When Just Men Die

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 15, 2015

Matthew 27:15-27 KJV

Perhaps you heard the news, and were surprised as was much of the literary world was, that a decades old manuscript written and hidden away by Harper Lee was discovered in February among her personal papers.  The novel, titled Go Set a Watchman, is actually a prequel to Lee’s world famous To Kill a Mockingbird.  To Kill a Mockingbird has been hailed as “one of the best American novels,” and “one of the most beloved books of the 20th century.”  But Mockingbird, released in 1960, is the only book that has ever been published by Lee, who is now 88 years old and in an assisted living facility.  Supposedly, Go Set a Watchman, which is set to be released in July of this year, was written before To Kill a Mockingbird was.  Many people have already placed pre-publication orders for Go Set a Watchman.

As an aside, a fact that I learned only recently is Harper Lee and Truman Capote, the author of another best-seller, In Cold Blood, were neighbors and best friends in Monroeville, Alabama, and Lee accompanied Capote on his trips to Kansas for research and gathering material for the book that drastically changed his life, and not in a positive way.  In fact, some have contended that Lee should have been listed as a co-author of In Cold Blood, so involved she was in the process.

Harper Lee stated in an interview in 1964 that she had “never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird.”  Yet, the book spent 80 weeks on the best-seller list, has sold 30,000,000 copies, and has been translated into more than 40 languages.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1961.  And most of us are familiar with the movie of that name starring Gregory Peck.

The point that is most pertinent today is that To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of small-time attorney Atticus Finch who is court appointed to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of raping a 19-year-old white woman.  As the story goes, Tom had been a long-time friend and handyman to his accuser, helping her whenever she needed things done around the house or yard.  According to the story, it was the white woman who invited Tom inside her house when everyone else was away, and she came on to him.  But it just so happened that her abusive father showed up and saw what happened through the window, then beat her up for her actions.  Both of them then placed blame for her bruises on Tom Robinson, adding to their story that he had also raped her.

Such was an all too-common occurrence in the pre-Civil Rights South—good men falsely accused because of the color of their skin.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, the main character, Atticus Finch, bemoans “the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. . .” (p. 232).1  “In our courts,” Atticus continued, “when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins” (pp. 251-252).  Too many times the Black Man in our country has been the scapegoat.  Too many Black Men have been falsely identified, falsely accused, falsely condemned, and wrongly imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.  And Mockingbird notes that during the time period when the novel is set (1935), rape was a capital offense in Alabama.  And the state could ask the jury for the death penalty, even on the basis of circumstantial evidence (pp. 250-251).

But we know that false accusations and false convictions cross all racial lines.  Many have been those who have been falsely accused, condemned, convicted, imprisoned, and sent to death row.   It has been proved that a significant percentage of prisoners condemned to death row were and are innocent of the crime they were accused of.  Every so often we hear in the news of another prisoner being released from death row following years of incarceration after it was proved by DNA, the real perpetrator coming forward, or other evidence that they were innocent.  Over the centuries, how many innocent men—and women—sentenced to death row were actually murdered by the State?  One can only imagine—and shudder in horror—to think of the innocent men who have been hanged, shot, electrocuted, or put to death by lethal injection.  Many states still practice barbaric forms of the death penalty, in spite of the high percentage of false convictions and problems associated with all forms of capital punishment.  An article just this week in the Wall Street Journal educated me on the fact that two U.S. states—Alabama and Florida—will still impose the death penalty even when the 12-member jury is divided, not in total agreement.2

But here is the point: It is a sad fact—an undisputed fact—that too often just men are falsely accused and die unjustly because of it.  Which brings us to Jesus and the passage selected from Matthew.  Now, I concede that it is not possible to actually know exactly what was said the day Jesus was tried and found guilty of death.  As Bishop Spong often points out, there was no secretary or scribe there that day taking notes.  But for argument’s sake, let’s go with the story as Matthew tells it.  According to Matthew’s version, both Pilate and his wife realized that Jesus was a just man unjustly accused and brought before him as a candidate for the death penalty.  I chose the King James Version of the Bible as the text for this sermon because of the way it renders the verses in question.  According to the story, when Jesus was brought before Pilate, Pilate’s wife sent a message to him saying, “Have nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19 KJV).  Then later, Pilate himself, after washing his hands in front of the crowd as an attempt to discharge himself of the responsibility for the whole affair, is quoted as saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person” (27:24).  More modern translations render it “righteous man” (ESV, CEB) or “innocent man” (NRSV, GNT NLT).

Now granted, in the eyes of the mighty Roman Empire, according to their laws the sentence of death for Jesus—who was deemed to be an insurrectionist—was justified.  In fact, likely it was Jesus’ opposition to the unholy alliance between the Roman Empire and the religious establishment of his day that got him crucified.  In that regard, Jesus was no different from dozens or hundreds of insurrectionists of his day.  The Romans were known for crucifying thousands deemed as troublemakers.

But then after his death, Jesus’ followers, who sought to make sense of it all from a Jewish religious perspective, came up with a number of reasons as to why he ended up dying.  At first, they were devastated, bemoaning the fact that upon Jesus they had pinned all their hopes for the deliverance of Israel, even speaking of his death as murder (Luke 24:19-21; Acts 7:52).   Then there were those who proposed that it was in God’s plan all along that Jesus die for the sins of the world (Romans 5:7-8).  And then the theology developed that Jesus himself felt and knew this was his mission from the beginning (Mark 9:31).  In recent years, the thought among progressive and liberal Christian scholars is that it was never within the plan of God for Jesus to die as he did, but rather, Jesus died because he stood for justice and truth and in opposition to an unjust, oppressive, evil system.  And so, the powers that be killed him.  But, the thinking also goes, God took the awful tragedy of Jesus’ death and turned it into something good.

Regardless of how one might believe about the why or how of Jesus’ condemnation and death, I think all of us would quickly agree that Jesus didn’t deserve the horrible death he experienced.  No one does.  The things recorded by the gospels that Jesus said about the powers that be of his day were true.  No one should be killed for speaking the truth.  No, in the realm of truth, Jesus WAS a just, righteous, innocent man who died an unjust, unrighteous, blood-guilty death.

The sad truth is, a lot of just men and women—like Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird—die and little or no good at all comes from their deaths.  The world suffers a great loss and there is not an iota of benefit that results from it.

But then at other times, just men who have given their lives for a good cause—and we could cite many, such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and most notably Jesus—die and by the power of God’s grace something tragic is transformed into something wonderful.

We would to God that we might strive to live our lives in such a good and just way that were we to unjustly die, how we have lived and what we have done might, likewise, be turned into something good for the world.  May it be so.  Amen.


1Cited: Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.  New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

2Jess Bravin, “Court Will Review Florida’s Capital-Punishment System,” Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, March 10, 2015.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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