First Peron Meditation on Pilate

Good Friday

March 30 2018

John 18:28-19:16

Greetings. My name is Pilate. I despise the name “Pilate.” How many mothers ever name their sons “Pontius Pilate?” How would you like to be remembered as one of the all-time bad guys of history? Or worse, as one of the all time weaklings of history? You’ll notice that while the Jews get blamed as an entire race for the wrongful execution of Jesus of Nazareth, there’s only one Gentile who ever takes the heat—me.

I was prefect over Judea—a military governor of the Roman Empire, appointed directly by the Emperor Tiberius himself. My normal headquarters was in Caesarea, but I always made a point of being in Jerusalem during the Jews’ Passover celebration, to discourage any thoughts of revolution. As governor, I enjoyed the power, prestige, and pleasure that my office afforded me—but mostly the power. I loved having power and I loved using power, violently if I had to, and sometimes just because I could. I had always been fascinated by might, strength, and power. As a young boy I would go outside when it was dark. I remember the feeling of the sand between my toes and the cool night breeze across my face. I’d look up at the stars flung across the heavens and dream. I swear I could almost hear a voice whispering to me on the night air: “Do you see those stars, Pilate? Aren’t they amazing? I made them, and I made you, Pilate.

But you know how life goes. Time, and other priorities drowned out that voice. Namely the priority I placed on gaining power. And as a Roman prefect I had become cynical, stubborn, wily, and quite frankly I despised my subjects. I’m sure none of your present-day politicians fit that description, but that’s how you made it in the Roman Empire. So I wasn’t feeling particularly cooperative that early Friday morning when the Jewish leaders brought a man to me at the praetorium. As usual, they refused to enter my palace, for fear of becoming “unclean.” You can imagine how cheery I was at the thought of having to come outside in the haze of daybreak to meet them. I hated dealing with these people. Early in my reign I had introduced embossed figures of Emperor Tiberius to Jerusalem. The Jews didn’t like it—promoted emperor worship, they said. They sent a delegation to me and begged five days for their removal. The sixth day, I sent a detachment of soldiers into the crowd. At a given signal they all drew their swords in a show of Rome’s military might. Do you know what the Jews did? They bared their necks and shouted they would rather die than transgress their holy laws! You can’t reason with religious fanatics like that. Can’t talk sense to them. I remember thinking how I had many important matters to attend to that day—a rigorous schedule of eating, bathing, and relaxing—but since we weren’t on the sundial just yet I decided I would hear their case against this man. I already knew something of the situation—it was my soldiers who had arrested him, after all. I went outside and saw them, along with the man, his head down and hands bound together in front of him. It caught them up short when I asked for the charges against this Jesus of Nazareth. They just wanted me to take their word for it and not start my own investigation. They looked at each other until someone sputtered, “If he were not a criminal … we would not have handed him over to you.” Well, I figured if they were going to waste my time, I could waste some of theirs. “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law,” I said. But they couldn’t do that. Seems they wanted this man crucified for political crimes. You see, we wouldn’t allow the Jews to exercise capital punishment—well, sometimes we’d look the other way at an occasional stoning or mob violence. But for this, if they expected me to hand down a capital sentence, I was going to need some convincing. I was going to need some acknowledgment of my position, my power over them. They charged this Jesus with claiming to be “the king of the Jews.” This could involve some political unrest, so I had him brought inside for questioning.

We entered my headquarters and I had the doors closed. He remained quiet, his eyes to the floor. “Are you the king of the Jews?” I asked. The answer I got wasn’t what I had expected. I anticipated a plea for mercy or an angry denunciation of Rome, but instead he answered … very much like a king. He raised his head and stated very calmly, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But my kingdom is not from here.” (I had no idea what he was talking about.) “So, you are a king, then?” I ventured. “You are right in saying that I am a king,” he replied. Okay, now I thought we were getting somewhere. But then he continued: “In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” At the time that sounded deluded, arrogant. I didn’t see it then, but I now recognize it as an invitation—an invitation to listen to him, to join him, to follow him, to align myself with the truth. But I dismissed him with a cynical, curt “What is truth?” Did I think there was a right answer? If there was, I didn’t want to hear it. I figured I could choose whatever truth I found convenient. I turned my back on him and left the room. The irony of it was all this while I thought I was putting some poor Jew on trial. But he wasn’t the defendant—he was the witness. And I was the one on trial … on trial before the Truth. Truth isn’t just some set of propositions—Truth is a person! The person I left there in the room.

The Jewish leaders were waiting outside, in greater numbers this time. News was making the rounds, and a crowd was gathering. I announced my verdict before them: “I find no basis for a charge against him.” And in keeping with their Passover customs, I offered to release this “king of the Jews.” But they shouted, “No! Not him! Give us Barabbas!” Barabbas?!? Barabbas was a murderer. Jesus was a little strange, unsettling, but he was innocent. They wanted me to release a murderer to the streets and condemn an innocent man! I ask you—what was this poor prefect to do? What would you do? I thought if we slapped him around a little, drew some blood, the Jews wouldn’t want more of it. I had a few soldiers take Jesus out and flog him. My soldiers took to this with gusto. They lashed him viciously. They took a date palm, twisted it into a wreath and jammed it on his head. Then they put a purple military cloak on him and yelled “Hail, King of the Jews!” as they struck him. When they were done, they dragged this pitiful wretch back to me, and I took him outside before the crowd. I reiterated my verdict of not guilty, and presented Jesus. “Behold, the man!” He was a sorry sight: swollen, bruised, bleeding from his back and those absurd thorns. Some king! Now how could anyone view this pathetic figure as a threat? Would you consider him a threat to your way of life, your power? But the chief priests and their lackeys would not be placated. They led the shouts of “Crucify! Crucify!” I was exasperated. Why ask me for a trial and then refuse to accept my judgment? Under Roman law he was innocent, and I had told them so. I said, “You take him and crucify him yourselves.” But they replied that he must be executed, “because he claimed to be the Son of God.”

Now, for the first time, a twinge of fear crossed my mind. Was this Jesus some sort of holy man with divine powers? Who exactly was this man I had just had whipped? I went back inside to him and demanded, “Where do you come from?” No response. “Are you an earth-born man or some kind of god?” And he looked up at me with his blood-stained face and those eyes … but he still wouldn’t give me an answer. Acted as though he had already answered me, in fact. I felt I should remind him of my position. I shouted, “Don’t you realize I have the power either to free you or to crucify you?!?” And finally he replied, softly, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” I inferred that he wasn’t just talking about the emperor. This was the voice of my childhood returned—the voice of God. He said that all my power, everything I had worked so hard to achieve and everything I dreamed of achieving, was given from God, and could be taken by God. The truth, indeed. Who was truly powerful and who was truly powerless? But truth about my power was truth I could not hear. Truth can be a terrible thing to reckon with.

I went back outside one more time to try freeing Jesus—more because he made me uncomfortable than because I wanted justice. But then those Jew leaders closed the noose around my neck. Do you know what those hypocrites said? “If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar! Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar!” My throat went dry. Tiberius was quick to entertain suspicions against his subordinates, and swift to exact ruthless punishment. As if they were more loyal subjects of Caesar than I! A threat to my political position was a threat to my power, an attack on everything I cared about. It was clear that I would have to choose kings. Could I choose truth? I presented Jesus to the Jews one last time. I sat him up on my judgment seat, my official throne from Caesarea, and said “Behold, your king!” The Jews had me trapped, but I would relish this opportunity: presenting this battered, weak man dressed in sham regal trappings as their king. “Take him away! Crucify him!” they shouted. “Shall I crucify your king?” I asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” they replied. Unreal. The ones who once would rather die than violate their holy law, would rather kill the holy one than reckon with his truth. The spiritual leaders of Israel had chosen their king. And so would I. That’s what Jesus does. You think he’s going to say, “Choose between me or the devil,” but he never says that. That’s easy—there’s no choice to make there. What Jesus says is, “Choose me or your mother. Choose me or your friends. Choose me or your career. Choose me or your life. Choose me as king or you as king.” And that’s not easy, people.

So I handed him over to be crucified … or maybe it was you. Your own theology insists that you’re as guilty of putting Jesus on that cross as I was. Your guilt brought him to the cross as the sacrificial Lamb of God. So don’t sit there all smug and point a finger at me! Still, I think I could have gotten over it, killing this innocent man. It doesn’t take that much to drown a conscience: strong drink, money lavishly spent, maybe sitting down in front of one of those magical image boxes you people have. Yes, I could have soon forgotten; dead men tell no tales. But things didn’t go according to plan. Word came back to me a few weeks after his execution that Jesus wasn’t exactly—well, he wasn’t as dead as we might have hoped. Like I said, you can’t talk sense to a religious fanatic like that. Dead men don’t rise! Apparently he didn’t get the memo. I was recalled to Rome a few years later after the death of Tiberius. My final act was to take my life by my own hand—the only power I had left. Once my power was gone, there was nothing left for me to live for. As for those Jewish leaders, they eventually revolted, and were crushed. Their beloved temple was leveled, while their rejected king lives and his kingdom grows even still. They chose their king, but they couldn’t choose the truth. And what of you? Who is your king? Is he the truth? Jesus claims to be both—and while you can choose your king, can you choose the truth? The decision is yours: pride, power, and self, or sacrifice, love, him. The decision is yours, and make it you will. Choose your king—just make sure you choose truth. If you will not now respond to his love, one day you will respond to his power! You can choose your king, but truth is true whether you choose it or not. Could I choose to have Jesus still be buried in the earth? A thousand Caesars & a thousand empires could not keep him there. He is alive, he is the Truth, and if he is your king, you know something about real power. The power to escape—no, to conquer the grave—that’s a power that lasts! That’s a truth that endures!

My time with you is at an end. I must go now, back whence I came. But for you, while yet you still live—behold the man! Behold your King. Behold the Truth.