In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Hear again a portion of the Passion History, the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, when He is brought before the Council, the Sanhedrin, in the palace of the high priest, to stand trial: “Meanwhile, the chief priests and the whole council were seeking evidence that might make the case for a death sentence, but they could not find any. Many bore false witness against Him, but their statements did not agree.” Witnesses who bore false witness against Jesus. There they are, testifying maliciously, telling bald-faced lies about Jesus. And they’re doing it right in front of “the chief priests and the whole council”! So the chief priests, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the elders of the people heard the evidence—against whom? It was evidence not against Jesus but against the false witnesses.
For what does the Law say? God is abundantly clear in the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” He first gives this Commandment, along with the others, to Moses at Mount Sinai as recorded in Exodus 20. It is repeated, along with the other Commandments, in Deuteronomy 5, when Moses is giving instructions to the children of Israel before his departure from them in death. Then in Deuteronomy 19, further instructions are given about how this Commandment is to be applied and enforced among the children of Israel, as we heard in our First Reading. “A single witness shall not suffice … Only on the evidence of two or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Dt 19:15). The holy Evangelists tell us that “many bore … witness,” and “two stepped forward” to testify on one particular charge. So the Council kept that point of the Law technically. They had more than one witness against Jesus.
But the Evangelists also tell us that “their statements did not agree.” On the two who stepped forward and said, “We heard Him say, ‘I shall destroy this temple … and after three days I shall build another,’” the record says, “But even on this point the evidence did not agree.” There was ample, abundant evidence before the Council that these were false, malicious witnesses.
And these councilors knew full well what the Law according to Deuteronomy 19 required: That both parties, the false witness and the accused, “shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days” (Dt 19:17). So far, it seems they’re adhering to the letter of the Law. But then, “The judges shall inquire diligently” (v. 18a)—and have they done that, their due diligence? Hardly. In fact, the high priest, who is the chief judge in these “legal” proceedings, asked Jesus, “Do You have no answer? What is this evidence they have given against You?” Truthfully, the “evidence” is complete garbage, and the high priest knows it. God required that the judges do to the false witness “as he had meant to do to his brother. So shall you purge the evil from your midst (v. 19). Yet by his words the high priest clearly showed his acceptance of the false testimony as valid. The false witnesses go unpunished by those who had the authority and the duty to uphold the Law. Of course, it was the Council that deliberately sought out evidence against Jesus. Even if the only evidence they could find was false, it would suffice. The fix was in, by the hands of the Council.
Besides the false testimony accepted by the Council, there was the case of false witness with which we may more readily identify personally. Peter had sworn his undying allegiance and loyalty to Jesus. On that first Holy Thursday, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus tells His disciples again of His impending suffering, death, and resurrection—and that they would be scattered.
Peter answered Him, “Though they all fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” Peter said to Him, “Even if I must die with You, I will not deny You!” And all the disciples said the same (Mt 26:33–35).
In the courtyard of the high priest’s palace, as the first trial of Jesus is proceeding, three times Peter is recognized as one of Jesus’ disciples, by three different individuals. Three times Peter denies it, with increasing intensity: “I do not know what you mean.” With an oath, “I do not know the man.” And then calling down curses on himself and swearing, “I do not know the man!” Swearing oaths and curses, all to give the cover of righteousness to his false witness.
And let us not forget the display of righteousness by that other disciple mentioned by name. Judas Iscariot had betrayed Jesus to His enemies, selling Him out for thirty pieces of silver. Seeing Jesus condemned to die, Judas was sorry and tried to return the money to the chief priests and elders saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They answered, “What is that to us? See to it yourself” (Mt 27:4). They knew that the Law required that the one guilty of innocent blood be put to death, as Deuteronomy 19 says, “Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you” (v. 13). So Judas did exactly what he was told to do. If the God-ordained authorities would not punish him, then he would see to it. Judas didn’t have the authority to carry out the sentence he deserved; but, in a display of self-righteous “justice”—arrogating to himself the authority to be judge, jury, and executioner—he performed a self-execution.
The “righteousness” on display in all these proceedings was already pompous: the ruling council has pre-judged an innocent man as guilty and deserving of death; false witnesses not only escape penalty scot-free, their lies are accepted as valid evidence against that innocent man; the high priest tears his robe in sorrow and judgment when he hears the incarnate God “blaspheme” by speaking the truth; one disciple calls down curses on himself to prove the sincerity of his denial, that he never knew Jesus; and the one who betrayed Jesus goes out and hangs himself. Now the chief priests compound their “righteousness” to absurd, even ludicrous, proportions. Taking the thirty pieces of silver, they said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money” (Mt 27:6). It was they and their Council co-conspirators who paid the blood money in order to capture Jesus, to shed His innocent blood, and so it was they who broke God’s holy Law. How touching it is that they worry about the propriety of putting the blood money which they paid into the temple treasury. They must not desecrate the temple.
The quotation at the end of tonight’s Passion Reading, about the thirty pieces of silver being used to buy the potter’s field, is attributed by St. Matthew to Jeremiah the prophet. The quote itself is actually from the prophet Zechariah. There are those scholars who have called this a glaring error on Matthew’s part, and there have been those who gave answers in Matthew’s defense. Those who call it an error are forgetting that God the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to say this; therefore, they effectively reject the divine authorship and authority of these words. Some defenders have explained that Matthew is quoting from a scroll which contained the Book of Zechariah but was headed up by the Book of Jeremiah. That misses the point that Matthew and the Holy Spirit want us to understand. Zechariah said:
Thus said the Lord my God: “Become shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter. … For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of this land, declares the Lord. Behold, I will cause each of them to fall into the hand of his neighbor, and each into the hand of his king, and they shall crush the land, and I will deliver none from their hand.” So I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to be slaughtered by the sheep traders. … Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. Then the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter.
Thirty pieces was the price owed to a master when someone’s animal accidentally killed the master’s servant or slave. Through Zechariah here, the Lord proclaimed His judgment upon the people, that they would be crushed, slaughtered. Zechariah is despised, as shown by his payment, which he derides sarcastically as a “lordly price.” So those who traded for Jesus, paying thirty pieces of silver, likewise showed contempt for the holy, innocent, Lamb of God.
But why does Matthew refer this prophecy to Jeremiah? Zechariah, the source of the actual words, speaks only of God’s judgment and wrath in connection with the silver. Jeremiah also proclaims God’s wrath—“I drove them in My anger and My wrath and in great indignation”—but followed by restoration: “I will bring them back to this place … they shall be My people, and I will be their God. … Fields shall be bought in this land … for I will restore their fortunes, declares the Lord” (Jer 32:37–38, 43–44). Though “the children of Israel and the children of Judah have done nothing but evil in [His] sight from their youth” (v. 30), yet the Lord will have pity on them. Even the “righteous” adherence to the Law, avoiding the desecration of the temple with blood money, is used by the Lord God as a sign of His promise of redemption and restoration, that He would bring His people back to the land He had sworn to them, and they would be His people, and He would be their God.
What have been your thoughts, words, and deeds of righteous lawbreaking? Have you denied knowing your friend to avoid ridicule or worse? Have you denied knowing your Friend Jesus to avoid ridicule or worse? Have you been willing to believe lies in order to make things go your way? Have you sinned against your neighbor, or against your God—or against Jesus, who is both your God and your neighbor—and then desecrated His holy house by walking in here without a thought for confessing your sin? You could go out and weep bitterly in your sorrow, as did Peter. You heard the Word of the Lord regarding Judas’ actions. Do not “go and do likewise”! Come in here, fall down before Him, confess your sin, and hear “Jesus Christ the faithful witness,” who cannot lie. His testimony is verified by two other witnesses: “Him who is and who was and who is to come,” God the Father, and “the seven spirits (or sevenfold Spirit) before His throne,” God the Holy Spirit, and neither can They lie. What they say to you, for all your righteous lawbreaking, for all your sin, because He has freed you from your sins in His blood: “I forgive you all your sins in the name”—the almighty Name, the Name above all names—“of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And what more can you say than “Amen, yes, yes, this is most certainly true!”
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.