At the end of this month, we observe Holy Week, with all the drama of Christ’s betrayal, trial, suffering, and death presented within the services. Not only is this the most moving time of the Church year, but it always reveals for me new possibilities of how I (and perhaps you as well) can see myself in the various personae who comprise this drama. While we are aware that behind the scenes, God is directing all actions toward the ultimate act of love in Jesus’ Crucifixion, nevertheless, the action is also accomplished by each human player’s personal choices and actions, whether faithful or not. The God of history works with and through human beings and we can never escape responsibility for our freedom to choose and to act.
To illustrate this, focus upon Pontius Pilate, who is neither Jew nor disciple of Jesus, and who, among all the characters, appears to have the most earthly power at his disposal and should therefore be able to act freely to his own ends. There are many explication and comments that should be made when reading John’s Gospel as a whole, and particularly with reference to his treatments of “the Jews,” but right now let’s accept the drama as the gospel presents it to us as part of the Passion Gospel which we read every Good Friday during the service.1 Within this extended reading, we can focus on Pilate and learn from him.
The historical Pontius Pilate was anything but merciful or tenderhearted; in the end, the Emperor removed him from his position as prefect (or governor) in Judea because of notorious cruelty and constant uprisings by the people which resulted from his actions. But John depicts Pilate as a man intrigued with Jesus and his plight. Instead of condemning Jesus outright – which is all the priests and temple leadership want him to do – the Roman governor asked Jesus himself to explain what he is guilty of. The problem is that he cannot hear or understand the answers he is given.
As a representative of the power of Rome, Pilate asks the reasonable question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Jn 18:33) Jesus answered:
My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. (Jn 18:36)
Unclear what of what to make of this answer, Pilate presses Jesus, but unfortunately, the answer he receives is not in the terms of the power/powerless distinction Pilate can understand. Jesus instead answers,
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (Jn 18:37)
Rather than trying to learn more and thereby understand who Jesus believed himself to be, Pilate takes the tone of a cocky sophomore and dismisses Jesus and his message by offering the rhetorical rejoinder, “What is truth?”
Not only does Pilate not understand Truth, he also does not understand authority. He publicly declares Jesus innocent of guilt, but sends him to be flogged in the hands of his sadistic soldiers. After his exhibiting of the prisoner before the crowd, their cries to crucify Jesus further confuse Pilate. Hearing them repeat the claim that Jesus claimed he was the Son of God (Jn 19:7), the fearful Pilate turns to Jesus again for answers—answers which the power-minded prefect cannot comprehend. Jesus remains silent in response to the Roman’s questions, having in his own mind moved beyond this moment with the prefect and on to his ultimate exultation on the Cross.
Pilate’s world is crumbling fast. Though armed with the authority of his office and the military power of Rome, he does not seem able to intimidate or win over the angry crowds outside his palace. Now even his prisoner, brought back within his chamber, refuses to speak to Pilate. Enraged and threatened because his power is not avail him, the prefect threatens as a bully would:
Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (Jn 19:10)
Jesus’ response to this threat of violence defeats his prosecutor:
Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above… (Jn 1911)
Ultimately, the deflated Pilate abdicates his opposition and allows the crowd to crucify his prisoner.
As Roman prefect over the whole province, Pontius Pilate should have been the most powerful figure in this drama. But Jesus’ fearless words shattered the illusion of his power as they affirmed the ultimate authority of God over all rulers and earthly systems. Equally true is the fact that Pilate failed to recognize the truth when it was presented to him. He allowed events happening around him and considerations of power – whether exercised, threatened, or dictated by others – to cloud his judgment and to lead to his damnable retreat from true authority.
Pilate said to the Jews, “Here is your King!”
They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”
Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?”
The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”
Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. (Jn 14-16)
Pilate believed himself in the end to be overmatched in this conflict, but the deciding factor in his tragedy is that he did not exercise his own freedom and judgment. He had the power of life and death over Jesus, but by ignoring what his heart warned him about exercising that authority, he abdicated to the events and their inexorable power. He stepped back from decision-making when the moment called for a decision, and thereby allowed himself to become an accomplice to the wrong he halfheartedly wanted to avoid.
Accepting John’s account of this drama at face value, we can learn some valuable lessons. First, that the events of Good Friday were but the final act of the plan which God has set in motion from the time of Jesus his Incarnation. The will of God was done with a great deal of irony concerning all the players. Peter swears ultimate fidelity, but denies Jesus because of his weakness and fear. The chief priests of Israel do not recognize their king, and thereby give him his “exaltation” – on the Cross! Caiaphas plots Jesus death so that “one man should die for the people” to save the nation, unaware that after the Resurrection, Christians would affirm exactly that. The inscription over the Cross, intending to announce the reason for his execution, ironically proclaims him, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” And Pilate, who senses that an injustice is being done before him, cannot make effective use of the authority which he has been granted—and that failure of his use of power enables the reality of the Crucifixion to follow its divine trajectory to God’s appointed end.
See you at services between Palm Sunday and Easter!
1All references are to the Gospel John, using the New Revised Standard Version.