Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered.

~ Matthew 26:57

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

~ Matthew 27:1-2

Exegetical Reflection

Arrest and detainment is a form of enforced social distancing.  As those in America’s prison system know all too well, arrest removes a person from his or her family and community.  Matthew’s gospel begins the narration of Jesus’ Sanhedrin trial (26:57 – 27:2) by referring to those who had seized Jesus (26:57), and separated him from his disciples, referencing their earlier arrest of him (26:47-56).  The word translated here as “seized” has the sense of “lay hands on” with a sense of power and authority.  Some even suggest there is an implied “taking possession of” the person.  Jesus no longer had control over his own body, and so must go from Gethsemane, to the high priest’s mansion, to Pilate. 

The use of this verb reminds careful readers that earlier John the Baptist had been seized (14:3), and that twice in parables Jesus used this dramatic word to describe servants being seized (18:28; 22:6).  The use of the word also reminds readers that the chief priests had plotted to seize Jesus earlier in the narrative, but waited for an opportune time (21:46; 26:3-5).  The repetition of the word intensifies in chapter 26, as Judas identifies with a kiss the one temple police should seize (26:48), that they do just that and seize him (26:50), even as Jesus protests why they did not seize him earlier (26:55), and the seized Jesus is taken to Caiaphas (26:57) to the very location where one of the plotting schemes had occurred (26:3).

Matthew’s account of that night highlights the simultaneous actions of Peter in the courtyard while Jesus is on trial inside Caiaphas’ mansion (26:58, 69).  While Jesus stands before the religious leadership, Peter sits in the courtyard of public opinion—the servants of the elite.  And, while Jesus stands faithful to the truth during the three verbal threats aimed at him (false witnesses, two witnesses, Caiaphas; 26:59-66), Peter caves when asked three times about Jesus. 

Peter had followed at a distance (26:58), but at least he followed.  He tried to stay physically connected to Jesus (after all, none of the other disciples were even in the courtyard), yet he moves from the courtyard to the shadows of the entryway/porch (26:71) unable to escape the inquiries of others.  And Peter loses it when the questions go from his relationship to Jesus to his own regional identity (26:73).  Peter swears an oath and says:  “I do not know the man!” (26:74).  Because of fear and the intense human desire for self-preservation, Peter’s proclamation of “you are the Christ!” (16:16) becomes:  “I do not know the man!”

How different from the response of the Christian Epaphroditus, a member of the church in Philippi.  When Paul was put into prison, Epaphroditus stayed close by assisting the prisoner to the point of a near death illness (Philippians 2:25-30).  Where the body of Christ is currently detained and abused, we are called to respond.  What might this mean for a Christian campus like La Sierra during a pandemic?

— Kendra Haloviak Valentine

Descriptive-Theological Reflection

The problem, of course, is not Jesus’ physical distance from Peter; it is Peter’s psychological distance from Jesus.  Even as Peter first anonymously tries to maintain some tenuous contact with Jesus, only to retreat from courtyard (Mt 26:58) to gateway (v. 71) to the outside (v. 75), his physical distancing and increasingly vehement denials attest the effectiveness of the Jewish authorities’ and ultimately the Roman rulers’ intention:  precisely to deter any potential imitators.  The othering of the three “malefactors,” nailed up naked before the populace, was indeed an effective terror.  The peoples’ mocking confirmed their participation in the gulf.  “We are not them; and they are not us.” 

But the Kingdom’s values work otherwise.  Even in a context of self-preservation through physical separation, Christian thought provides for connection, for bridging gaps between “our people” and “not our people.”  It is precisely Matthew’s Jesus who summons us beyond the ceremonial purities of the ancient age.  “If you acknowledge only your own people, what makes you better than anyone else?” (Mt 5:47).  The problem with physical separation is not that it is sometimes needed for medical reasons, but that it so readily leads to mutual estrangements—and constructs theological rationales in support.  Thus modern medical practice can be misappropriated in service to ritualized prejudices with ancient roots.  “We are not them, and they are not us.”

It was this construct that Jesus pierced through in that single, searing gaze.  And if it broke Peter’s heart, should it not still break ours today?  Matthew, writing decades later, brings the lesson home through Jesus’ own words.  The important chasm is not a physical one between us and Jesus, nor indeed a gap of medical sterility between us and our fellow humans.  It is, rather, between those who nonetheless feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned, and those whose inner psychological, cultural and ideological distances prevent them from doing so (Mt 25:31-46).  Today in this time of physical isolation, there are many who find ways to deliver orders of food, care for the sick, and assist the vulnerable.  Times such as these sharpen the distinctions between those who instinctively help fellow humans and those who spurn them.  Thus the Kingdom’s mandate is actualized in this fractured world:  “Be you therefore all-inclusive, even as your heavenly Father is all-inclusive” (Mt 5:48).  If we would live close to Jesus it is not through translation away from our fellow humans into glory.  Rather, we will find ways to live responsively with all our fellow humans even under protocols of medical separation here below. “We are them, and they are us—for they are Jesus.”

— John Jones

Systematic-Theological Reflection

Life itself, even at the most fundamental level, would not be possible without a measure of both intimacy (closeness) and autonomy (distance). But the right balance between them will always depend on the specific circumstances that pertain at the time. Right now, in the face of a global pandemic, we are being mandated to adopt social distancing as an indefinite prophylactic practice, intended to protect not only ourselves but also the most vulnerable among us, and so ultimately to ‘flatten the curve’ of the course of this disease, so as to prevent our overwhelmed health-care system from collapsing. How should we as Christians respond?

It appears obvious that there is something prima facie at odds with our professed Gospel of ‘God with us’ in the very idea of ‘social distancing’! God has not practiced ‘social distancing’ with us, despite the cost (i.e. the cross). Also, at their best, Christians have always risked their own lives to ‘be with’ those in deepest distress and danger. From Desmond Doss to Mother Maria of Ravensbrück, we are moved by the lives and sacrifices of those who care for the hurting even in the face of personal danger.

But this is not the whole story. For the rationale behind the call for social distancing is, at its heart, a call for us to care for each other, and for the most at risk amongst us, at that. In this case, distance is demanded by love! Remarkably, the nadir of God’s ‘distancing’ from Jesus on the Cross— “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”—turned out to be the very climactic moment of salvation itself. Love often surprises us. At this time to insist on our right to social freedom and intimacy would not be an act of love but an act of selfishness.

But there is more than one type of ‘distance’—and three of them appear in our story of Peter’s denial in Matthew: ‘enforced social distancing’ where Jesus is arrested by the authorities (without resistance, be it noted) and detained (Matt 26:57); ‘panicked social distancing’ e.g. Peter’s voluntary and selfish denial (rejection or betrayal) of Jesus as a desperate attempt to protect him- self (Matt 26:69-74); and an earlier ‘prudential social distancing’ whereby, driven by a mixture of caution and curiosity, “Peter followed him at a distance” (Matt 26:58, NIV). But note, despite being fickle and fearful, Peter was the only disciple to ‘follow him,’ even if it was ‘at a distance’.

In the inevitable mix of closeness and distance demanded of us by the times, we will most likely be more like Peter than Emmanuel. But let us nevertheless strive to emulate ‘prudential Peter’, rather than ‘panicking Peter’. Let us “follow him” (Jesus) by ‘following each other’s welfare,’ albeit “at a distance.” Perhaps, if we succeed in doing so, we can discover that physical distanc- ing need not be incompatible with social intimacy.

— John Webster

Pastoral Reflection

Christian disciples begin our Holy Week pilgrimage with Palm Sunday, though many question if scattered masses a festival makes. Our siblings in neighboring faith traditions share our sadness. Can Passover and Ramadan happen isolated and alone? Perhaps this is the year to cancel or postpone? (If educational institutions cancel graduation) Who cancels Easter?

We turn towards our Story when our souls ache, and recall themes of power, authority, possession and reign. We turn towards our Story and find our companion, Peter, who disciples on his own terms. Jesus warned in his opening lecture that insult and persecution are penalties for those who follow close and prioritize the agendas of God. Indeed, Jesus is now escorted to his execution as Peter wails in the waiting room.

The pandemic of 2020 is revealing our deep longings to share physical space, and more. We have a deep need to belong with creation in some good beyond ourselves. Italian citizens sang their solidarity from open windows the day they learned their country surpassed China with the highest COVID 19 casualties. From Bologna to Rome, coinciding with orders to stay home, Italian citizens sang. They sang their solidarity from balconies, doorways and verandas. Soon they added violins and accordions. “You don’t need an instrument, a pot and a wooden spoon will do,” one woman encouraged from her apartment atrium window as she called their communal instincts forth. “We are doing a flash mob against the Corona Virus.”

Pay attention these days to your instinct to join the 8pm widow cheer with cities around our nation. Pay attention to your instinct to sew and distribute face shields, to deliver meals to doorsteps and drop groceries at Path of Life (our only homeless shelter in Riverside). Pay attention to your instinct to draw messages of hope on sidewalks into hospitals and clinics, or to decorate trees in your neighbor’s yard or to place candles or stuffed animals in windows for children to spy on their limited neighborhood walks. Pay attention.

The pandemic of 2020 lays bare a devastated world where one might ask what difference do holy days make. Perhaps this year it will be self-evident. Our Story has resourced us for devastating days. It is possible to be together while apart. It is possible for Peter and Jesus and it is possible for Jesus and God in next days’ trauma, silent Saturday.

—Chris Oberg