Monday, April 11, 2022

HOW I GOT EARS TO HEAR: (Malchus’ Account of Jesus’s Arrest [Luke 22:50-51; John 18:10-12])

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You have to understand that I didn’t get involved in any of this by choice.  Not at all!  I’d been working for the high priests all my life, so when they said, “Do something!” I did it.  These high priests were not easy to get along with.  Neither of them, since there were two of them!  So, we did what they told us to.  We had essentially two masters!

There was Caiaphas – he was currently in charge.  And there was also his father-in-law, Annas, who was also calling the shots.

See, Annas had been high priest for about nine years.  And he had five sons hankering for the job.  Before and after the events I’m going to tell you about, one right after another of them got elevated to the post. 

Right at this moment, son-in-law Caiaphas was riding the donkey of power, so as to say, but it was certainly a precarious ride, because Rome decided who was in the saddle and kept unseating them one right after another.

Sure, they were all related, but these were really ambitious people, and, as soon as one tumbled off, another was trying to hop on.  The point, I guess, was to keep the job in their house, so everybody was nervous, ergo (as the Romans would say), hard to get along with. 

But I should say in these high priests’ defense, they were under a phenomenal amount of pressure.

You see, they had the people to contend with.  Nobody was lining up like docile lambs in their pen.  People were watching their every move and a complaint to the governor was all it took to change riders.  So, they had to be careful.

Father-in-law Annas certainly understood that fact, because he’d had it happen to him.  After nine years in power, Annas was deposed by Governor Valerious Gratus.  Now this happened 18 years ago, but Annas didn’t retire to a home in the countryside, boring his grandchildren with increasingly embellished stories about when he was high priest.  Not at all!  He was still very much a player and he knew it was all about biding your time.

His replacement, Ishmael – a priest appropriately named after Abraham’s son who didn’t get to father the Jews (!) – lasted only about a heartbeat, and, when Rome knocked him out of the saddle, Annas got the Governor to pop his son Eleazar up there.  How’s that for a smooth move?  But Eleazar only lasted a year and Rome had another rider ready to go: Simon son of Camithus.  The bronco of power tossed him off in less than a year and, with apparently no more currently eligible sons, Annas helped his son-in-law Caiaphas to mount up onto the office.  Obviously, it pays to stick around.  No wonder they were all testy people, with the Romans changing them all nearly yearly like a bunch of soiled togas!

And, then, of course, there were also the Pharisees to contend with.  These weren’t just ordinary laypeople.  Not at all, most of them were powerful merchants and very influential, and all of them dismissed the Sadducees who ran the Temple as heretics for not believing in the resurrection of the dead, so no looking there for support.

Caiaphas wasn’t too popular with the Zealots, either.  They were disgusted with the current high priestly office, since the Roman governor hired and fired whoever held it, so that put both Caiaphas and his father-in-law Annas before him under suspicion as fraternizers with the enemy. 

And while all that hostility was being levied at him, Caiaphas wasn’t about to be invited for lunch over at the Qumran community, either.  In fact, the Essenes labeled Caiaphas the “Wicked Priest,” condemning him as a Roman puppet. 

So, you can see, his rating polls were buried in the basement.  His popularity base was essentially his own party – the Sadducees, who had a death grip on the Temple administration.

As a result, anything Caiaphas wanted done, he had to do by making some kind of alliance with the Pharisees, while winning over the people, and keeping the Roman overlords at bay.  And that’s a big order of figs, as they say! 

So, when the high priest is under pressure, who do you think he displaces all this on?  Huh?  That’s right.  Take it out on the servants!

And everybody thinks I got such a cushy job. Everybody’s looking at me like – “So, you’re working in the Temple, are you?  No breaking your back there!  Nothing to lug around except all that money – and I’ll bet the priests don’t ever let you slaves get your hands on that.  You don’t have to dig anything – so you don’t get dirty.  The Temple guard takes care of any trouble.  So, what do you really do with your time?  Hide out in the back with the lots – gambling?  I’ll bet that’s it!”

Yeah?  Well, that’s not it!  We get plenty of our share of nasty jobs – we servants reinforce the Temple guard, for one thing – and that’s what happened that particular Passover.

Now, the chief focus of concern that season, according to my master-in-power, was Jesus, that troublemaker from Galilee.  Hardly anything else camped out on Caiaphas’s lips! Like everybody else, Jesus was here in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, but, unlike everybody else – he wasn’t fitting in, taking orders, buying his sacrifice at the Temple, delivering it to the priests, getting his lamb dinner, and staying in line like he was supposed to. No, instead, he was making a huge show – from the moment he arrived.  And what an entrance!

We were shocked.  Here he comes riding through the streets.  The people are all thronging about  him – waving palms – whatever they could get their hands on – all of them chanting, “Hosanna!” which is a shout of adoration that’s supposed to be given only to God(!),  and “Blessed be the one coming in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!”[1]   And lots of praises like that, quoting Scripture and calling him the Son of David (meaning the rightful heir to Herod’s throne) and “Hosanna in the highest” – and all sorts of inflammatory shoutings like that.[2] Talk about not fitting in!

Of course, the high priests were all astonished!  And they were ringing their hands, imagining how that was going to go down with King Agrippa – not to mention the Roman Governor!

And, that’s not all.  This whole melee had started almost a week before in Bethany when he raised a guy from the dead named Lazarus.  I’m not kidding! 

All week long the people had been flocking down to Bethany to see Jesus and Lazarus, this man he’d raised.  And now that burgeoning throng, along with all of Jesus’ many disciples – some of whom themselves had been doing miracles! - were all moving in a great army down the road to meet the crowds who were filling the streets in Jerusalem, hoping to catch a glimpse of this marvelous prophet who could raise the dead!

Caiaphas was telling all his supporters he wanted to go out and bust Jesus on the spot, but it was clear to him that, if he laid a hand on this man, the people would riot.[3]

At the same time, Caiaphas realized the Pharisees were also beside themselves, wringing their hands over Jesus’ miracles and lamenting that, if somebody did not stop him, the people would elevate Jesus to power and Rome would descend on them and take the nation away from them completely.  [4]

This, of course, was the break Caiaphas needed.  It was time for a good dose of Temple politics and statesmanship! 

Together with the worried Pharisees, he and Annas called a meeting of the ruling body of elders, the Sanhedrin, which, among other things, was our highest court in the land. 

That’s when Caiaphas, as high priest, completely took over the whole proceedings.  “You don’t know anything,” he lectured them.  “Don’t you realize that it would be advantageous to you if one man died on behalf of the rest and not the whole nation being destroyed?”  

Good Temple language that – it’s the language of sacrifice:  Make an offering and spare the nation.  They’d been making offerings to spare themselves and their loved ones all their lives, so he had them completely tucked away in his money bag with that argument.

And, if that wasn’t enough, Jesus plays right into the high priests’ hands!   The first thing Jesus does is he goes right into the Temple, itself - of all places(!) – right where his worst enemies are gathered.  And accompanying him was his mob all shouting his praises!  And true to form he turns over the merchants’ tables and drives all of them and their animals for sale out in a great pandemonium – just like he’d done before.[5]

And when we confront him and tell him to shut these people up – what does he do? – he quotes Scripture at us – a passage from Psalm 8 – and one I might add that exclusively refers to praising God. 

Caiaphas and all of us were non-plussed.  But we couldn’t put a hand on him, because of the people! And that’s when our other great break took place. 

Apparently, we weren’t the only ones Jesus alienated – because that night, here comes this inner circle disciple of his, smarming around, suggesting he could sell him out.

Can you imagine that?  Here’s a guy who just watched Jesus raise someone from the dead and, while the whole world is praising his leader, he’s ready to make a deal for him like he was a Scythian slave.  It was disgusting.

Caiaphas obviously despised him, as one would all traitors.  But, he could have kissed him as well.  This was the final break he needed – and that’s when he summoned me to do one of the nastiest jobs I’d ever been assigned.

But, I wasn’t surprised.  All day Caiaphas had been particularly agitated.  I suspect he knew that he was operating without the proper authority.  He hadn’t let King Herod in on his plans, and the touchy Pilate didn’t know the full extent of them, so everything had to be done swiftly under cover of darkness.

When I arrived at the Temple armory, I discovered he and Annas had recruited the help of that cohort of Roman soldiers that was on guard at nearby Fort Antonia expressly to keep the people contained during Passover, which, of course, is a favorite time with the Zealots to cause some trouble in order to stir up the people to revolt.  It was also an understandable move for the high priests to ask for help, since the Temple guard had already failed to arrest Jesus.  And it put Pilate, the peevish Roman Procurator, on alert that something was up.

Well, something was certainly up, since they and soon all of us servants were armed to the death.  I remember the whole thing vividly.  And how could I not, in light of what was to happen to me, as you will see? 

A high wind had been blowing all that week – as if there were portents in the air.  But that night it was suddenly deathly still and very cold.  It was a forbidding night for any venture.  No wonder we were all uneasy.

The traitor, Judas, was next to the commander and wouldn’t meet any of our eyes, but kept looking down, and around, and anywhere but straight at us. Then the commander barked out a few curt orders and we moved out.

Deep into the night, we slipped from the Temple so as not to attract too much attention.  But the Paschal full moon loomed like an accusation over us, pointing out clearly all we meant to do.  We sought out the shadows with the minimum of torch light burning.  We’d ignite the large wooden torches when we were nearing the point of combat.

As you know, the Temple itself is in the far right hand corner of Jerusalem, so you can step right out of the Temple through the Eastern Gate in its wall and down along the little Blackwater Gorge that the Greeks call the Kidron or the Valley of Cedars that runs between the end of the western slope of the Mount of Olives and the sacred city itself.  Sometimes it has water, but that night it was dry.

Our target was a little farm on the other side of the gorge, a working orchard called Gethsemane, that is the “Oil Vat,” for that’s where the traitor revealed Jesus and his ring had been camping out.[6] 

So that’s how we crept up on them: we slipped out of the gate, sneaked quietly across the valley, and onto the slope, taking cover in the olive trees, then on signal we lit the torches and charged up the hill into the Garden of Gethsemane and surprised them all.

The eleven disciples were sprawled all over the place and Jesus was trying to wake them up, when in glides Judas with all of us and we sweep all around them and have them all hemmed in.

Immediately, that despicable lizard Judas steps up and says, “Greetings, Rabbi,” and kisses[7] his hand, like any faithful disciple would.

Jesus looks at him so sadly that it made my heart sink and murmurs, “Judas, with a kiss you’re handing over Humanity’s Son?” (Luke 22:48)

Judas just works on his unctuous, ingratiating smile and Jesus shakes his head slightly and then pauses and begins to nod, like this is all making sense to him, and simply says, “Friend, do what you intend to do.”

While the disciples, of course, are fumbling around trying to rouse each other up, Jesus just looks at us like he was expecting us to come all this time and asks, “Whom do you seek?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” one of us says nervously.

Jesus fixes us with a stare and announces, “I am,” just like God said to Moses.  He said it so powerfully that we jumped back, stumbling into each other, and some of those in the back began to slide back down the slope.   

He demanded to know again whom we wanted to arrest and an official bleated it out again and Jesus said the same thing.  It was so unnerving, some of us servants were trembling.  And then he demanded we let his followers go.

At that point, we all come to life. 

See, Jesus is a big guy – a laborer, but he’s so gentle and docile now that the commander and I just step up and slap our hands on his shoulders and the rest of us pile on him.  At that instant, the whole world explodes.

His disciples start shouting, the soldiers are shoving them back and this big guy suddenly looms up in front of me and slams me on the side of the head with a crushing blow.   I scream out and fall on the ground, dazed.  My head is in agony and there is all this sticky stuff on the side of my face and Samuel, who’s a servant like me, starts yelling – “He cut his ear off!  He cut his ear off!  Malchus’ ear is gone!”

People just begin trampling on me, everybody ignoring him – of what value are slaves?  The mission is to seize Jesus.

I start crying, trying to sit up, while I’m thrashing around on the ground, I guess to see if my ear is there or anything’s left, and my head is splitting and suddenly with the ear that I do have left I hear Jesus’ voice cutting through the noise, telling his disciples to stop fighting and demanding something about why he shouldn’t be drinking from a cup or something that didn’t make any sense to me – and then he touched me.

I can’t describe it really.  It was immediate heat, like the sun on my face on a summer afternoon, like a torch held at a perfect distance so it warms but doesn’t burn, like a stone chafed to perfection at a soldier’s fire and then tucked into a sack on a frigid night and hugged close, radiating a warm glow all through me. 

My head stopped hurting.  My face was no longer leaking blood and – I felt for my right ear – it was there and didn’t even sting when I touched it. 

The rest of what happened is all like a dream to me.  I guess the others took Jesus with us.  My friend, Samuel, was holding me up and I was stumbling along, but more in shock than anything else.  I was certainly not in pain.  I was just drained of emotion.

The priests who met us at the Eastern gate simply looked intently at me for a moment then turned their attention to Jesus.  All but one of his disciples had melted away.  Soon, he was completely alone.  They whisked him off to Annas’ house, of all places, but I didn’t go.  It was the last I saw of him.

I simply went back to my quarters in the recesses of the Temple courts.  No official asked me about the incident or my healing.  Everyone was sneaking off to watch what was happening.  They were all going that way, but I was now heading in another direction.

When I got back in my room, I suddenly started to cry.  I don’t know why.  I haven’t cried since I was a child.  But I cried that night.  I think I was crying for everything:

 – for myself and what I had just taken part in – the arrest of more than an innocent man – the arrest of a good person who had to have been empowered by the Holy One, blessed be He, to do what he had done for me.

-        And I cried for Jesus and what was going to happen to him now that they finally had him in their claws.

-        And I cried for Jerusalem, my city, and for my beloved nation and how it always killed the prophets that the grace of God sent to it.

-        And I cried for everything I dreaded which might happen now.

And I was right!  What happened, happened swiftly, just as Caiaphas and Annas had planned it out.  A makeshift trial was whipped up - you can believe they had all that in place already, all they needed was the victim. 

Then they paraded Jesus in front of that incompetent Roman knuckle bone[8] Pilate, who tried to roll in any direction to get out of it all, then, when he couldn’t, he played right into their hands and did their dirty work for them.

Within a matter of hours Jesus was nailed up on the hill of the skull and dead by the early next afternoon.

I walked aimlessly through the city as people ran in panic around me.  They were screaming at the darkness, shouting that the graves were opening and the dead were rising out.  Somebody yelled that the thick Temple curtain protecting the holiest place of worship had ripped down the middle.  And some people were yelling that they must have just killed the Son of God – and others that it was actually an appearance of God-Among-Us and we were all doomed.

I just walked through the center of it all.  None of it made any impact on me.  All I felt was a sense of calmness, actually a great relief – as if all the questions of my life were resolved, and above all I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

Two days later the reports started up again.  Jesus’ grave was broken open.  His body was gone.  His disciples were hiding and then they weren’t.  Sightings of Jesus were witnessed in the city, in the country, at the seaside up in the Galilee region.  Five hundred people at once were all claiming to have seen him.  He was now alive and well again.  And, you know, somehow I was not surprised.  Of course he was the Son of God and God-Among-Us, just as he had said.  Didn’t I know that in my heart of hearts when he touched me and healed me?

Instead of running to the tomb – what was the point?  His body wasn’t there - I went back to the Temple.  I was a slave.  I had to.  It was in total disarray.  The priests were crying and heaping ashes on their heads – not for the murder of Jesus, but for the incomprehensible tearing of the Temple veil.

It wasn’t incomprehensible to me.  The Spirit of God in the Holy of Holies had obviously left them – as surely as it had departed from King Saul when God had finally had enough of his faithlessness.

I didn’t have to puzzle for the reason.  I simply packed up the few things I owned – amidst such devastation no one would miss me - and I walked out of the Eastern Gate without having to answer anybody.  I crossed the little valley just as I’d done that fateful night and set out for the Mount of Olives and its beautiful garden once again to search for Jesus.  But this time my mission was different.

You see, I realized I owed him a debt.  I had never thanked him.


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[1] John 12:13.  I translated the scriptural quotations from the Greek and then compared the narratives using Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry’s The NIV Harmony of the Gospels (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988).

[2] Matt 21:4-9.  

[3] Matt 26:5.

[4] John 11:47-48.

[5] John 2:13-22, cf. Matt 21:12-13.

[6] I’ve been to the Garden of Gethsemane, but I also picked up data from volume 2 of J.H Bernard’s classic (and in my estimation unsurpassed) commentary on John in the original International Critical Commentary series (pages 582-591) and from various entries in the appropriate volumes of  The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible and Ronald Brownrigg, Who’s Who in the New Testament (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 30.

[7] Matt 26:49  

[8] A knuckle bone “marked with letters that were also numbers” was used in a circle game that Plautus describes (Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, 315).  My idea in having the observant Malchus use the image here for Pontius Pilate is that, like a die tossed about and coming up with different  values in a single game, Pilate thrashes around to find a way to extricate himself from responsibility, while still issuing the order to crucify Jesus.