In the days leading up to Good Friday, Jesus was encountered by two different kinds of mobs that had entirely different responses to him and thereby suffered two different fates. Both mobs were convicted and condemned, but in very different ways.
“This Mob is Cursed” (John 7:49)
There were many people in Israel who were genuinely looking for Christ, who encountered him, and who allowed him to change their lives. In the case of John, chapter 7, the Pharisees had sent some officers to seek Jesus out and retrieve him for questioning. There was already murmuring in Jerusalem about the death penalty, so this was pretty serious business. The officers found him and listened to him teach, “If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink.” What happened in their hearts at that moment, we don’t know. Maybe they recalled their Talmud lessons as young boys, and heard the faint echo of Isaiah 55:1. Maybe they grieved at how off course their lives had gone. What we do know is that the officers returned empty handed to the chief priests and Pharisees.
The officers informed the Jewish leaders that the reason they did not apprehend Jesus was that, “No one has ever spoken like this man.”
We’ve heard this expression before in the Gospels, as when the Samaritan woman encountered Jesus at the well at Sychar, and ran back home to spread the word to her townsfolk “he told me everything about myself” so that they too found him and were able to say along with her, “We have heard him ourselves and we know that he is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
The Pharisees weren’t intrigued by such reports; they were disconcerted, replying to the officers, “Wait, has he lured you in as well?” Seeing their power slipping faster, the Pharisees branded the new converts as a mob, and not just a mob, but an accursed one, convicted, damned. St. John, who is known for framing the declarations of the Jewish leaders in the most ironic ways, relates that the Pharisees said: “This mob that does not know the law, they are condemned” (John 7:49).
And the Mob Shouted, “Take him Away, Crucify Him!” (John 19:15)
The second mob was the one at the trial of Jesus before Pilate, which included the priests and the Pharisees. But we mustn’t let ourselves off the hook here with an “us versus them” mentality, Christians versus Jews. We could just as well be part of this mob.
Salvation history works across space and time. The mob is not defined by race, geography, or historical accident. It is defined by the spiritual state of sinfulness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
The Church has never forgotten that “sinners were the authors and the ministers of all sufferings that the divine Redeemer endured.” Taking into account the fact that our sins affect Christ himself, the Church does not hesitate to impute to Christians the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus (CCC, 598, italics added).
St. Francis of Assisi (Admonitio 5, 3) cuts directly to the heart: “Nor did demons crucify him; it is you who have crucified him and crucify him still, when you delight in your vices and sins.”
The Latin rendering of the trial by mob in John 19:15 is fairly devastating. “This mob [of all sinners!] shouted: take him away (tolle), crucify him!” The verb tolle is the imperative form of “to destroy.” Not just “get him out of our sight,” but crush him completely.
The Fate of the Two Mobs
Both mobs were convicted. The first was convicted in a positive spiritual sense in which the Holy Spirit showed them where they had gone wrong. Jesus promised that “When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). As we said, the Pharisees had ironically boasted that this mob, the converts who opened their hearts, was condemned.
Actually it was the Pharisees’ own mob that would be condemned, and the way this happened, as told by St. John, is quite remarkable.
It is now the day of the trial. There is some subtle staging going on in the Gospel of St. John. Mind you, the translation I am going to introduce in a moment isn’t the most widely used one, but it is doctrinally orthodox and very powerful. I first became aware of this alternative reading while studying many years ago the penetrating scholarship of Fr. Ignace De La Potterie from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome . It is the translation that is rendered in the New Jerusalem Bible.
The great apologist Justin Martyr himself maintained this rendering. You must appreciate that this 2nd century convert to Christianity was himself a highly educated and accomplished Roman official, well versed in Roman legal proceedings. He had carefully read the official records called the Acts of Pontius Pilate. To me, all of this adds to his authority as an interpreter of the next scene. But I warn you, it is a radically different reading.
As we pick up the trial narrative, Pilate has sent Jesus to Herod for sentencing, but to no effect. Pilate has interrogated the LORD, and has found no fault in him. Having exhausted the options within the realm of his power, Pilate brings Jesus out of the Praetorium to meet his accusers and render the final judgment.
Here is how this moment is translated in virtually every Bible. The New American Standard Bible for instance reads:
13 Therefore when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called [in Greek] The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha (John 19:13).
This sounds plausible. Pilate escorts Christ to the pavement, then takes his seat as Governor on the judgment seat – where the judge or magistrate sits overlooking the people – to deliver a ruling.
The Greek verb “to sit” is ἐκάθισον calls for some attention. As Fr. De La Potterie writes with admirable restraint, “there is a problem here.” The Greek ἐκάθισον, like many verbs, can be used either intransitively (taking no object, Pilate sat down) or transitively (taking an object, Pilate sat him down). The way it is used in John 19:13 is syntactically ambiguous. It could mean that Pilate brought Jesus out and sat on the judgment seat, or it could be rendered in a different, more alarming way, the way it is indeed translated in the New Jerusalem Bible:
13 Hearing these words, Pilate had Jesus brought out, and seated him on the chair of judgment at a place called the Pavement, in Hebrew Gabbatha.
Pilate sat Jesus down on the Judgment Seat, above the crowd “on a raised platform”, wearing a purple robe and crown of thorns, not so that he could be judged, but to preside as judge over the mob.
Here, the King of all creation, in the flesh, faced his diminutive accusers, so full of themselves. He is bloody and beaten, maybe even barely conscious. Yet he is positioned in the Judgment Seat. He gives them all the time they need to spew their madness. He has heard it since the beginning of time. We want a home! We want a King! Here was their King straight in front of them, and they rejected him decisively.
The mob screeched: “We have no King but Caesar!”
Here’s what I think about this amazing sequence of events. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches four ways to interpret the meaning of scripture: the literal, analogical, the moral, and anagogical. The fourth level is the interpretation having to do with everlasting life. I interpret the trial of Jesus in the anagogical sense as a clear image of judgment day, in which you yourself have foolishly bruised and bloodied the judge. He faces you without saying a word, you condemn yourself with the choices you have made in your life, first and foremost the decision to reject him.
In any event, it would seem to me that with those words, “We have no King but Caesar,” this mob convicted and condemned itself.
 De La Potterie, I. (1984). The hour of Jesus. The passion and the Resurrection of Jesus according to John. New York: Alba House.
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