February 17, 2005
Near Lucerne, Switzerland rises 7,000 foot Mount Pilatus. Here Pontius Pilate, legend says, traveled when removed from office in 37 A.D. Here he died. A long way from Jerusalem where history remembers the most important public decision he ever made. Even farther has Pilate traveled in the imagination of Christians. The greater the distance from the pages of Scripture, the more virtuous Pilate becomes.
In the East, Tertullian gives him a Christian heart (
Apologeticum 21.18.24). Augustine sees him as a prophet (
Sermo 201). And 7
th century Copts make him a saint. They even baptize their children with his name. In the West, Pilate’s memory moves in the opposite direction. In medieval Passion plays, he is a sinister man with little affinity for the message of Jesus. A curious character who confounds clarity. Tradition has done him no injustice. For in the story of Jesus’ Passion, Pilate is both noble and ignoble, both open and closed to the truth.
In 26 A.D. Pilate arrived in Caesarea Maritima to govern Judea as the Roman prefect. He immediately sent his troops to Jerusalem to assert his authority. The soldiers carried standards bearing pagan images offensive to the Jews. So he sent them at night. Pilate was knowledgeable, but not wise; political, but not prudent. The Jews protested the pagan images in the holy city. Six days of protest. When threatened with death, they protested even louder. Pilate gave in to the pressure. Rome had given the Jews religious autonomy. And Pilate dare not offend Rome.
Another time, he angered the Jews and did not give in. When building an aqueduct into Jerusalem, he took money from the temple treasury. Thousands protested. Pilate responded with force. Many perished. Rome expected order in the province. And Pilate would not offend Rome. Pilate guarded very carefully his political position. He did it well. He had one of the longest tenures of any prefect in Judea. For 10 years, he ruled. From the time of John the Baptist until the birth of the Church, he was Rome to Jews and Christians.
It is to Pilate that Jesus is brought on political charges. Jesus is a threat to the emperor. He is claiming to be “King of the Jews.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ teaching brought him into conflict with members of his own faith community. He faced religious opposition. Now his own hurl Jesus before Pilate and accuse him of political opposition to Rome. So strong is their animosity that they want nothing less than the sentence of death.
The secular and the religious, the human and the divine stand face to face as Jesus comes before Pilate. No government, no secular authority, no political party, has a monopoly on the truth. The State needs to be open to an understanding about life that comes from religion. A government that ignores or rejects such truth inflicts injustice on its people. Truth is truth. And only truth sets us free (Jn 8:32). Faced with Jesus, who is Truth itself, Pilate becomes the prisoner.
All four evangelists tend not to put all the blame for the death of Jesus on Pilate. Mark paints Pilate as a poor excuse for Roman justice. In the three other gospels, his portrait is not so unflattering. In fact, John emphasizes his desire to do what is right. During the trial of Jesus, the crowd gathers outside the Praetorium. Jesus is held within. On the outside, frenzied anger. People shout. Their hatred for Jesus pressuring Pilate to pervert justice and condemn him. On the inside, calm and the semblance of justice. Pilate questions and examines Jesus. Four times Pilate goes back and forth, in and out, between the noise of the street and the quiet of the court. Two opposing judgments. One choice. It is the struggle of conscience.
On the outside, the verdict of guilt is demanded. On the inside, the verdict of innocence is proven. In fact, three different times, Pilate acknowledges the innocence of Jesus (Jn 18:38; 19:4; 19:6). Three times, he tries to escape making a final choice between the crowd and Jesus. First, he makes the crowd choose between Barabbas and Jesus. Barabbas is a known murderer. Pilate is appealing to their sense of justice. They choose to set Barabbas free. Their conscience is dead.
Next, he appeals to their sense of compassion. He has Jesus brutally scourged. He himself watches. He does not want the prisoner to die. He brings Jesus, flogged and scourged, purpled in his own blood and crowned with thorns. “Behold the man”(Jn 19:5). Sheer pity for the suffering is powerful. But they cry out, “Crucify him, crucify him” (Jn 19:6). Their heart is dead. Pilate is not so callous. “From that moment, Pilate was anxious to set him free’ (Jn 19:12).
He makes one third and desperate attempt to free Jesus. The crowd was forcing him to do what he would not. He forces them to do what they should not. They keep shouting at him, “If you set him free, you are no friend of Caesar…” (Jn 19:12). Pilate fears the threat. He can remain ruler only as long as he is loyal to Rome. With contempt in his voice, he provokes the crowd to blasphemy. “‘Do you want me to crucify your king’, said Pilate” (Jn 19:15a). God is Israel’s king in heaven. The Messiah, his king on earth. “The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king except Caesar’” (Jn 19:15b). They deny their faith along with their national hope for freedom. “So in the end Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified: (Jn 19:16). Pilate has washed his hands of the matter (Mt 27: 23-25). But the stain of guilt cannot be splashed away.
In the story of the Passion, Pilate is not simply the State set against religion. He is not Rome against Jerusalem. Rather Pilate is each one of us who must choose for or against Christ and his gospel. Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 14:6). Faced with him, we are confronted with the mystery of God made man. Because of him, all life is sacred, from the innocent child to the guilty criminal awaiting sentencing. Every choice we make to stand for truth and goodness, for justice and for life is a choice of Christ as our King. To remain neutral and not choose is to embrace evil and, like Pilate, become a partner in the crucifixion of Christ today.