The intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. He commands our moral attention not because he was a bad man, but because he was so nearly a good man. One can imagine him agonising, seeing that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and wishing torelease him. Just as easily, however, one can envisage Pilate's advisers telling him of the risks, warning him not to cause a riot or inflame Jewish opinion. It is a timeless parable of political life.
It is quite possible to view Pilate as the typical politician, caught on the horns of an age-old political dilemma. We know he did wrong, yet his is the struggle between what is right and what is expedient that has occurred throughout history. The Munich Agreement of 1938 (settlement reached by Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy that permitted German annexation of western Czechoslovakia) was a classic example of this, the struggle between what is right and what is expedient. Similarly, Guantanamo Bay, or dealing with 1000’s of refugees on your doorstep. And it is not always clear, even in retrospect, what is, in truth, right. Should we do what appears principled or morally correct, whatever the ultimate cost, or do you do what is politically expedient?
Tony Blair said: Christianity is optimistic about the human condition, but not naive. It can identify what is good, but knows the capacity to do evil. I believe that the endless striving to do the one and avoid the other is the purpose of human existence.
Doing good, avoiding evil … but it just isn’t always that simple, is it? It wasn’t for Pilate. Do we kill Jihadi John (but we know killing is wrong) in order to save other lives? If I don’t kill this Jesus, the chances are these difficult Jews I govern will riot and my soldiers just love killing rioting Jews; so, do I kill him and save a riot and save lives? The struggle between what is right and what is expedient at a particular time.
The Pilate of the Gospels is not just a Roman judge. That is almost the least of the roles he plays. He is also a symbol of the state, the secular power, the material world, ignorance and darkness even in the very presence of Light. He is in fact, all people, he is all people facing, considering and ultimately rejecting Truth. We believe that on the Cross, Jesus represented us; He hung there, for us; He suffered there, for us. I want to suggest that before the Cross, Pilate represented us; he stood there, for us; he “suffered” as he struggled with his conscience, for us; he took the decision, for us. We crucified Christ, the world, past, present and future, crucified Christ. We asked and allowed Pilate to act on our behalf. To believe that we would behaved differently if we had been there that dreadful day, is to completely misunderstand the sinful nature with which we are born … and which lingers, even as we put off the old and put on the new.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Ps 51:5
Now, many modern scholars favor the idea of the kangaroo court and the instant death sentence which caused Jesus to be crucified … but that really is not the Biblical picture. No, it was no kangaroo court … Pilate is in no rush, he really is the great equivocator. I first learnt that word when we studied Macbeth… not sure I’ve used it since. He hums and he hahs, which way will he go. When we read his story, we are like an audience at a show, we love to watch him teeter, struggle, almost save himself, and fall. You know why this story draws us into itself as it does? It’s because in some sense, when we watch him, we feel, we know, we are actually watching ourselves.
On one occasion Jesus said to a group of men:
‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
Anyone here not sinned since we last met … I can’t put my hand up … and neither can you. I said earlier that the intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad … does that sound familiar? I went on and said he commands our moral attention not because he was a bad man, but because he was so nearly a good man … sound familiar, try inserting father, mother, child, husband, wife, disciple. I went on: One can imagine him agonising, … I don’t believe we Christians agonise enough. Our tongues just speak, our minds just wander, our actions so often are the opposite of Christ’s… or am I just speaking of myself? I’m not, am I?
Have you read Romans 7, Paul writing 20 years after his salvation;
but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.
Poor Paul, poor Pilate, poor you and me. However … the good news!
In all the other encounters with Jesus that we’ve looked at (Matthew, Bartimaeus and Judas since I’ve been here), the encounters have always left the person encountered changed in some way … in most for the better, in Judas for the worse, but always changed. Not so Pilate, he hums and he hahs, wrestles, prevaricates (wow, twice in one day) but ultimately is unchanged, by his encounter with Jesus. His heart is neither hardened, as so many hearts sometimes are by an encounter with Jesus; nor is it softened, as so many hearts are by an encounter with Jesus. I find it difficult to find another character like him in Scripture. Pharaoh, Herod, Pharisees, the Council, the crowds in Acts … all hardened … Saul’s heart hardened, then softened to become Paul … rest of NT all either harden or soften … but Pilate is not ultimately moved either way … I base this on the last thing we hear about Pilate. When approached by Joseph of Arithimea for permission to take Jesus’ body off the cross for burial, the only emotion is one of surprise that Jesus has died already, there’s no “Oh Good” or “Oh No”, there’s just “Hmf, that was quick.”
His encounter with Jesus leaves him unchanged. How do your encounters with Jesus, the Risen and present Christ, leave you? As an aside, let me quickly remind you that we encounter Jesus in many ways: in worship, in sacrament, in the Word, in prayer and of course as Jesus so profoundly teaches us, we encounter Him in the least among us.
How do these encounters, which happen on a daily basis, for every single person on the planet, how do they leave you? We must beware of becoming blasé about Christ’s presence, of … taking Him and His presence for granted … if we do that we become more like Pilate, unchanged by who it is who stands before us.
But if we encourage ourselves to be overawed by the reality, the Truth, of who it is who stands before us, next to us, mysteriously in us … then our encounters with Jesus will change us; sometimes driving us to our knees in heartfelt repentance; sometimes lifting us to unthought-of heights; often just leaving us exactly where we are, but not as we are: rather, remember Advent?, His encounters with us can and do constantly give us hope, love, joy and peace. These things from Christ and through the Spirit, constantly change us from glory to glory.
May you have such encounters in the day and week ahead.
I'm indebted to Ann Wroe and her Pontius Pilate
for some of the above perspectives on Pilate
Buy it here