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Pilate: Truth And Politics

As we observe Good Friday, let us remember the precious blood Jesus shed, the pains he went through and the cross he bore for us. Let us also retrospect on how he suffered and under whom… That little phrase ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’ has from the beginning been recited in the creeds of the Church and has possibly been translated into more languages around the world than even the Bible. Although that obscure Roman Governor of Judea stepped into the stage of human history for only four hours, his name is known to more people in the world than most of the people in history. What part did Pilate play in the drama of the cross on that first Good Friday between eight O’clock and twelve noon? The answer lies in two statements recorded in Matthew’s account: Pilate’s own $64, 000 political question, and ‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ? (Matt. 27:22) and his wife’s urgent message to him as he sat on the judgment seat, ‘Don’t have anything to do with the innocent man’ (Matt. 27:9). Pilate fried to follow his wife’s advice about Jesus, but he, like every man who has attempted it since, found this course of neutrality difficult because Pilate was bribed. He also wanted to retain his political reputation and loved his political power more than Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered, in the first place, from the very beginning. Pilate was not a high-born Roman. He was of the middle rank that we call the equestrian order. He had served in the army in Germany, and during a prolonged stay in Rome, he captured the affection of a Roman girl of very high connections. She was Claudia Procula, the illegitimate daughter of Claudia, who was the third wife of Emperor Tiberius. This connection with the man at the top served Pilate’s interest in an unexpected degree, for in AD 26, on the recommendation of Sejanus, the right-hand man of Emperor Tiberius; he was appointed the procurator of Judea. Luke 3:1 tells us that Pilate was the governor of Judea when John the Baptist began his ministry, thus he would have been the Governor of Judaea for about four years when Jesus was brought to him. In taking up his post, he was allowed the very unusual privilege of taking his wife with him to Judaea. So Pilate’s appointment was what we call a nepotistic appointment. He had connections with the right family.

Procurator was not normally a top appointment, but in Judaea it carried more responsibility than in other places. He was responsible for law and order, administration of justice and collection of taxes as a home minister does today. Like many men appointed in this nepotistic way of family favoritism, he was not quite up to the job. He was somewhat coarse, tactless, and very obstinate. To him, it seemed, authority meant the power to enforce his will rather than the exercise of responsibility and consideration for others. He was the embodiment of that personal aggressiveness which men and women thrust into positions of authority that exceeded their powers, so often use to attain their ends. Let me illustrate.

When he arrived at Jerusalem, he brought in the Roman norms which were abhorred by the Jews because the Jews were oppressed by the Romans.

During that time, there was scarcity of water in Jerusalem. Pilate constructed an aqueduct as the Government of Manipur constructs dams to bring water into the city with the thought – ‘since I am doing this for the benefit of these people, I’ll use some of their money.’ Therefore, he took some of the temple tax to pay for the aqueduct. He thought this item of development was in their interest. The people rebelled and rioted. He sent his soldiers in plain clothes with clubs and daggers, and at a signal, they turned on the mob, clubbed them and stabbed them to death. Many were killed in the stampede.

Luke 13:1 mentions that some Galilean had their blood mingled with their sacrifices at Pilate’s instigation. We don’t brave any details about this incident but it is consistent with the character of Pilate. Pilate was a man devoted to holding on to a job that he never would have obtained, but for his connection with the right family, a job in which he bungled one after another. His past was untidy in the extreme but he seems not to have recognized it, neither attempted to improve or rectify it. He blundered on, probably feeling that he had done no wrong and that, in each case others were to blame.

He did not know it, and you may not know it either, but that self justification, ‘blaming – others attitude’ brings to a person a moral paralysis that incapacitates him. How about our past? A tidy past comes from ruthless self-criticism, a readiness to see and admit our mistakes to ourselves and others, and a consequent building up of wisdom and experience and aptitude. There are still people who do the wrong things with Jesus Christ because they are unwilling to face up to the realities of their origin and their past behavior. Pilate needs to be for them, a warning.

By contrast, we see Jesus there that day in front of Pilate. He had the nature of God, but did not think that by force he should try to become equal with God. Of his own free will, he gave up all that he had and took the nature of a servant. He became like man and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death – his death on the cross (Phi1 2:6-8). There you have the two men: Pilate with the rank to which he never should have risen and Jesus with the rank to which he should never have descended. That’s the picture of Good Friday!

As well as a past he would rather forget, Pilate had a present problem. Two nights before the Passover feast, it appears that Caiaphas got in touch with Pilate about the contemplated arrest and trial of Jesus. With Pilate’s position as shaky as it was, it was not difficult for Caiaphas to get to agree that next morning, he would merely rubber-stamp and approve what the Jewish court had decided during the night and sanction the death penalty. Apparently, his wife knew something about this because, she dreamt about Jesus that night. He was up at dawn to attend to the matter, but when she woke up, her dream troubled her and she sent him this urgent message, ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man.’ (Matt. 27:19). What was Pilate to do? If he didn’t please the Jews, they would riot, report to Rome and perhaps he would lose his job. If he didn’t please his wife, she was the Emperor’s relative, and if she reported, he could be out of a job. That was Pilate’s dilemma, the unexpected and unwelcome problem that built up the pressure under which he had to do his job on that Black Friday. Note that, both the pressures were of his own making. He had antagonized the Jews. He was given the job because of his wife’s connection. Now the birds were coming home to roost! His sin was finding him out because of the clash of these two conflicting choices. Life does this, and when it does, God is, in fact offering us mercy or judgment in the language we best understand, the language of the priorities to which we have committed ourselves.

By contrast we Jesus, single-minded, straight forward, teaching the truth without regard for man. He knew no sin. He committed no sin. In him was no sin. His selfless concern that day was not for himself at all but for others; for the women he passed going up the hill to cavalry, who he told not to weep; for the soldiers who pierced his hands and feet with the hammer and the nails, about whom he said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34); for the thief to whom he said, ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise, (Luke 23:43). Even during the trial Jesus was concerned for others, while Pilate was thinking only of his own interests – should he please his wife? Should he please the Jews? In contrast was Jesus, who pleased not himself but others.

Pilate set out to follow his wife’s advice and he tried very hard. He wasn’t going to be an automatic rubber stamp. The Jews were astounded, when quite unexpectedly, instead of Pilate just saying, ‘All right, I confirm the death penalty, he said, ‘What accusation do you bring?’ They expected him to be rubber stamp. Therefore, the Jews asked him – why? We wouldn’t have brought him to you if he had not been guilty!’ But Pilate said, ‘All right, take him and judge him by you r own law.’ They took him but came back, and said, ‘He teaches the people in Galilee that he would be resurrected from the death.’ At the word ‘Galilee’, Pilate said, ‘Is he a Galilean? Send him to Herod.’ Herod was an arrogant man and dealt with Jesus in an arrogant way. Herod sent him back with the message, ‘I don’t find any fault in the man.’ Pilate was still trying to do what his wife had urged him and was ready to release him. It was the custom at the Passover feast to release a prisoner whom’ the people requested. A man called Barabas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. Pilate said, ‘Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?’ The Jews replied, ‘No, give us Barabbas.’ As a result his effort was once again foiled. Read John’s gospel. It does read ‘like a tragic pantomime, complete with stage directions – ‘Pilate came out to them’ (John 18:29), ‘Pilate then went back inside’ (18:33),; ‘he went out again to the Jews’ (18:38), ‘Once more Pilate came out’ (19:4); ‘he went back inside’ (19:9), ‘he brought Jesus out’ (19:13)

All these movements occurred in the narratives as John told it and John was an eye witness – but to what purpose? Why all this going in and going out when he ended up by delivering Jesus to be crucified? He was still trying to have nothing to do with Jesus as his wife advised. He tried hard, but he couldn’t control events this time. Pilate found no fault in Jesus and maintained that he had done nothing worthy of death. That was the truth. But the politics were different; he could have lost his job. And politics won. Pilate miserably failed to speak out the truth and do justice. He also compromised the truth with unfair politics. He took it for granted that he was not responsible for shedding innocent blood. So, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd and said, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility!’ (Matt. 27:24).

Could it be that we know the truth? We see what is just and right and fair, but dare not say or act rightly because we are threatened? We understand Pilate panicked because the events were beyond his control. Pilate, however is a lesson to us to prove that if we imitate Pilate and put Jesus on the cross, we will suffer everlasting shame and loss like him. We cannot blame Pilate alone. There are many pastors and politicians who love their posts more than the people they are supposed to serve. By contrast, we see Jesus, disheveled but dignified. When he was reviled, he did not revile back; when persecuted, he did not threaten. He never said a word, but remained calm, yet bearing in his body our sins on the cross; naked with nothing but wounds to cover him, yet in perfect serenity, he died for you and me!

*The article is written by Rev L Simon Raomai.

*The writer is the Pastor of MBC Centre Church.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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