Point of View: Pontius Pilate
I think it’s strange that while the twelve disciples spent three years of their lives with Jesus, we know so very little about them, while Pontius Pilate, our point-of-view focus this morning, spent just a short time with Jesus on one day, and yet we hear more from Pilate than we do half the disciples. As seems usual for these biblical figures, we don’t know a lot about Pilate’s background – there are some conflicting stories over where he was born and what family he was part of – and we don’t know much about his life before he appears in the gospels. But we know that he was a prefect in Judea, and that prefects had certain duties – mostly military oversight and collecting taxes, but also judicial responsibility in some local affairs. During big religious festivals like the Passover, Pilate would be expected to be in Jerusalem, to make sure things were kept under control. And we know that he served as prefect in Judea from 26-36 AD, recalled to Rome perhaps just a year or two after Jesus’ trial. It seems that Pilate frequently found himself in conflict with the people he governed, and his superiors were not happy with his performance. (1)
In the gospels, Pontius Pilate appears only in the trial of Jesus and surrounding events. His name is occasionally mentioned in Acts and in the writings of Paul, but only in reference to Jesus being tried before him. And in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, we get the same general story – we see a Pilate who seems to be struggling between a feeling that Jesus is innocent of the crimes he’s accused of, and a Pilate who is concerned about the crowds and potential mob rule, wanting to please the people to keep them under control. Jesus has been arrested, and already been interviewed by the chief priests. But Pilate had authority over certain matters – in fact, even the high priest was named by the Roman government (1) – and the religious leaders wanted Pilate to condemn Jesus. In Matthew’s account, on which we focus today, Pilate interviews Jesus, asking him if he is the King of the Jews, a claim with political overtones that would threaten both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman authorities. But Jesus keeps silent, despite the questioning.
Pilate then offers to release a prisoner – Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus “who is called the Messiah.” At this point, we read some commentary from Matthew: Pilate thinks Jesus has been handed over to him because the religious leaders are jealous of Jesus' authority and popularity with the people, and also, his wife warned him to have nothing to do with “that innocent man” Jesus, because of a nightmare she had about him. Pilate seems to want to find a way to set Jesus free without having to actually come out and make the decision. The crowds shout for the release of Barabbas and begin to chant for Jesus’ death – “Let him be crucified! Let him be crucified!” We read that Pilate was overwhelmed by the crowd’s response, feeling he had no choice but to give in: “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’” Then Pilate releases Barabbas, as the people requested, has Jesus flogged – we’re not even sure why – and hands him over to be crucified.
As with Judas, I have a lot of questions about Pilate. What do we make of Pilate and his actions? Did he just get caught up in something that was out of his control? Is it true what he thought? If he hadn’t allowed Jesus to be put to death, would there really have been a riot that the Roman soldiers could not control? Would Jesus have just been put to death another way by the angry crowds? Can you just decide to wash your hands of a situation and really be free from responsibility? Can Pilate simply declare himself innocent? Who, ultimately, is responsible for Jesus’ death? Could Pilate have taken a stronger stand? Wasn’t he in charge?
We are focusing this Lent on points of view: who people say that Jesus is, and how who they say Jesus is changes who they are themselves, or how who they are changes who they say Jesus is! So if we take these somewhat jumbled questions, and apply them to Pilate, what do we come out with? Who does Pilate say that Jesus is? Surely, we don’t have a lot to go on. But we start to gather a sense even from this scene in Matthew that Pilate catches a glimpse of who Jesus is. He has a feeling that Jesus is something different. He can see that the religious leaders are jealous of Jesus. He knows that his wife has had a strange dream about Jesus and pronounced him innocent. He sees that Jesus is unwilling to argue with him over accusations and frantically defend himself. He is reluctant to condemn Jesus, and anxious not to be held responsible for what will happen to Jesus. When we take all these pieces, these clues, and put them together, it seems that Pilate, if not ready to call Jesus the Messiah exactly, knew that there was something about Jesus . . .
But for Pilate, ultimately, who he is is much more important to him than who Jesus is. Pilate is a prefect of the Roman Empire. What Pilate wants most is to escape blame, from Rome, from the Jews, no matter who Jesus turns out to be. He wants to have no responsibility for the situation before him, which is ironic for someone who wants desperately to keep their role of responsibility and authority. Pilate might believe there’s something more to Jesus – but ultimately, it doesn’t make a difference to him, because who he is, what he wants – his power, his control, his position – all of that is more important to him.
As always, what we learn here, what we learn about Pilate is only meaningful if we can see ourselves in his place. So, I have to ask – are there things that you believe, but your believing doesn’t make a difference to you, make a difference in how you live your life? Let me give you some examples of what I mean. You know I am not a follower of sports, but I would have had to crawl under a rock to miss the story of Joe Paterno, Penn State Football Coach, and the scandal he faced late last year. Paterno was criticized not for abuse himself, but for knowing of abuse that was happening and failing to take sufficient action with what he knew. Many professionals, like teachers, medical personnel, doctors, and in many places, clergy, are mandated reporters, who are required, legally, to report suspected child abuse. The law mandates that with knowledge comes a responsibility to act.
Or think of the current election cycle. In the midst of the Republican primaries, one question I think voters have is: Do what candidates say and what they actually have done or will do in office match up? A common accusation is that candidates flip-flop on positions. Mitt Romney, for example, has been trying to appeal to more conservative Republicans, but has also been criticized then for distancing himself with previous actions and statements when he served as governor. Voters want to know: Is this what he really believes? Or is he just saying what he thinks I want to hear?
One more example. You have probably heard this famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, written in the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust. First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me. We say actions speak louder than words, and if that is true, then inaction is a deafening silence.
What about our faith journeys? What about discipleship? What I want to know is this: What do you believe about Jesus? Who do you think that he is? And what difference has that made in the way that you live? Or, like Pontius Pilate, are there too many things about who we are and what we want for ourselves for us to actually let what we believe about Jesus change our lives?
One of my colleagues posed a question on his blog: “What is the most destructive force in a congregation?” He listed multiple-choice responses, including unresolved conflict, which had the most votes, followed by power struggles, narrow-mindedness, gossip, and keeping secrets. But I selected the ‘other’ option and added in my own response: apathy. The church is at risk when we don’t translate what we believe into how we live as individuals and as a congregation. To me, what is most destructive to churches is just this dilemma that we see in Pontius Pilate. We believe something, but what we believe doesn’t necessarily change anything. Consider what we believe as a congregation: I trust that generally, we believe in God, believe in Jesus, believe that Jesus set an example for us, believe that we’re meant to be disciples, believe that God loves us, and so on. We might come down differently on exactly what those beliefs mean in detail, but at the core, I think we’re on the same page. Where we need to ask ourselves the hard questions, where we need to do some soul-searching is when we ask ourselves: what difference does what we believe make?
Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What is it we are taking up? Taking up the cross means taking a risk to follow Jesus, and what we must risk is different for each one of us. What is holding us back? What is it that you are afraid to risk? I’m guessing, that with a little introspection, it wouldn’t take you long to answer that question. In our discipleship, in our faith journey, we get into trouble when the cost of following Jesus is always more than we are willing to pay, and when what it costs us is always a bigger concern than acting on what we believe. When we believe, but still fail to act, that’s apathy. When we believe, but still fail to act, that’s of more concern than those who don’t know what they believe yet. For Pontius Pilate, the cost to himself was his primary concern. He knew Jesus shouldn’t be condemned to death. But the cost Pilate would bear was too much. What he was willing to risk, willing to ‘spend’ on what he believed was nothing. What are you willing to spend? What will you risk? What is that task to which God is calling you that nags at the back of your mind, the corners of your heart? What do you believe about God? And so what? How has it changed you? Who do you say that Jesus is? And how will your answer change your life?