Conflicting Testimony

Monday, September 2, 2013 — Week of Proper 17, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 982)

Psalms 25 (morning) // 9, 15 (evening)

2 Chron 6:32-7:7

James 2:14-26

Mark 14:53-65

The witnesses in today’s gospel reading do not agree in their testimony against Jesus. The thornier problem, however, is that the gospels themselves do not agree in their testimony about whether the witnesses agreed in their testimony. Is your head spinning yet?

Let’s slow down a bit. In today’s passage from the gospel of Mark, Jesus is on trial before the chief priests, elders, and scribes. To satisfy the legal requirements of Deuteronomy 19:15, they would need evidence from at least two witnesses in order to convict Jesus. However, they can’t get even two witnesses to give corroborating testimony. The passage says that “many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree.”

The witnesses almost converge on one point. The Scripture says that some people testify that they heard Jesus say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” And yet, there must have been some discrepancies in their stories. Perhaps they testified to subtle differences in wording or phrasing. Perhaps they had only heard the words second-hand. In any case, the passage tells us, “even on this point their testimony did not agree.”

The gospel of Matthew, however, tells a different story. In the account that parallels this passage from Mark, we read that “At last two came forward.” Two witnesses, that is: the magic and minimum number for a conviction. The two witnesses testify, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days'” (Matthew 26:60-61). (Notice that these two witnesses quote Jesus as saying something different than the witnesses report in the gospel of Mark.)

In sum: Our two witnesses (the gospels of Matthew and Mark) do not agree on whether or not two witnesses at Jesus’ trial agreed. What can it possibly mean to find conflicting testimonies not only at Jesus’ trial, but also in the gospel accounts of the trial itself?

Fortunately, we’re not here to put Jesus on trial. Conflicting testimony is only a serious problem if your intent is to condemn rather than to listen. Our gospel passage this morning shows that the condemnation of Jesus was a foregone conclusion, and the council of religious leaders was simply looking for evidence that could support their prior judgment. They “were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him death.”

We, on the other hand, should look for testimony that brings Jesus to life. We aren’t trying to meet legal requirements to validate our judgments. Rather, we are listening for the Jesus that the gospel writers try to set before us in striking detail. We are looking to affirm the goodness and faithfulness and truth of the Jesus we know.

In the corresponding passage from the gospel of John, Jesus wisely resists going on the record when religious leaders question him about his teaching: “Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said” (John 18:21). Perhaps Jesus knows that no two people who have heard his teaching will be able to come up with matching testimony! Our testimonies may not agree, but we aren’t here to condemn. As followers of Jesus, we are here to listen, to learn, and to love the truths that he affirms.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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