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Pilate and Power

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During Lent we are focusing on key encounters that Jesus has with various people as he moves close to the cross. There was the woman who anointed him with costly perfume at a dinner party. There was Judas, and Peter, and (last week we learned about) Caiaphas.

And … there was Pontius Pilate.

For almost 1700 years Christians of all traditions have used The Apostle’s Creed as a brief statement of Christian belief. We say this creed on occasion.

I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate..

The Apostle’s Creed does not mention any of the apostles (yeah go figure…) or Abraham, or Moses, or David. No John the Baptist, Peter or Paul. But, Pontius Pilate is there. His name has been recited by Christians for centuries. Who was this person that has become part of Christian creed?

Pontius Pilate was a governor under the Roman emperor, Tiberius. He came from the clan, Pontii, which is why he is Pontius Pilate. Let’s start by saying Pilate was not known to be a nice man.

Please forgive the political comment, but Pilate was like an ancient Vladimir Putin. Or worse.

Upon gaining power in the year 26 Pilate posted images of the Roman emperor throughout Jerusalem. Previous governors had been careful not to do this since it was deeply offensive to Jews for whom Jerusalem was their Holy City, but Pilate did so anyway. A delegation of Jews went to Caesarea for five days to plead for the removal of these images. On the sixth day, Pilate, fed up, ordered a group of soldiers to go into the crowd, and on the signal, they were to draw their swords. When this happened, the Jews all stopped and bared their necks and said they would rather die than have their laws broken. At that point, Pilate, realized this could get out of hand and cause a huge disturbance, and he removed the images of the emperor.

Pilate seized funds from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct. Not surprisingly, when he came to Jerusalem he was met with deep resistance from the Jews. Fearing an uprising, Pilate had soldiers dress as civilians and go into the crowd with clubs hidden under their clothing. And on a signal, they took out the clubs and began beating the protestors, killing some, and wounding many.

A nd then there was the time Pilate ordered a random attack on some Samaritans which eventually led to his removal from his post.

The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, Philo made note of Pilate’s qualities: (and I quote):

“… his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.”[1]

In Luke’s gospel there is reference to a rather gruesome incident where Pilate mingled the blood of dead Galileans with Jewish sacrifices. [2]

That was Pontius Pilate.

We’re not really sure what ultimately became of him, but there are some interesting theories.

Eusebius, one of our early church historians, reported that Pilate committed suicide, (but we have no other documentation of this).

Some early Christians believed Pilate converted to Christianity. Tertullian, one of the great early church fathers, reported this.

Augustine refers to Pilate as a prophet in one of his sermons.

Some factions of the early church reasoned that Pilate did not want to crucify Jesus, and did all he could to release him. Pilate’s wife warned him to let Jesus go.

In fact in the Coptic Orthodox Church—which is the largest church in Egypt with roots back to the earliest centuries of Christianity—Pilate and his wife have been made into saints. June 25 is St. Pontius Pilate Day in the Coptic Church. October 27 is a day for his wife, Claudia. …

Regardless of this speculation, Pilate as we know him in the Bible, was a cruel, abusive, tyrant, who had no limit on what he would do gain or exert power.

Pilate was brought into an encounter with Jesus, when the Sanhedrin said Jesus was worthy of death—on the charge of blasphemy. The religious leaders lead Jesus to this governor who they could count on to give the death sentence.

We know Pilate could care less about the Jewish religion; in fact he seemed to hate it. He did not care about the charge of blasphemy. He doesn’t believe in or worship their God. Pilate’s concern is political. His loyalty is the state and the empire of Rome and maintaining its power, and his power. Pilate is using the Jewish faith, to increase his own power.

Like when He was before Caiaphas, Jesus was silent. Pilate asks Jesus, “Don’t you hear what they are saying about you?” Again, Jesus makes no reply.

The prophet Isaiah said there would come One-from-God who would be like a suffering servant. Isaiah said this:

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. – Isaiah 53:7

Jesus did not try to defend himself. He did not try to find a way out. “Not even to a single charge.” This is astounding to Pilate.

Pilate can’t find anything that Jesus has done wrong. The Scripture says Pilate knew the Jews were bringing Jesus to him out of self-interest. So Pilate seems to try to get Jesus released by offering another Jesus, Jesus Barabbas.

Matthew is the only gospel writer who tells us that while this trial is going on, Pilate’s wife sends word that her husband should have nothing to do with Jesus because she has had disturbing dream about this innocent man.

It says the chief priests and elders had been working the crowd and persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas to be released, so that Jesus would get crucified. I can’t help but picture it like the floor of an old political convention. There is all kinds of politicking and power plays happening.

So when Pilate asks again who they want released, the crowd asks for Barabbas and demands the crucifixion of Jesus.

Once more Pilate asks, “What evil has he done?”[3] “What crime has he committed?” Again the crowd shouts, “Crucify him!” Crucify him!

Pilate sees that nothing will appease these people, and senses things are getting out of hand. A riot will make his standing with Rome all the worse.

Then Pilate does what most of us remember about Pilate: he takes some water, washes his hands, and says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility!”

In the Old Testament law, there is a certain ritual if a dead body is found and no one knows how the person died. The elders of the town are to take a heifer, break its neck, bring it to the Levitical priests, wash their hands over the heifer, and say:

‘“Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Accept this atonement for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, Lord, and do not hold your people guilty of the blood of an innocent person.’” (Deut 21:7-9)

Pilate uses a symbol that would mean something to Jews and he washes his hands of the whole thing. He proclaims his own innocence. Or at least he tries to.

This cold-blooded, vicious man knew, that Jesus was innocent. But the man with the power, decided to concede to the crowd, rather than put his power at risk. The problem was, Pilate was not innocent. And he could do nothing to change that.

We can’t proclaim our own innocence if we are to blame. We can’t “wash our own hands” when we are guilty. The cleansing does not come from the ritual or the water, but we are cleansed when we see our own sin, and we reach out in humility. Only the blood of Christ can wash us into being innocent. How ironic, that Pilate tries to wash his own hands while creating the context for Jesus’s blood to be shed for sin, all sin, even his sin.

The crowd cries out—responding to Pilate’s false declaration of innocence; they say, “His blood be on us, and on our children!” We need to pause here for perspective. First of all, to call down the blood of the Son of God in self-judgment and into the generations is a serious thing.

Second, some Christians throughout history have tragically used this cry against the Jewish people in cruel and hurtful ways. Some Christians over the centuries have unfortunately placed all blame for Jesus’s death on the Jews. Remember that it was the “crowd” of people in the first century, (yes who were organized and incited by the Sanhedrin) that cry this. It is not all Jews of all time, or even of that time. No one should take this verse and justify the stigma of “Christ-killer” upon an entire people.

Many were complicit in Jesus’ death: the crowd, the government, Pilate himself gave the order. The disciples were complicit. So was everyone whose sin led to the Lamb of God being sacrificed. And that is all of us. We are all to blame.

The Roman Empire was the most extensive political and social structure in western civilization, maybe ever. Rome’s influence on medicine, law, government, warfare, urban infrastructure, and so many other things is felt to this day. Yet, this was the era when God decided to come directly into human history in Jesus.

When Jesus stands before Pilate, it is the stand-off between the power of the gospel and the power of Rome. It is the first official encounter between Jesus and the earthly powers of this world. But it wasn’t the last.

Pilate believes he is in control. Pilate believes he has power, he even believes he can wash his hands of his own guilt. But who is really in control here? And who is really on trial?

Pilate personifies power. Pilate is the order of this world.

In John’s account of this same story, Pilate directly asks Jesus, “Do you know that I have the power to release you, and the power to crucify you?” (Jn 19:10) And Jesus tells Pilate that he “would have no power over [him], except that it has-been-given-to-him from above.”

Except that it has been given to him from above.

Y es, God gave Pilate power. God gives power to all kinds of people and systems.

I wonder sometimes why despots and dictators are allowed to rise up. I also remember that Jesus lived under political corruption and massive worldly power.

But Jesus did not fight power, on power’s terms. He did not lead an insurrection, or take up arms, or promote violence as the way to beat down Roman power. When he stood before the Roman Empire, he was silent. And He went on to lay down his life.

God did not put someone favorable in authority to smooth the way for his Son. Instead, as Karl Barth wrote: the Word of God appears, and is active, with Caesar on the throne in Rome.[4]

Political power helped kill Jesus. It opposed Jesus right from the start. Remember when Jesus was born Herod ordered a slaughter of infant boys in hopes of killing this king, this baby, he had only heard about.

Jesus never attacks the authority of Pilate or the state. Only once did Jesus say “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When he said that he implied that there are things that don’t belong to Caesar. There is a power greater than any earthly state or authority in this world. And that is God.

But power is not only political and corporate. It is also personal. We each have the power of choices, allegiances, and how we will live. We can all be tempted by power. Lots of people think that if they only had the power then it would all be better. If we only had power in the office, in the board room, in our home, in our city or country, in our church, or wherever. Maybe not.

Pilate did the wrong thing because he was afraid to do the right thing. He sacrificed Jesus in order to keep his position and further his career and ambition.[5]

Power, and the desire for power, can make us do the wrong thing out of fear of losing influence or position or likeablility. We can all be like Pilate when we would rather be popular than just, or we put personal need above the truth. We live the spirit of Pilate when we do not stand up for the good. [6]

S uch is the danger of power. We all have a little Pilate in us. Maybe that is why Pilate is in the Apostles’ Creed. But power will have less, well … power will have less power over us if we live for the kingdom that is not of this world. Power will have less hold over us, when we live for the King who calls us away from power; when we live for Jesus, who came not to be served, but serve, and give his life as a ransom for many. (Lk 22:24) Including us. Amen.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, save us from the traps and temptations of power.

And help us to acknowledge the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ over every authority and structure that would try to intimidate us into living for anything less than his kingdom and reign.

But it is not easy, and we need your help.

Keep our eyes on the cross as we journey through Lent. Amen.

[1] [2] Luke 13:1 [3] New Revised Standard Version [4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics in Outline. [5] William Barclay, The Apostle’s Creed For Everyman, p.94 [6] Sister Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief, p.116.

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