We hear the story once again of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death today. We know what happens. We know how it ends. It is clear, with the gift of our hindsight, to see what evolved. They were strange bedfellows, the religious leadership who distrusted and disliked Jesus’ message and growing following among the common people, and the Roman power structure, always aware and on the lookout for those who would threaten their stranglehold on the people.
They came together in a political relationship to deal with this problematic rabbi who reinterpreted the ancient texts in disturbing ways.
And at the crux of that relationship was one man: Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the head of the Roman Empire’s government in Judea during Jesus’ time. His title was “Prefect,” or governor. At the heart of his work was to make sure that things ran smoothly despite the crushing taxation of the people of Judea in that era. The funds needed to be collected and opposition to Rome needed to be quashed.
Pilate had no real quarrel with allowing the Jews to observe their religion, although they were supposed to pay homage to Tiberius Caesar as a god. He saw no reason to fight that battle, and worked with the ethnic and religious leadership, notably the Sanhedrin and Caiaphas, the High Priest, in an uneasy alliance. Like many colonial governors, he wanted nothing more than a calm reign as governor and a transfer back to Rome and something more elevated than running a backwater nation in the desert heat.
But he got something else entirely. These argumentative Jewish leaders had what they considered a problem on their hands: Jesus of Nazareth, whom some called the Messiah, the Son of God. Well, if this Jesus fellow made that assertion, Pilate had a problem, because only Caesars were gods. The Sanhedrin might think this was a blasphemy, but to Pilate this was something worse: this was treason.
He had to dispatch this quickly, because the crowds were thick in Jerusalem during the Passover festivals, and he didn’t want any disorder that might be reported back to Rome.
Good thing there was a process to handle such matters. Pilate was an orderly man, and he liked processes. Nothing left to chance, just follow the process and all could be safely dealt with. The Jewish leaders had arrested the man and questioned him, a grand jury of sorts, and found that he was in violation of their laws. They couldn’t quite specify which laws of course, and Pilate was not in the business of worrying about their myriad religious rules, which seemed to number in the thousands, but one must assume that there was some legitimacy to their complaints. So they dragged him before Pilate, to be dealt with under Roman law.
Pilate looked at him. He didn’t look like any wild-eyed radical. Just another Jew in the city, a bit bedraggled by his rough handling by the guards. But he also didn’t look frightened, which was disturbing. Why wouldn’t he be frightened, facing the might of the empire?
But he simply stood there, flanked by the overwrought priests, who wouldn’t even go into Pilate’s palace. Annoying, this. Pilate had had to go out to talk with them. If he ignored them, who knows what mischief they would get into?
They were insisting that this man had done something so awful he deserved to die. Pilate thought, “Oh, the dramatics. By Jupiter, I wish they would just tend to this themselves.” But asserting his power was part of his job, so he asked them what he had done…and they simply dodged the question, saying, “We wouldn’t have brought him here if he wasn’t a criminal.”
Pilate looked at them. One strangely calm, slender, sad-eyed man. A bunch of angry priests. “Deal with him yourselves.”
“We cannot. By our religion, we cannot execute him.”
Pilate thought, “Damn them. They want me to do their dirty work.” Sighing, he said “I will examine him.”
So Jesus was brought into Pilate’s palace and the governor questioned the rabbi. But it was an unsatisfying interrogation. The man simply answered questions with riddles, with odd comments that didn’t seem to add up to an actionable offense. Perhaps he was just another religious reformer – the gods knew that this Jewish religion always had someone who was trying to reform something or other – but nothing seemed to rise to the level of a violation of Roman law. And then came the last exchange: Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
And Pilate, frustrated by this strange exchange, blurted to him, and to those in the room “What is truth?”
Was the truth what the Sanhedrin said, that this man should die for his misdeeds?
Was the truth what Jesus said, which seemed to allude to his special status, in which case there really was a problem?
Was the truth the political juggling game that Pilate always had to play, balancing the interests of Rome and Jerusalem with his own future?
What was the truth that would preserve his authority and his position, and get him safely back to Rome?
But John’s gospel does not reveal if Jesus replied to Pilate’s cynical question.
We think not, because Pilate then decided he would leave this Jewish man’s fate not to the state, but to the people. Dangerous business to be sure – one never knew exactly how the people would act, particularly in the midst of political tension and the excitement of the festival – but easier than making a decision oneself, especially when the decision could cause him professional harm.
And something about the man unsettled him – better not to deal with it himself, but to do it in a way that revealed imperial power and even, one might say, generosity.
He went out and asked the people, “Your kind and generous Roman governor has a gift for you, dear people. Shall I give you this bandit, Barabbas, or this fellow who is said to be King of you Jews?”
He knew the politics of it...he expected that the religious leaders would have stirred up the people against Jesus. He was right. They crowed “Barabbas! Give us Barabbas!” despite the fact that they would have cowered in the shadows if they saw Barabbas approaching them in an alley.
What is truth? Did they really want Barabbas and not this man they had hailed as their king a few days before?
Ah, well, it didn’t matter. They had made the decision for him as he wished. But being an adroit politician, covering all possibilities, he decided to press the matter.
“I find no case against him.”
What is truth?
They cried out “Crucify him!”
What is truth? The vicious cry of the crowd? Did that make Jesus guilty?
Pilate said, “There is no case. You deal with him.”
Truth, that, but not a truth they wanted to hear.
They cried “He broke our law and we cannot execute him, so you must do it.”
The hammer of truth was crashing on Pilate’s temple, and he could not evade it.
He brought Jesus back in, a Jesus who was now bearing the marks of a beating at the hands of the soldiers, standing a bit more bent now.
What is truth? Pilate kept questioning him. “Where are you from? Why will you not speak? Why will you not answer these charges?” In his mind, Pilate thought, “Give me truth. Give me a reason not to kill you. Let’s do this the easy way.”
But Jesus gave him his truth, and Pilate was caught in its vines. The truth did not set Pilate free, it required him to continue to act in a play that he could not control. And now the religious leaders were saying that Jesus claimed to be a King, and Pilate must execute him or be guilty of treason against the empire himself.
What is truth? That empires have power? That earthly power is a curse, not a prize?
The ignominy of Pilate’s powerlessness in the face of this situation was matched by the blasphemy of the chief priests who cried out “We have no king but the emperor.”
The truth was Pilate was doomed.
The truth was that they all were doomed.
Jesus, crucified on the cross, as had always been required of him.
The religious leaders, betrayers of their own people as well as their God.
Yes, Pilate, perhaps he most of all. He had tried to manage history. He had tried to manage God. He had sensed something beyond the messy politics of the moment, something in this man brought before him, and wanted nothing of the man’s death. But he was a player in God’s work, and he was doomed to act as was required of him.
We ourselves ask “What is truth?” We want to hear the answers that salve our hearts, the easy answers. But there is only one truth, and it is an uncomfortable one.
The truth is we were doomed, until Jesus died on the cross for us.
The truth is we pretend we are in control of our lives, when it is only by God’s grace that we live.
The truth is that we owe far more to God than we can ever repay.
So we need to hear Pilate’s story, his hubris and his downfall, because it is our own. We too try to dodge an honest look at our own participation in the failures of this world. We too worry more about the effect our choices have on our position in the world than about what is right and good. We too think that we are in control, when we are players in an eternal drama beyond what we can comprehend.
That is truth, and it behooves us to look upon Jesus on the cross and say “You are truth. Thank you for what you suffered. Help me.”
Pray for the courage to face our own truths in our lives. Pray for the strength to change.
An mp3 audio version of this sermon can be found here.