Jesus before Pilate.
In area after area Jesus opens up truths that we all need to live in and he provides the principles and barriers that prevent war and the origins of war. He is the hinge of the issue we have been addressing of war and the origins of war, showing us the other side of the door where there is sunshine and landscape, not dark and fear. There is one event where this becomes evident at a yet deeper level. Really it is the centre of this book. Jesus has been arrested at night by the Temple Party after nearly a week of teaching in the Temple Courts where he has confounded all they have thrown at him, and exposed their venality and hypocrisy. After an illegal quasi trial at the High Priest’s house, in the early morning probably before the heavy Passover crowds are out, they bring him to Pilate, the Roman Governor. It is worth at this time getting a feel of the relative powers of Pilate and the Temple Party. Pilate under Tiberius governed from Caesarea, and the understanding was that provided the Jews paid taxes and broadly behaved themselves, they could have a degree of autonomous government, especially in Jerusalem. Pilate in the end had the overwhelming power of Rome, but the immediate business of governing was in the hands of the Temple Party, with the Sadducees, the aristocracy, and the Pharisees, the lawyers and people running the local synagogue system, also having power within the Sanhedrin. Herod Antipas, as we have seen, had strong military power further north. In Jerusalem the Temple is a vast cultic power, bringing in extraordinary revenue through the Temple Tax which rivals the income of Rome, but leaves the people impoverished. When Jesus is hauled before Pilate, Pilate knows that they are out to get this man. He distrusts the leaders of the Temple Party stuffing gold into their Treasury and for good reason. In a few years they will get him thrown out of his job. More than this Pilate will know of the vast crowds at the Passover, about a million visitors, and the confrontations which have occurred in the Temple Courts. He knows that the Temple Party brings Jesus to Pilate because he has threatened their position by his words and teaching. They deliver him to Pilate’s palace on the western side of the central city area, not far from Caiaphas’s house early in the morning. They remain outside, because it would pollute them to enter Pilate’s Palace and a tetchy conversation takes place when Pilate comes out to meet them, because they will not come in.
Pilate asks, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” They refuse to answer because they want Pilate merely to rubber stamp their decision and because they don’t have any cogent charges anyway. “If he were not a criminal we would not have handed him over to you” they say. Pilate plays with them. “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” There are two problems for the High Priestly party with this response. First, as Pilate knows, that is precisely what they have failed to do. This is an overnight plot with no proper Jewish legal basis to it; you cannot have a trial at night; it has to be by day in the Temple Courts. The High Priestly Party avoid that issue and only mention the second problem. They want Jesus killed, but capital punishment has to be sanctioned by Rome. Most other issues are handled by the Sanhedrin, but if someone is to be killed, the sanction of Pilate is required. “But we have no right to execute anyone” they reply. Pilate is parading their lack of power. Everyone know this, and Pilate goes back inside the palace to arraign and try Jesus.
There are garbled charges as Pilate goes inside. Luke mentions them. “And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, the king, the Messiah. Subverting the nation is a bit vague. Jesus has not, technically, opposed paying taxes to Caesar, but it is worth recalling what he has done. When asked the question, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” he said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?’ for that is exactly what they were trying to do for such an event as this presentation to Pilate. It is a “cunning plot”, but Jesus easily recognizes it and deals with it with consummate ease. He asked for a coin, the denarius, with which the tax was paid. He did not take the small coin into his own hand, (as a pagan coin, it actually polluted the Temple area) but asked whose inscription was on the coin, as if he did not know, when everyone knew that he knew and that it was Caesar’s. The people asked responded that it was Caesar’s coin, as Jesus set up his own response, and then said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar, but give to God what is God’s.” The response technically did not catch him out, for he said that the coin should return to Caesar, but every Jew knew that everything should be rendered to God, so really, it was deeply questioning Roman rule. So the charge on taxes was technically false, a drummed up attempt at incrimination, and Jesus had walked round it, and yet placed the focus centrally on God. The third crucial thing was whether Jesus claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, the King, the National Deliverer. If he was claiming this position, he had to go, for he was a rival to Caesar. If he was not, he could be flogged and let go. Both Jesus and Pilate know this as they face one another.
Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate expects Jesus to say “No”. No sensible person would say “Yes”, because that would be signing their death warrant. Jesus’ response is interesting, almost post-modern, as he seeks to distinguish what this might mean to Pilate from what it means to the Jewish leaders. “Is that your own idea or did others talk to you about me?” It is a fearless inquiry, almost patronizing, an unusual response in this kind of inquisition. Pilate deflects the question. “Am I a Jew? It was your crowd and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What have you done?” Pilate is almost saying to Jesus. “Look, I understand them. You understand them. They are trouble-makers. What have you done to upset them?” Pilate assumes the “King of the Jews” question is buried and has moved on to another question. But Jesus refuses to relinquish the first question, and says “My kingdom is not out of/from this world, If it were, my servants would prevent my arrest by the Jews.” What is Jesus saying? First, he is ignoring Pilate’s subsequent question and insisting on addressing the king question - the one that can kill him, and of answering it in the affirmative – I have a kingdom. Second, he is talking to Pilate to some extent in Pilate’s terms, and he clearly means something like, ‘My kingdom is not like the Roman empire. It does not exist through fighting and the human exercise of power.’ Third, he is not saying ‘My kingdom is otherworldly, unreal, of no consequence in human affairs. Fourth, an obvious pivotal difference is that this is a kingdom of peace. ‘My servants/followers did not fight.” Jesus insists on highlighting the difference between fighting, the Roman way, and not fighting, the way of Jesus. We also know that it was not Jesus’ followers that abjured fighting, but that Peter needed telling off by Jesus and to be told, “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Hanging in the air are two kingdoms, the one the Roman Empire where Jesus was merely a captive, a local nuisance who might or might not need to be killed as a matter of convenience, and the kingdom or rule of God, the peaceable kingdom, of which Jesus is the king. It is a vivid interchange.
Jesus then enjoins, “But now my kingdom is from another place.” This is an extraordinarily authoritative statement to make. In one sense it is ludicrous for a prisoner standing before Pilate to assert that he is a king with a kingdom, but Jesus insists on doing it. ‘But now, right here and now..’ is the sense of the “but now”, startling to Pilate. Moreover, Jesus words are carefully chosen for Pilate. “My kingdom is from another place” means to Pilate the same as ‘Your power comes from Rome.’ ‘My power comes from another place, you do not understand?’
Pilate is struggling, as are we all at this point. He checks his underlying disbelief at the answer he thinks he is hearing. He asks, “You are a king then?” Pilate is not trying to trap him. Indeed, just the opposite. He is hearing the answer he does not want, the unthinkable answer, the head in the noose response. If Jesus is a “rival” king, he must die, but Pilate knows that this nice man standing in front of him is not a rival to Rome. In the face of what he has just heard he has to understand what this man is saying. He can’t be saying what he seems to be saying. Then comes the absolutely astonishing response, It is the confrontation between the representative of the Roman Empire which ruled much of the world for half a millennium, and the king of the kingdom which in a different way has ruled the world for two millennia and counting. Jesus response is to say, “You are right in saying I am a king.” It could not be more categorical. Jesus is directly sentencing himself to death. Pilate is pinned to his statement/question of Jesus’ kingship and therefore to the crucifixion of this man. His head is screaming, “This man knows what he is doing; why did he say that?” Jesus is a king. We must beware of what we hear. Now, kings are ceremonial figureheads without power or clout, as we say. Then, they were powerful, warriors, controllers, direct rulers of nations. Jesus is not claiming figurehead status. More immediately, he is doing just what Pilate feared and hoped he had avoided. Jesus assertion seemed to require a Roman response of crucifixion. Pilate would have to go along with the High Priestly Party and do their thing.
Pilate is processing this totally unequivocal statement by Christ, when the world’s biggest bombshell arrives (another chronic metaphor). For a moment hear it from inside Pilate’s head.
“You are right in saying I am a king. 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.”
Pilate knew the Roman Empire. He knew the marching legions, the imposition of control, stepping in brutally and killing people when the locals got uppity. Pilate knew militarism and rule based on power. He and Jesus were discussing crucifixion here, and both knew what it was – large nails in arms and legs banged in by soldiers, screaming, and a display to frighten the natives. For Pilate there was obviously nothing outside this pattern. Indeed, we have seen how the ideology of power has continued to dominate much of the west; most people still think in these terms. Yet here was Jesus, claiming to be the Christ, the ruler, utterly without power, talking about a kingdom based on truth. Could political rule be based on truth? Could something other than militarism rule? Where did this authority come from if not from Rome? Pilate’s head is by now close to exploding. This is too big. Jesus is standing there and claiming authority for a kingdom governed by truth. ‘Testify to the truth’ is to give witness, bare evidence for the truth; it is quite low key, but the sentence, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” requires one of three responses. Either you jettison truth, or judge Jesus as false in his claims, or you listen. To listen is not much to ask, unless in the end the truth actually resides with this man. Pilate, cannot cope and fumbles along with his famous muttered response, “What is truth?” but like all of us when we are sane the truth matters, perhaps more than anything else. He says, “What is truth?” but he goes out and tries to do it in his own compromised way.
He states to the assembled crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” That is true. It is the truth. All he has heard convinces him that Jesus is not guilty. These are trumped up, inconsequential charges. Pilate is trying to do the truth. But the High Priestly Party insists, as Luke records it. “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.”(Luke 23:5) It is a vague charge, a gloss for the fact that Jesus had overturned the tables of the moneychangers, or as Edersheim points out, more accurately the Temple Tax collectors.[i] But Pilate hears a way out. If Jesus is a Galilean, he can pass him on to Herod Antipas, who is in town in his house just along the main route from Pilate’s palace to the Temple. So Jesus is carted off to Antipas, “that fox”, that unclean one, as Jesus has described him when warned that Herod Antipas too was out to kill him. The visit to Antipas goes no-where. Herod Antipas vanity killed John the Baptist, he hopes for a spectacle from Jesus and Jesus refuses to engage in the dishonest interchange, is mocked and goes back to Pilate. However, Antipas and Pilate find themselves agreeing that Jesus has done nothing wrong. They know he is no political threat in terms of an uprising, and something about Jesus brings them together. Pilate reports this again to the chief priests, Sanhedrin and people. Pilate says he will flog him and let him go, choosing not to do what the logic of Roman rule requires.
At the same time, as Mark notes (15:6-8), the crowd are clamouring for their usual Passover prisoner release, and Pilate sees another possible way out. He says, “But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the King of the Jews’? Pilate offers them this alternative, but he is now losing. He doesn’t want to sentence Jesus, but he is offering them the patronizing generosity of the Roman overlord to set Jesus free. Moreover, probably under the influence of his interview with Jesus he has actually called him the “King of the Jews”. The suggestion is that in some sense he believes this to be the case; otherwise it is a strange thing to say. But for the Jewish mob to have a shackled, dishevelled prisoner before them paraded as ‘the King of the Jews’ is insulting, aside the control the Temple Party. They instead demand “Barabbas”, an insurrectionist murderer, and therefore the real enemy of Pilate and Rome. He and the crowd know that he is being pushed to release an enemy of Rome and kill the one who is blameless, but the crowd warms to the task, and keeps shouting “Crucify him. Crucify him.” You have to admire Pilate for his persistence. Again he says, “Why? What crime has he committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished (flogged) and then released.” About this time Pilate’s wife sends a message. “Don’t have anything to do with this just man.” Jesus reputation was everywhere. Pilate enters another level of turmoil involving his wife’s witness to the prisoner. Jesus is flogged, an horrific beating with leather and metal straps that cuts the flesh. Pilate perhaps hopes that seeing Jesus suffering will make the crowd pity him and change its stance. It does not quite work that way because the soldiers clothe his battered body in purple and mock him as “King of the Jews”. It is an insult to the Jewish people as well as directly to Jesus, and the crowd goes the other way into baying opposition.
The dynamics of the situation are so intense that every point counts. The text is quite clear that both Pilate and Jesus come out before the crowd. Antonio Ciseri’s Ecce Homo painting gets it about right. Jesus is wealed and bleeding. Pilate expostulates. “No charge. I find no basis for a charge”, but he now has the crowd against him, no doubt stirred by the Temple Party. He petutantly says, “You take him and crucify him.” That would be giving the Jews power to crucify, an outrageous concession from him, but then Pilate hears “According to our law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” God has been in the picture all along, but now he is centrally so. Jesus is standing there and has claimed to be the Son of God. The charge is correct. Jesus does not try to contradict it. John records, “When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace.” More accurately, they both went inside the palace. Pilate is afraid in relation to Jesus and the issue of truth, not afraid of the Jews. He ignores them, asks the guards to bring Jesus, turns and goes inside. He asks Jesus, “Where do you come from?” ‘You said your kingdom came from another place – where is it? Do you come from God? Are we talking of God’s kingdom?’ Jesus does not answer, because the answer is already on the table, as will soon be evident. Pilate blurts out, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” It is crude power irritation and bullying, but it also shares Pilate’s dilemma and his fear.
Then Jesus enfolds all his interlocutor’s fears in the love and purposes of God and summarises the full situation. “You would have no power over me, if it were not given you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” ‘The kingdom of God is rather bigger than you are thinking. I do not mind if you have immediate power over me, because God’s purposes are present in what happens here. Moreover I understand that the Jewish leaders are the main source of these wrongs. I understand your predicament.’ We all need Jesus as our friend. He is lacerated and in acute pain from being attacked by Pilate’s men, yet he empathises with his weak blustering attacker. Pilate tries to set Jesus free, but he has lost. The crowd has the ultimate blackmail. If you do this, you oppose Caesar. The empty gestures of the crowd culminate in the chant, “We have no king but Caesar, saying the opposite of what they mean, and Pilate washes his hands in a gesture of despair at the wrong that is done. And so the two kingdoms are lain out. The one is based on supposed power, control, militarism, and of course both the Jewish leaders and the Romans had signed up to it, and then there is this other one, God’s gentle kingdom, stronger than this bogus power, the kingdom that loves its enemies. Its king was crucified and rose again. By his wounds we are healed. Our evil is carried by God-with-us and the words, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do” signal a love more powerful than might. The cross, the instrument of military control over conquered populations, was itself conquered to become in part a symbol of the defeat of militarism. Because of God’s greater power, the gentle kingdom still grows, despite the failings of us Christians..
This is only part of the significance of cross and resurrection of Christ but it is an important part. After the resurrection Jesus insisted more than once on saying, “Peace be with you.” Its meaning is powerful. Peace be with you. May God’s peace indwell you, by faith and obedience. Carry God’s peace with you. Let it be carried person to person. The transmission of peace from ordinary person to person is part of the way the kingdom grows. As Jesus had earlier said to the disciples, “As you enter a home give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest there.” We are all ordinary people with failings and weaknesses, but we can, by faith, carry Christ’s peace and pass it on to others. We are called to peace. We can be thousands, millions, billions of people of peace, who deconstruct this great militarist edifice of evil and destruction, who end the next wars ten years before they might arrive and who find our enemies become our friends. And so the early Christians come to understand that the Lamb is on the throne, the small, frisky, woolly, cuddly lamb is the Christ, replacing the power of Caesar and the oppressors and militarists down the ages, and the Lamb shall rule us all.
[i] Alfred Edersheim The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Macdonald Publishing Company) Book III Chapter Five.