation partially, the temptation will be satisfied and will leave us alone. Or that, like Pilate, we’ll be able to soothe our consciences by doing something “small bad” to avert something really “big bad”. We might even assign a little nobility to our sin, find satisfaction in it, rationalize how much better things are this way…
There’s a destructive logic at work there… First, to justify our sins by saying that they prevented greater sins implies that those were the only two choices we had. The choice to do what is right always exists; often we just pretend it doesn’t. Second, the thought that the devil will settle for half-measures when it comes to your soul is as foolish as thinking that the leaders of the Jews were going to settle for anything less than the destruction of Jesus.
Destruction is Satan’s goal with us. He isn’t content to nibble at you and inflict a few flesh wounds and then walk away. The Bible says he prowls around seeking to devour you. Giving in to the devil—even part of the way—sends a clear message to him: You are willing to compromise. You are willing to give him a part, so he may as well go for the whole.
There’s a significance to this pattern. When we’re willing to offer the devil a part for the whole, it might seem as though we’re dealing with him, but we’re really trying to negotiate with God.
Think of how insulting that is to God. Think of it like the wedding day. I often joke with couples that the wedding day, on the one hand, gets way too much play – marriage isn’t about how perfect your dress or how expensive the banquet plates or if you get your dolphin ice-sculpture. On the other hand, everything that happens in your marriage is connected to that day. Because, at the wedding two people stand together and are asked (among other things), “Will you be faithful to your spouse as long as you both shall live?” It all comes down to that, doesn’t it? Everything’s kind of related to that. Can you imagine if they said, “I will. I promise to be faithful to you—well, except for five days a year.” I mean, you are—mathematically, at least—offering a pretty big part of the whole – 99%. And yet… It’s either all or nothing, isn’t it?
And yet, this we expect God to accept at times, as though we’re the ones holding all the cards! God says, “be holy…” We say, “How about just on Sundays?” God says, “Love me with all your heart.” We say, “I’ve got some space left over here now that I got the really important stuff in place or lemme make this deal with evil first. Then we’ll see.” But God is not satisfied with partial obedience. There is no part for the whole that is satisfactory to God.
When it comes to paying the debt we owe him because of our sins, God will only accept full payment. And what do we have to give? The partial payment that we’ll do better from here on out? What of the mess, the debt we’d leave behind us? And, we won’t likely walk into pure holiness. Very certainly it will be more half-measures, perhaps at a slower rate, but debt just the same. Should God accept this sort of “commitment”, characterized by compromise and half measure?
That sort of foolishness is insulting to God. The psalmist wrote long ago, “No man can…pay his ransom to God. [Not with gold or silver or shiny deeds], for the redemption of his soul is costly,and never can payment suffice.” (49:7-8).
So stop – stop payments, stop working, stop striving to “be okay” with God, with convincing him and yourself of your worth. Tonight – just stop – and look…
What do you do with this Passion reading – this death scene of Jesus of Nazareth? Where it’s obvious the Jews got their way? Pilate held little sway, actually. What do you do? You watch. Watch the one standing there – falsely accused, wrongly abused, unjustly killed. Watch the one who never said, “Heavenly Father, what if I just keep seven of the commandments… or maybe all of them but 70% of the time?” Watch this one, who didn’t bargain with the Father in Gethsemane, “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. And if it’s not possible, how about I drink 70% of it? That’s as far as I’m willing to go. I’ll leave the other 30% for them to drink.” Watch this one who doesn’t say on the cross, “It is 70% finished. You guys need to handle the rest. I’m done.”
Watch how payment of ransom to God is made. Not with gold or silver – but with the shiniest deeds in the history of the world. Here is the one who lived total commitment to God’s will – his whole life. Here is the one who drank the whole cup of God’s wrath exactly because it was God’s will. Here’s the one who paid the whole price, every last bit of punishment God was owed for our sins. Watch him, because you don’t have to worry that someday God is going to come for more from you. God received everything when Jesus paid everything.
What that knowledge and certainty do is make me want to give everything. I don’t want God to have part of my life. I want him to have my workweek. I want him to have my marriage. I want him to have my thought life. I want those things entirely dedicated to him—not in part but in whole. I surrender to him who surrendered all for me.
The leaders of the Jews didn’t understand the concept of fully surrendering themselves to anything other than their evil purposes. Pilate didn’t understand the concept of complete surrender—thought there was no truth, that everything could be negotiated. We, on the other hand, have been watching so that God might instruct us, so that we understand complete surrender. We have seen Jesus give himself—not in part but in whole—for us. God grant us the joy of doing the same for him! Amen.