by Mathew Swora
Cast: Joseph, Nicodemus, Pilate, Aide de camp.
Aide: Two members of the Sanhedrin have come to see you, Governor Pilate. A Joseph of Arimathea, and one Nicodemus, a local. They say it’s urgent.
Pilate: Now what do they want? Oh, bring them in!
Aide: As you wish, Sir.
Pilate: Gentlemen….Now what brings you here? Haven’t I done enough for you already?
Nicodemus: Sir? We’re afraid we don’t understand.
Pilate: When I handed the Nazarene over to be crucified this morning, as you so eagerly wished. Now what more can you want?
Joseph: We weren’t here for all that this morning.
Pilate: But you’re both members of the Sanhedrin. Or am I mistaken?
Nicodemus: We are, Sir. Or, we were.
Joseph: But we weren’t part of the group that came here with the Nazarene this morning.
Pilate: What’s the matter? Was it too early in the morning for you? You prefer to sleep in?
Nicodemus: Not that, Sir. We weren’t even invited to the proceedings.
Joseph: They knew we would never have agreed to the verdict.
Pilate: How would they know that?
Nicodemus: We’ve had our conflicts over matters of due process before, especially when it came to the Nazarene. We wouldn’t even have come to a pre-dawn procedure anyway. It’s against our legal code. And that’s why we were dis-invited, I guess you could say.
Pilate: Was it just a matter of technicalities, or do I detect some sympathy in you for the Nazarene?
Joseph: I was–
Nicodemus: Joseph! Not now! Not here!
Joseph: What do I care anymore? Yes, Governor Pilate, I was a disciple of the Nazarene. And I still am.
Pilate: Fat lot of good that does you now. But your courage impresses me. How about you?
Nicodemus: I was. Kind of. Some times. Or not. But now I am. I guess.
Pilate: This is rich. I’m learning a lot of useful things right now about the divisions within the ranks of your Sanhedrin.
Joseph: We won’t be there. We’re done now with all that.
Nicodemus: More like, they’re done with us.
Pilate: I didn’t know they could kick you off so quickly.
Joseph: Due process hasn’t slowed them down of late.
Pilate: So why do you come to me? What can I do for you? And what can you offer me?
Nicodemus: We’ve come for the rabbi’s body, Sir.
Pilate: His body. You speak as though he were dead already.
Joseph: He is, as of just a short while ago.
Pilate: But it’s only been half a day since he was crucified. I’ve seen them linger for days, especially strong, strapping country craftsmen like him. How did that happen so fast?
Nicodemus: Your men worked him over pretty hard this morning.
Pilate: As is their right. And their custom. Even then, they don’t usually–
Joseph:–When it’s so close to the Sabbath, especially around Passover, the sergeant-at-arms will usually break the victims’ legs so that they suffocate–
Pilate: They’re not victims, they’re criminals!
Joseph:–anyway, when they got to the rabbi, he looked dead already, and they confirmed it by thrusting a spear into his side. He must have died just before they got to him.
Pilate: You make it sound like you were there, witnessing the whole thing.
Nicodemus: We were.
Pilate: How very brave of you.
Joseph: No more brave than coming here with our request.
Pilate: You could have been identified as followers and sympathizers of the executed rabbi.
Nicodemus: It’s too late to worry about that, now. Most of the people around the cross—and there were lots of them—were there to jeer and taunt him as he died. They weren’t very nice to us, either.
Pilate: Including some fellow members of the Sanhedrin, I take it?
Joseph: Some of them, yes. The ones with the stomach for that kind of thing.
Pilate: But the Nazarene had some supporters present too, I take it?
Nicodemus: There was a small group of us there, trying to console him with our presence.
Pilate: “Us,” you say. More than the two of you, I take it?
Joseph: A few more.
Nicodemus: Joseph! Can’t you see? He’s milking us for information! Let’s just stick to the reason we came.
Pilate: Don’t worry. If I had really wanted to arrest every last sympathizer of the Nazarene, you wouldn’t have made it here on your own. Besides, I’m intrigued by your courage, such useless courage in light of the circumstances.
Joseph: There were also at least one of his twelve closest disciples, plus a few women: his mother, and some others who supported his ministry financially.
Pilate: So, the women who weren’t afraid to stand by him outnumbered the men?
Joseph: That’s right.
Pilate: But you weren’t afraid to be seen by the crowd?
Nicodemus: Most of his disciples and followers were, so much so that they are still in hiding. I was scared too, I confess. But even more than that, I’m just tired.
Pilate: Oh? Tired of what?
Nicodemus: Tired of hiding my support for the rabbi from my colleagues. Tired of trying to reconcile my conscience with all the corruption going on. Tired of trying to hold my world and that of the Nazarene together. As they increasingly parted ways, I knew I would eventually have to choose one side or another. I’m only sorry that I waited so long, until after I could do anything to change the outcome.
Pilate: And now, in exchange for all your courage and loyalty, you have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
Nicodemus: God will be the judge of that.
Pilate: I don’t know whether to admire you or to pity you.
Nicodemus: We didn’t come to ask for either admiration or pity, Sir. We came to ask for the Nazarene’s body, to give him a proper burial.
Pilate: You’re fooling with me.
Joseph: No, Sir.
Pilate: I hardly need to tell you what’s supposed to happen next, now that he’s dead.
Joseph: That’s what we’re hoping to avoid.
Pilate: But it’s part of the effect, what makes crucifixion such a powerful lesson, a drama that makes it undeniably clear just who is really in control.
Nicodemus: And we’re simply seeking to honor the man who most perfectly honored our God.
Pilate: But you understand, don’t you, that the cross is not just for punishing and disposing of the criminal and the traitor who’s on it?
Nicodemus: We do. The lesson is quite clear and unmistakable.
Pilate: Think of it as a morality play meant to teach everyone, over and over, that The Empire always wins, until people don’t even question that assumption anymore. After a while, they don’t even realize it’s an assumption. It’s meant to paralyze everyone who witnesses it with fear, shame and a sense powerlessness. Shame for being powerless to prevent it, shame even for ever having had any sympathy with the crucified. What happens to the body afterward only reinforces that shame and powerlessness, as well as our power. And now you ask me to stop the play just before the final act.
Nicodemus: When the body is treated just like trash. You must understand, Sir, how hard that is on us Jews, especially.
Pilate: Of course I understand. That only makes it all the more effective.
Joseph: Oddly enough, sir, your brutal imperial morality play doesn’t have that effect on me anymore. You’ve played your most powerful card, you’ve shown your hand, and now I feel sorry for you more than I fear you.
Nicodemus: Joseph! Do you realize?–
Pilate: Go on. It’s not the dog who barks that concerns me, but the eagle who watches in silence.
Joseph: If there was any theater today, sir, it only served to expose the difference between the rabbi’s kingdom and yours. And now I’d rather go down with the Nazarene’s loving, peaceful kingdom than go upward with yours. That’s why I don’t really care anymore about being on the ruling religious council.
Pilate: If the Nazarene himself hadn’t told me just this morning that his kingdom was not of this world, and that his servants wouldn’t fight, I’d take what you’d just said as treason, or a threat. But truth be told, I am moved by your show of loyalty. We Romans value that trait too, even for the vanquished and their lost causes. We’re not entirely unmoved by such noble gestures in defeat, not even among our enemies nor our subjects.
Joseph: So you can understand why we don’t want the rabbi’s body left on the ground, for the vultures and the dogs to have their way with it, especially not during our Passover. Not for such a holy man of God.
Pilate: A “holy man of God” you say! What is that to me? Am I a Jew? Why am I even letting you waste my time like this? If I depart from standard procedure and give you the Nazarene’s body, for a decent, honorable burial, that only gives a glimmer of false hope to all the bandits and rebels among you. Next thing you know, they’ll be expecting me to crown them Caesar whenever they raise a sword. Better to be consistent and not let up on the hard lessons of reality. That’s the only thing that keeps the peace around here.
Nicodemus: A peace based on fear is no peace. Not the peace that the rabbi offered us. And to you as well.
Joseph: Besides, the Nazarene wasn’t one of those bandits and rebels.
Pilate: To tell the truth again, I knew that. As soon as I met him, I knew I was dealing with no ordinary bandit. But that may make him all the more dangerous. So, if I grant your request, when do you propose to bury him?
Nicodemus: As soon as we can, before the Sabbath, at sunset.
Pilate: Where do you intend to bury him?
Joseph: In my tomb. Just outside town.
Pilate: Your tomb? As you would for family? I didn’t know you were related to him
Joseph: We’re not related. Most of his family is up north, in Galilee, except for his mother, and they can’t bury him now.
Pilate: Frankly, I don’t know whether to grant you your request, or to have you arrested on the spot.
Nicodemus: Either way, Governor Pilate, we’d rather cast in our lot with the deceased rabbi, for good or ill, than with his living executioners.
Pilate: How many of you are there who feel this way?
Joseph: About six or seven of us that I can be sure of.
Pilate: And most of them are women, I seem to remember.
Nicodemus: Right. So there’s no need to worry about an uprising or a riot. I don’t think you could scare up a single sword between us. That wasn’t what the Nazarene was about, anyway.
Pilate: True….(Pause)…. I’ll tell you what. I shall grant you the body of your crucified Nazarene rabbi, your illustrious “King of the Jews.” But don’t make a big public thing of it. And don’t ask me why, or I might change my mind. Just settle for this: that no Roman worth his salt would fail to appreciate courage and conviction whenever he sees them, even among his enemies and inferiors, even, let’s say, when such courage and conviction are useless and hopeless.
Joseph: Thank you, Sir.
Nicodemus: Thank you.
Aide: Yes, Sir?
Pilate: I’ve just given these men permission to receive the body of the crucified Nazarene rabbi for proper burial.
Aide: Sir? You mean the one we tried and delivered to the garrison early this morning?
Pilate: Of course! Or was there another one no one bothered to tell me about?
Aide: No, Sir. I presume the body is still on the cross. How soon do they get it?
Aide: But this is hardly standard–
Pilate:–I know that! That’s why I’m giving this as an order. Now take two more men with you and do as I say!
Aide: Yes, Sir.
Nicodemus: That is most gracious of you, Governor. Again, we thank you.
Pilate: Dispense with the expressions of gratitude. They’re unbecoming of those who desperately need to make a pointless statement, of history’s losers. And don’t show your faces to me again. My aide will report to me anything I need to know about what happens next. History will never record what happened here, and the sooner I forget about all this and wash my hands of it, the better for the both of you.
Joseph: As you wish.
Pilate: Aide, this won’t go in the daily record. Understand?
Aide: I understand, Sir. Of course not.
Pilate: Then you’re dismissed. And as for you two, you’d better hope I don’t come to regret this. I’ve always harbored an unsettling suspicion that I should fear the Hebrew spirit more than I should fear the Hebrew sword.
Joseph: You’ve got that about right, Sir. That’s how the Nazarene was: a lamb when it came to the sword, and a lion in things of the spirit. I don’t think we’ve heard the last roar of his yet.