When I was a child, well, actually, until I was in my mid-40s, I was always extremely frustrated by the fact that Jesus, at least in Mark’s passion, makes no attempt to defend himself before Pilate. I thought like Peter while he was in Get-behind-me-Satan! mode that Jesus should “win” his confrontation with Rome and with the Temple leadership in a way that I understood. And surely, that would include making mincemeat of the charges against him and dazzling Pilate rhetorically. I mean, I felt like I could do it, so why didn’t he do it?
I’d had this view challenged in two ways: one by the priests of my childhood who preached that Jesus knew that by dying he would atone for all of our sins and he more or less wanted to get on with it. (Some of these guys were very big on the virtues of “suffering in silence.”) I didn’t find that persuasive. I believe that Jesus had good reasons for dying, and I don’t doubt the theology of atonement (though I don’t fully understand it, either) but this explanation, to me, denies Jesus’ human nature by relying on his complete understanding of divine purposes. It also suggests, I think, that atoning for sins was all Jesus accomplished on the cross. Not that that isn’t plenty, mind you, but it cuts the scroll too short.
The other challenge came from J. D. Salinger. If I am remembering correctly, Zooey Glass (in Franny and Zooey) says that Jesus’ silence before Pilate was “brilliant,” that no one else would have understood that silence was precisely what was called for at this moment. As I recall, he then takes a swipe at St. Francis of Assisi, who would have had time to “bang out a few canticles.” Though I have been a huge Salinger fan, I never really appreciated what he was getting at there. But reading the Passion this time, it occurred to me that Jesus may have realized that dying bravely, and with as much dignity as the situation allowed, was his best chance to make people understand a message he had been preaching to uncomprehending ears for three years. Greater love hath no man, etc.
Laying down his life was Jesus way of saying, with ultimate emphasis, that he stood—ultimately—behind everything he had said; that he continued to assert it, even in the face of death, that the Kingdom of God was among us. To the smaller audience of his frightened disciples it said: What we have begun together is so important, that I will die for it, so that you will understand and carry it on. In this context, speech, especially defensive speech, or the slick rhetorical footwork he had demonstrated in recent Temple debates would have seemed cheap. It would have diminished what he was doing. Silence, on the other hand, was brilliant.