Is this just part of the story?

Published 7:10 pm Sunday, April 2, 2023

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Two friends of mine have each gone into a fascinating hobby in their retirement years. By the way, they don’t know each other. Both were career musicians. But each has become a movie and television extra. They are in the backgrounds of scenes. Did you know that was a thing?

Makes sense. If you want to film a restaurant scene, you’ll need people at all the other tables. You’ll need waiters and maybe a host or two. These extras have no speaking lines, but must be visible in the room in order for the scene to look and feel right. If you want to film a movie with a Christmas festival, you’ll need cutely dressed people walking about in a festive mood. 

Palm Sunday approaches, and the lectionary’s gospel scripture this year doesn’t involve Jesus on a donkey. The text is Matthew 27: 11-54. There are no palm branches being waved. Instead, this is a survey of what happened from Jesus’ arrest until his crucifixion. There are some interesting characters hanging just on the edges.

Princeton theologian Eric Barreto says that for Matthew, “…these characters are not just pure literary adornment or mere narrative flair. They are not just extras on a movie set meant to decorate the background. Instead, these individuals are purposefully placed to point us to the crucified Christ.”  

Jesus should be the center of the action for us in general. He alone is our Lord and our guide. His words, his actions should instruct and encourage us. 

Yet as we consider this story, Barreto suggests that we’d do well to also notice the quieter figures in the passion stories. Because there are things we can learn from what they do in these hours and days. Mostly cautionary things. But they do warrant our paying attention to the usually unnoticeable.

In today’s reading we see Caiaphas and Pilate. Two powerful figures in their own right, yet for us barely in the spotlight long before their scenes are over. Again, two parallel characters. Their actions differ. Caiaphas will only stop when his desired outcome is met no matter what it takes. 

The other ostensibly takes a pass. One could make the case that Pilate found no fault in Jesus and washed his hands of the matter. He said that he saw no cause to convict Jesus. We like that about him.

We focus so little on Pilate that he comes off as the nicer of the two. In reality, Pilate had the power to have ordered Caiaphas to drop the whole thing. Pilate’s wish to defuse and placate the crowd becomes the factor that overrides his humanity. The convenience of needing to keep the crowd safe and happy becomes his ethic rather than an actual ethic. 

These are both cautionary figures for you and me, because we’ll have our chances, too, to determine what kind of people we’ll be. Mean to a fault? Nice to a fault? Perhaps a healthier way might lie in between.

I’ll make you one bet: Barabbas didn’t wake up that day even allowing himself to hope that he would be pardoned. Of all the outcomes he had let run through his head, that one probably was too much to dream of. 

He had committed crimes of insurrection against the political order. He was a rabble-rouser of the highest order, and the Roman machine had no patience with his sort. He would start to look like a great trade-off if it meant that Jesus got what was coming to him. 

Simon of Cyrene? You know him, right? No, you probably don’t. I don’t either. But he’s standing at exactly the right place at the right time. Or, is part of his story that maybe he was standing at the wrong place at the wrong time? 

Next thing he knows, he’s being pulled out of the crowd and the soldiers were making him carry Jesus’ cross. “I didn’t mean to become a part of it. I didn’t mean to become a part of it…!” he might protest. But he did. No matter his original intent. 

Two criminals were to be executed along with Jesus that day. Who knows what would make two people in the same circumstance behave so differently. One followed suit with the crowd and began to taunt Jesus. The other begged Jesus for mercy.  

Cautionary. Cautionary figures, all of them. Lurking as extras around the very edges of Jesus’ action-packed story. Every one of whom should shape how we view our own lives as Christ-followers. 

Dr. Charles Qualls is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.