Avenues for a meditation
Jesus has been brought before an ’authority’ who carries moral weight and is able to exert influence on the powers-that-be. He stands before an official representative of the Jewish religion, flanked by his officers and servants. He is under arrest.
Jesus is questioned about two things, his disciples and his teaching, that is to say, the word being spread by a man who appeals to the masses and is building up a loyal following. An alarming thought for an Establishment determined to cling on to its privileges!
Jesus stands his ground, refusing to be cowed into submission by his interrogator. He explains his way of proceeding and how he has taught: he has spoken within everyone’s hearing in places, synagogues and the Temple, frequented by all Jews. The facts of the case are thus clearly set out. Jesus is no impostor; his frame of reference is the Jewish institutions.
Jesus goes further in his ’defence’ by shifting the focus of the questions, which, he suggests to Annas, should be put to the people who have heard him instead of to him, Jesus, in person.
Jesus’ suggestion is interpreted as impertinence to authority. And that is why the trouble starts, because an overzealous officer, apparently considering it an offence to speak in such terms to a religious dignitary, slaps Jesus in the face.
Jesus responds in the first place by asking whether the gesture was called for: ’why do you strike me?’ What, indeed, is the reason? There are two possibilities. Either Jesus has said nothing untrue or insulting, in which case there was no need for the slap. Alternatively, he really has made some mistake or acted improperly, but if that is the case, his mistake should be pointed out! The violence that erupts here is not the right way to settle the difference.
A slap does not in itself invariably constitute inhuman treatment. In this particular instance, and in many situations in which people find themselves today when they have been arrested, it is an outward sign intended to humiliate and convey contempt. It becomes the starting-point of a spiral of violence and torture.
Jesus’ question to the officer who slaps him strikes other chords extending beyond the Gospel story. The words ’why do you strike me?’ echo whenever human beings lay hands on their fellows, humans like themselves. The question can be dissected: why do you, the torturer, strike this prisoner? By what right? What are you trying to achieve? By responding with the question ’why?’, which is also asking ’what for?’, Jesus is appealing to the human conscience and enjoining us to take an attitude of non-violence.
Why do people continue to strike the Jesus in a given individual? Why do Christians too, when they wield power, strike their brothers and sisters in humanity? Why do they thus imitate the executioners of Jesus Christ?
(Scripture reference: John’s Gospel 18, 19-34)