Law in the Balance

This is the last in my series of posts – though there will be a very simple post tomorrow – in which we have looked at the Passion Narrative in St. Mark’s Gospel in the context of broader social and cultural issues. I have tried to do my best to look at this text during Holy Week, the most sacred time of the year for Christians, and take some themes or ideas from it which I believe are worth the consideration of both my Christian and Non-Christian readers. On Monday we looked at the importance of studying symbolism in the creative spheres; on Tuesday we considered what it means to be naked; and yesterday we looked at the role of women in society.

Today we are going to look at something which is very much in the news these days, but then for that matter always seems to be in the news, and that is the rule of law. No, I am not going to discuss the constitutionality of Obamacare, or the HHS mandate.  I will leave that to those Constitutional law scholars who regularly argue before the Supreme Court, and thus actually know what they are talking about, rather than pay any attention to those who simply talk about it on television or in magazine articles.

Instead, my goal today is to make you a bit uncomfortable, if I can.

If we turn to what happened after Jesus’ Crucifixion in St. Mark’s account, which you can read here, we are told that after He had breathed His last on Friday afternoon, there was a very important question to be answered by His Jewish friends: was there time to take His body down and bury it before the Sabbath?

Joseph of Arimathea,
a distinguished member of the council,
who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God,
came and courageously went to Pilate
and asked for the body of Jesus.
Pilate was amazed that he was already dead.
He summoned the centurion
and asked him if Jesus had already died.
And when he learned of it from the centurion,
he gave the body to Joseph.
Having bought a linen cloth, he took him down,
wrapped him in the linen cloth,
and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.

Before we get into a consideration of what Joseph did here, we need to take a step back and look at the issue of the law, for the law is inextricably linked with what St. Mark is describing.

It is hard for me to look at what St. Mark reports without thinking like a lawyer. The legal mind, as my readers are no doubt well-aware, differs somewhat from the rational mind, although it has its own, at times cruel, logic to it. The lawyer works within a closed universe, wherein certain types of proofs which might make a difference in an argument between one friend and another may not even be considered within the context of a legal argument. It is important to understand this, because such an alternate universe has its own rules and ways of working, which do not always correspond to what we may and may not do in our private lives.

While St. Mark tells us what he himself witnessed, or was told later by others, remember that so far as we know, he was not a lawyer.  And as a lawyer, I sometimes find reading the Bible – not just St. Mark’s Gospel – to be frustrating to the part of my brain that has been trained to think as a lawyer.  I know from experience that when I am trying to put together an argument for court, for example, in that universe I need to ask certain questions and obtain certain answers to those questions which may be completely separate from real life in all of its messiness, if I am to convince the court to rule the way I believe it ought to rule.  So even though St. Mark is writing an account of a legal process, he is writing it as a layman would write it, not as a lawyer would write it: he is trying to persuade the reader’s immortal soul, not the mind of a temporal judge.

That being said, keep in mind that Jesus went through proceedings in two separate legal universes, in order for Him to be executed.  He was first condemned by religious authority, and he was subsequently condemned by civil authority. Had He been arrested in a modern, Western legal system He would have had certain protections and rights; if He had been, as someone who knows his way around the appellate system I could cite an almost infinite list of grounds for appeal from His death sentence. Be that as it may, and whatever one thinks of the actions of those such as the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate, He was not simply chased down by a mob and lynched, vigilante-style.

Turning then to a deeper reflection on how the law applies to the events described by St. Mark, one of the things we can all recognize is that Jesus taught His Disciples that people in need come before the law, but the law must still be upheld whenever possible. He was routinely criticized, for example, for healing sick people on the Sabbath, because in the mind of the more literal of the religious leaders of His day, this was working on the Sabbath, which was prohibited by the Mosaic law.  Jesus rejected this interpretation, and took the view that it was more important to act, when you found yourself in a situation where someone needed your help, even if it meant working on the Sabbath.

Similarly, in parables such as the very familiar one of “The Good Samaritan”, Jesus challenged His listeners to consider which was more important: proscribed ritual or another in urgent, life-or-death need? The wounded Jewish traveler on the side of the road is not touched by the observant Jewish leaders, who do not want to become ritually unclean, and thereby become unable to serve God in the Temple. Instead, the traveler is aided by someone whom the Jews considered at best a heretic, and at worst an enemy, a resident from what is today the West Bank.  [N.B. Now THERE is an interesting geographical tidbit to chew on.]

At the same time however, in the Gospels Jesus repeatedly reminds His followers that they must follow the law, whether as promulgated by the religious authorities or by the civil authorities, so long as in so doing they do not lose sight of the big picture. A mistake often made by those on the left is looking at Jesus as some sort of early anarchist, forgetting that He commanded His followers to obey the rulings of the Pharisees on religious matters, and of course rendering unto Caesar what is properly Caesar’s under the civil codes. This fact suggests that one needs to find a way to balance out what is intrinsically good and what is unquestionably legal, what is beneficial and what is permissible.

In the passage quoted above about the actions taken by Joseph of Arimathea, the point is that this member of the Sanhedrin does BOTH. He rushes to provide a last act of compassion toward his friend Jesus, but he does so recognizing that the Mosaic law which he follows gives him a limited amount of time in which to act.  He also recognizes that he cannot simply take the body down, because he is legally required to consult the appropriate civil authority, i.e. Pilate himself, before he can do anything, even if Joseph personally believed that Jesus had been wrongly condemned.

That in itself must have been very difficult to do, as St. Mark observes.  Joseph could conceivably have been arrested by the Romans for seeking to encourage sedition, for example.  Once Pilate’s legal permission was obtained, can imagine that there must have been a flurry of activity on the part of Joseph and those who assisted him, to try to get Jesus buried before nightfall.  Though as it turned out, the fact that they could not complete all of the rituals normally mandated before a Jewish burial is in fact why the women come to the tomb at sunup on Sunday morning, so that they could finish what they and Joseph did not have time to do on Friday evening.

Joseph gives us a good example of the personal courage that anyone, be they Jew, Christian, or nothing in particular, ought to do when it comes to acting out of compassion in balance with legal authority.  The mere existence of a law cannot be an excuse for exercising the so-called “Nuremberg defense”, when it comes to how we treat one another. Just because something is perfectly legal, does not mean that we are excused from helping other people, or that we are free to harm them, when we are put in a legal position to do so.

At the same time, if we do not obey law and order when it acts to provide structure and avoid chaos, then we need to question ourselves as to whether we acting out of compassion for others, or whether we are really acting out of selfishness. A healthy and vibrant civilization is only possible when human beings voluntarily impose certain limits on how we interact with one another.  Yet it only survives if its members recognize that a balancing act, or indeed an outright change if the law proves to be unjust, is sometimes necessary.


“Joseph of Arimathea Seeking Out Pontius Pilate”
by James Tissot (c. 1886-1894)
Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York

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