In 1979, shortly before the end of my mission my father sent me a letter saying that the bishop of the BYU 29th ward, which he had been serving as high councilor, was being released and the high councilor called. In due time the stake president that called him was released, and a new president called, who served his term and was released and a new president called. So my father was talking to this new stake president, Robert J. Matthews, one day and mentioned he had been serving 10 years, and Pres. Matthews released him.
Perhaps because he came of missionary age in the depths of the Depression my father didn’t serve a mission. He and my mother had planned to serve together after he retired but by the time he was released he was about 73 and she about 70, and someone thought they were too old for a mission. BYU’s Kennedy Center for International Relations felt otherwise, as they found out after some travel to India, China, the Holy Land, and other places. The Kennedy Center asked if they would go to Qing Dao, a small town of only 6 million, and teach English at the university–a very, very preliminary step towards getting missionaries into China, though they could only talk about the Church if someone asked them.
They savored the anomaly of being a couple in their 70s hard at work in a country where people usually retire in their 50s, and became minor celebrities after appearing in a commercial for a local restaurant. (I learned recently on This American Life that appearing in films and on TV is common for Americans in China.) Other restaurant owners begged them to be in their commercials, but they had learned in the meantime this was a big no-no. And thus ended my father’s film career. But not my mother’s.
When they got back home Mom saw a casting call for extras for a film about building the Salt Lake temple, The House of the Lord. She wanted to be in the film because her grandfather, John Heber Lloyd, did the first gold-leafing on the angel Moroni, as well as woodgraining in the tabernacle, temple, and mansions around town that were being pulled down in her youth.
She saw a call for folk poetry for an issue of Sunstone, or a symposium session, and wrote a poem called “Mirrored Images” about looking into a mirror whose frame used to hold her grandfather’s picture. “I don’t know what folk poetry is,” she wrote in her cover letter, “but these are my folk and this is a poem I wrote about them.” She described John Heber thus:
He was a stumpy little Welshman
Born in the Valley in 1857
Becoming one of the best craftsmen
In the territory
Carefully graining pine benches into oak
Stroking plastered walls into marble
Growing grapes and flowers from ceilings
His greatest challenge was goldleafing
Climbing the scaffolding on the temple spire
Giving Angel Moroni his first gold coat, 1894
Toiling high above the young city
Making ready Moroni’s trumpet to proclaim
Completion of the temple
To proclaim glad tidings that all might see
Next she saw a casting call for a crowd scene in a film called The Lamb of God. The director told them he didn’t want the whole crowd chanting “Crucify, crucify” in unison. “If you know any foreign languages, shout in a foreign language.” But she couldn’t bring herself to say it, so she said “wat-a-pun-joe” or a similar phrase, which means something like ‘I want to be your friend,’ or, ‘You are my friend.’ She still remembers the phrase and said it recently to the Hispanic waitress in the Chinese restaurant.
My mother understood the power of words, even make-believe words when you can’t make yourself believe them. The director understood the power and behavior of crowds, that they don’t all have to be saying the same thing, or have the same purpose in being there. All you need is a crowd to direct.
But where did the crowd come from? I’ve suggested in the last two columns that Pilate and the Jewish leaders might have gone and rounded them up, but keep in mind that it had only been a few days since large crowds hailed Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. Maybe some of them came to the praetorium to ask for Jesus’s release. Indeed, I’m sure the person my mother represented was not the only one shouting, “Let him go. Free my friend.” The understated comment in Matthew 27:20, “But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus,” could apply to both conscripts and freedom demanders.
I had planned to go up on the balcony and listen to the conversation between Pilate and Jesus in this post, but while I was preparing my Gospel Doctrine lesson a couple of weeks ago on the conversion of the Ammonites I thought of something that applies to the Gospels as well. The Book of Mormon is a history of the Nephites. We think of it as a history of the Nephites and Lamanites, but we only get glimpses of Lamanite history when that history intersects with Nephite history, during wars or missions–and in the missionary passages the Lamanites are often more receptive to the Gospel than the Nephites.
Similarly, in the Gospels we only catch glimpses of the Romans–until the end. I suspect there are two stories happening at the end of the Gospels. One is the culmination of a struggle between Jesus and some of the leaders of his people. The other is the culmination of a largely untold story about Rome’s reaction to this young rabbi who could repeatedly draw crowds of 4 and 5,000 men–multiplied by women and children.
In his annotations for Matthew in The Jewish Annotated New Testament Aaron Gale suggests that one reason Jesus repeatedly instructs people not to say he is the Messiah is a desire not to attract the wrath of Rome. He suggests at one point that the same concerns may have led some leaders to think Jesus’s death would be preferable to a general Roman crackdown.
We get another glimpse of Roman reaction to Jesus in Luke 23:12, which reports that after Pilate sent Jesus to Herod,
“The same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.”
Were they made friends that day because they had discovered a third person they could focus their enmity on instead of each other? In this regard it’s useful to point out that Luke equates Herod and Pilate by using them as bookends to an episode in which Jesus prophecies his death. Luke introduces us to Pilate at the beginning of Chapter 13,
There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilæans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
31 There came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee.
32 And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.
33 Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.
34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!
35 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
And one final thing about the Romans. Every time I read or listen to Acts I am haunted by that final, poignant sentence in Chapter 26
32 Then said Agrippa unto Festus, This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Cæsar.
The sentence is deeply ironic both with its suggestion that Caesar will not free Paul, that the appeal is bound to fail, and because even though Acts ends before Paul meets Caesar, it’s a well-established tradition that Paul was martyred in Rome, and the early readers of Acts would have known that.
So, did Jesus appeal to Pilate? Yes, I know Paul’s right to appeal to Caesar was based on his Roman citizenship, and his duty to appeal was based on his mission to the Gentiles, and that Jesus was sent only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 5:24), but it might be useful to look at Jesus’ testimony to Pilate, and Pilate’s reaction, as a prophecy about how the gentiles–some of them anyway–would react to the Good News of the Kingdom of God.