13 October, 2021

Caiaphas and the Central Park Five

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by | 1 April, 2021 | 0 comments

In the summer of 2019, between seasons of The Great British Baking Show, my wife and I binge-watched the dramatized miniseries When They See Us. It was a true binge because we started the show at 8:00 on a weeknight right after we put our son down to bed and finished it around 2:00 a.m.

Directed by Ava DuVernay, When They See Us is a four-episode series depicting the events that unfolded surrounding the Central Park jogger case in New York City in 1989 when five Black and Hispanic teenagers were falsely charged with assault and rape of a White woman and convicted for the crime. It follows the story of their arrests, trials, time in prison, and ultimate exoneration in 2002.

The second episode depicts the trials that occurred six months after the initial arrests and coerced confessions. There was no conclusive physical evidence against the defendants. All the testimonies had major discrepancies, and, for a brief moment, it seemed like the trial was going in favor of the five teenagers. But by the end of the episode, the five were found guilty on all counts.

It’s a particularly difficult episode to watch, especially when you’re used to watching lighthearted British television about baking. It’s devastating to see the boys’ faces when they’re found guilty—the shock, the trauma, the disbelief of experiencing such a profound failure of the justice system. (There was no way I could go to bed after seeing that without watching the final two episodes.)

Of course, like anyone who is trying to tell a story, DuVernay took creative liberties when depicting the trials. On the whole, though, the second episode of the miniseries made the viewer feel what it’s like when the justice system fails you, and it’s a feeling that can help us as we explore the Gospel episode when Jesus faced the high priest Caiaphas—one of the people responsible for the greatest failure of justice in history.

No One Names Their Kid Caiaphas

When I read a Gospel, I often reimagine it as if it were a modern-day, binge-worthy show—maybe a docuseries like The Last Dance or a dramatized retelling like When They See Us. The difference, of course, is that with the Gospel, we believe the director (or author) was inspired by the Holy Spirit as he put together his storyboard and edited it into the version we read in our Bibles. In all four Gospels, just before Jesus’ crucifixion, there’s an episode where Jesus was on trial before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin (see Matthew 26:57-65; Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:54, 63-71; John 18:13-14, 19-24, 28).

Caiaphas was the high priest at the time; he served in his role for nearly 18 years (a rather long tenure for a high priest). The priesthood itself was mired in corruption and compromise. The role of high priest, especially, had become a position with a sizable benefits package from living arrangements to salary to influence—one you could keep as long as you remained friendly with Rome. Among other responsibilities, the high priest also was in charge of the intra-Jewish justice system.

Caiaphas’s name probably wouldn’t be remembered except that he was high priest at the time Jesus was at the height of his ministry. Caiaphas was responsible for Jesus’ arrest and for recommending his execution to the Roman governor, Pilate—since, at this point in history, the high priest and his council could merely recommend charges to the Roman authorities under which they lived. The high priest’s actions in this episode are the reason no one names their kid Caiaphas. As Eugene Peterson wrote in The Jesus Way, “The mere mention of the name Caiaphas triggers an avalanche of associations, all of them negative.”

Caiaphas in Our Cultural Moment

In a cultural moment marked by nationwide protests against failures of the justice system, especially as it pertains to race, it’s easy to see how Caiaphas embodied a failed justice system in his own time.

After orchestrating a secretive arrest in a first-century park—an arrest intended to avoid the attention of the public—Caiaphas led a late-night trial with Jesus at the center. Christian commentator Darrell L. Bock said it was not technically a trial but more of a charge-gathering phase. (Caiaphas was the Linda Fairstein of this story; Fairstein’s office oversaw the Central Park jogger case.) As part of the trial, Caiaphas and his council sought “false testimony” (Matthew 26:59, English Standard Version) they could use to build their case against Jesus. In the end, they could find only two people who quoted Jesus out-of-context on his comments about destroying the temple. Then, after a direct interrogation about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus quoted the prophet Daniel in reference to himself, and Caiaphas charged him with “blasphemy” and its corresponding consequence, “death” (Matthew 26:65-66).

Jesus was an innocent man who experienced a failure of the justice system, albeit a failure that was predestined. It’s all very reminiscent of When They See Us.

Now, to humanize Caiaphas a bit, we must remember that the stakes of this case were high. If Jesus wasn’t actually the Messiah and Caiaphas let him go, he’d be complicit in allowing a false Messiah to lead Jews astray and threaten their somewhat stable relationship with Rome at the time. If Jesus was the Messiah and Caiaphas played a role in killing him, the high priest would be in trouble with God. In the end, Caiaphas got this wrong (even though he was unwilling to admit it)—a fact that’s made clear when Jesus was “exonerated” through his resurrection. 

Jesus knows how it feels to be failed by the courts, and not just the “official” ones. Jesus knows how it feels to sit in the defendant’s seat, to be unjustly accused, to have the inconvenient facts ignored for the sake of building a case—what the Central Park teenagers (and many others throughout history) felt when they were convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. Jesus also knows how it feels to be accused by the court of public opinion, since the court he sat under wasn’t a real court by any measure. He knows what it feels like to be mobbed on social media or elsewhere without due process by those who, often in reaction to injustice, end up becoming perpetrators of injustice themselves. Jesus identifies with all of it.

When Jesus and Caiaphas Switch Places

The irony in this episode is hard to miss. Caiaphas was sitting in the judgment seat, but ultimately it is Jesus who sits in the judgment seat. When Jesus said, “But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64, ESV), he was referring to the day when he will return to take judgment into his own hands. In the end, when Jesus and Caiaphas switch places, nail-scarred hands will hold the gavel.

That’s good news for anyone who has ever suffered injustice.

Yes, we should work to right wrongs in this world—without becoming unjust in the process ourselves. We should pursue justice and work to address problematic patterns in the justice system. We should seek to exorcise the ghost of Caiaphas wherever he haunts our own moment.

In the end, though, it’s Jesus who will make all wrongs right—because our best efforts can go only so far.  Jesus will take justice into his own hands on behalf of all those who have experienced injustice, and he will execute it perfectly.

It can be easy to say, “Caiaphas will get what he deserves,” and separate ourselves from his fate. There’s a tendency right now to split the world into two groups: those who perpetrate injustice (represented by Caiaphas) and those who suffer it (represented by Jesus), one being the guilty party and the other being innocent. If that’s how we’re reading this story, we’re reading it wrong. We’re not Jesus in this story, even if there are points in our lives where we have suffered injustice and can identify with Jesus. We’re Caiaphas.

Caiaphas is the figurehead for all of us, all who are complicit in the death of Jesus. We all took part in the greatest failure of justice in history. As Paul wrote, “There is no one righteous [or just], not even one” (Romans 3:10). We all fall into the category of the unjust.

We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, but the good news is that seat is not haunted by the ghost of Caiaphas. We’re all Caiaphas, yes, but Jesus is not. Jesus, the true judge, who had all the charges he could ever need to convict us, gave his life so that through faith people like us could stand before his judgment seat clothed not with our failures but with his righteousness—even people like Caiaphas.

<a href="https://christianstandard.com/author/austingohn/" target="_self">Austin Gohn</a>

Austin Gohn

Austin Gohn serves as lead pastor at Bellevue Christian Church in Pittsburgh. He is the author of A Restless Age: How Saint Augustine Helps You Make Sense of Your Twenties. He has written for The Gospel Coalition, Fathom magazine, and Gospel-Centered Discipleship (gcdiscipleship.com).

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