Today, the fourth Sunday in Lent, we look at Pontius Pilate, who was not the first proponent of the Pilates exercise movement
but was rather very, very bad news in Judea during the time of Jesus. Somewhat strangely, he is the only human, other than Jesus, to be named in the major creeds of the Christian church…..yes….his name is mentioned daily by millions and millions of Christians on every continent around the world. He obviously deserves some attention, not least because there is a bit, or a lot, of Pilate in each of us and in the church of Jesus Christ. It is from this man that we, individuals and the church, have learnt the fine art of “washing our hands” of the injustice in the world around us…..whether we be investors in beautiful oriental rugs that are only beautiful because enslaved children with teeny hands have made them
…….or if we be buyers of “cheap” clothes which are only cheap because people in a far away country are exploited and abused in sweat shops and sweat factories.
Pilate’s ability to wash his hands and walk away is alive and well.
There has been a tendency in the Christian telling of the Passion story to exonerate Pilate, or at least to make him an unwilling pawn of the Jewish leaders and crowds. Pilate, it is claimed, was a truth-seeking man who was caught between a rock and a hard place. Were it not for the pressure he received from the Sanhedrin and their supporters, he wouldn’t have crucified Jesus.
This view of the noble Pilate seems at first to fit the facts of the New Testament Gospels. But, upon closer scrutiny, it falls short in a number of crucial ways.
First, it overlooks Pilate’s record of cruelty in his dealings with the Jewish people. Far from being some benevolent ruler, Pilate frequently offended and grieviously mistreated those he was sent to govern. The Jewish historian Josephus records an instance when Pilate used money given to the Jerusalem temple for one of his pet projects. When a crowd of Jews objected, Pilate killed a great number of them. The Gospel of Luke records a similar instance when Pilate killed a number of Galilean Jews, mingling their blood with their temple sacrifices (Luke 13:1). The first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, once wrote a letter to Caesar, in which, among other things, he blamed Pilate for: “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injustices, constantly repeated executions without trial, and ceaseless and grievous cruelty.”
Second, it’s unlikely that Pilate would have been forced to act contrary to his will by the Jewish leaders and the crowd they rounded up to call for the crucifixion of Jesus. Pilate was surely aware of Jesus’ widespread popularity among the Jewish people. This, in fact, would have been a major concern to him, especially during the Passover, when the normal population of Jerusalem (around 35,000) swelled to perhaps ten times that amount. In other words, if Pilate had wanted to keep Jesus alive, he surely could have “gone over the heads” of the Jewish leaders to the large group of Jesus’s supporters and admirers. Of course Pilate didn’t need anyone’s approval to have Jesus killed. He had the authority to order execution. But Pilate was no doubt concerned about whether such an action in the case of Jesus would lead to revolt. So, we have every reason to believe that Pilate in fact wanted Jesus to be crucified, otherwise he would not have sentenced Him to death.
Third, what we see in the Gospels is, in all likelihood, a carefully scripted plot by Pilate. Knowing how popular Jesus was among the masses, Pilate knew he faced the possibility of insurrection if he himself was believed to be responsible for the death of Jesus. So he had to find a way to use his authority to crucify Jesus, and, at the same time, to publicly wash his hands of this decision. Thus he cleverly toyed with the Jewish leaders and their supporters, until it appeared as if he was compelled against his will to have Jesus crucified. Thus Pilate could get rid of Jesus and, at the same time, insure that popular anger would be directed at Jewish leaders and not at himself and Rome.
The fact that Pilate had Jesus crucified strongly suggests that he saw Jesus as a threat to Roman order. Though not your ordinary terrorist or revolutionary, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God (not Caesar) and accepted adulation as a messianic (kingly) figure. Moreover, even if his answers to Pilate were minimal, Jesus didn’t reject the charge that he claimed to be king of the Jews. So, even though Jesus wasn’t your run-of-the-mill Zealot, he was still the sort of person who was dangerous to Rome, and was therefore worthy of death, at least from the Roman point of view.
Why have I taken time to establish Pilate’s actual guilt for the death of Jesus? For one thing, this is an important antidote to the a-historical and anti-Semitic tendency among some Christians to exonerate Pilate and blame “the Jews” in general for the death of Jesus. To be sure, most (but not all) of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted Jesus killed, and plotted to that end. But Pilate must not be excused for his central role in the death of Jesus. He alone had the authority in Jerusalem to sentence Jesus to death by crucifixion, and he must bear this guilt.
But, this is Lent, and I have focused on Pilate for another reason as well. He is the person we see so much in the world around us, we have seen him in the news in South Africa this week, we have seen him in court this week: he is the person who fails to take responsibility for his actions, the person who seeks a way out for something that is blatantly wrong, the person who seeks to justify wrong actions, who fools himself/herself into believing that…”it doesn’t really matter”…..and we know that person only too well, don’t we? Perhaps Pilate really believed he was innocent of Jesus’ death. Perhaps, as I have suggested, he was playacting for his own political benefit. Either way, Pilate issued the verdict that sent Jesus to the cross. Yet he did so in such a way as to appear innocent of Jesus’ blood. He did not take responsibility for what he had done.
How often do we do this sort of thing ourselves? How often do we rationalize our sins, blaming them on others? How often do we fail to take responsibility for what we have done wrong, preferring to assign credit to our parents for raising us wrong, our society for mistreating us, our boss for abusing us, our spouse for misunderstanding us? I can’t tell you how many times, I have heard people try to evade responsibility for their own sins by pointing to the sins of others. And,……….I’ve done plenty of this myself.
Why is this wrong? Well, for one thing it’s dishonest. Yet, beyond this, when we fail to accept responsibility for our sins, then we lose the opportunity to experience forgiveness for them. If I’m blaming others when I do wrong, then I won’t confess what I’ve done as sin. And this, in turn, will keep me from experiencing the grace of God with respect to this particular sin. (I’m not saying this will keep me out of Heaven, but rather than I will fail to enjoy the fullness of God’s forgiveness in this life.)
You might have noticed that one of my hobbyhorses this Lent has been to get us to identify the unconfessed sin in our lives. To confess our sins to God is not to tell Him anything He doesn’t already know. Until we confess them however, they are a deep chasm between us and God, but, here’s the grace, the unconfessed sin in my life which is a chasm between me and God….that same sin, when I confess it, becomes the bridge which makes it possible for me to approach and get closer to my God……..isn’t grace just amazing?
Hand washers like Pilate can be right next to Jesus, but there is a chasm between them so that the God who in Christ and His Holy Spirit is with us can seem so distant. (The same principle applies in our personal relationships, but I’ll leave that for you to think about)
When we’re tempted to be like Pilate, we’d do well to remember a portion of the first letter of John in the New Testament:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
As you look at your life, don’t be like Pilate. Don’t try to wash your hands of that which you have done wrong and of that over which you think you have no control. God isn’t fooled. Rather, tell God the truth about your sins and our role in institutionalised sin, the sin others commit on our behalf, so that you might experience His forgiveness through Christ.