The fifth in a series of five addresses reflecting on characters appearing in the Gospel readings for each day of Holy Week from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
The Prayer Book Gospel reading for today presents us with the best known politician in the history of the world. The eye witness account of Pilate would be a detailed and intimate account of the events of Good Friday
The Prayer Book reading picks up the story halfway through Jesus’ trial before Pilate; and we must ask ourselves: ‘what was Pilate thinking?’ At the end of chapter 18 Pilate has tried to release Jesus and the Jews demanded Barabbas.
If we look at Matthew, Mark and Luke, we are told that the crowd demanded Barabbas, so Pilate releases Barabbas and hands Jesus over to be flogged and crucified. John has more detail of the trial.
Pilate has Jesus’ flogged and then he brings him back into the place. What is going on in Pilate’s mind?
Is Pilate trying to find a way of releasing Jesus? Does Pilate think that if Jesus is flogged and humiliated, the Jews will give up on their demands and allow Pilate to let Jesus go free?
Pilate knows there is no legal justification for the flogging. It was a bitterly cruel exercise. The whip, or the scourge, was made with a number of leather thongs, into which were inserted pieces of bone and lead which pierced and tore the flesh when making contact. I remember my devoutly Christian school teacher saying she had sympathy with Pilate up to the point when he subjected Jesus to this cruel torture. Some scholars say that scourging was a preparation for execution, it made the prisoner weaker and hastened death.
When we look at John 19:1, it is hard to understand what Pilate is doing. Perhaps he genuinely believes that if he reduces Jesus to a broken and pathetic figure, the Jews will be satisfied and the matter will be at an end.
Pilate knows the flogging is illegal, he says in verse 4, ‘Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. He brings Jesus out for the crowd to see, ‘Behold the man’, he says.
Jesus stands before them and he stands before us: his body is broken and bleeding from the scourge; a crown of sharp thorns has been jammed upon his head; a purple robe has been thrown around his shoulders. ‘Behold the man’.
The word Pilate uses is anthropos; it is a word for a human being. ‘This is a human being’, Pilate seems to be saying to the crowd.
This is a human being; this is the Son of God. How did they respond? How do we respond to such a God? The figure standing there before us demands an answer. We cannot just turn and walk away.
Jesus’ accusers gave their answer. They want nothing to do with this man. ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ they shout.
In the verse that follow, Pilate the politician seems to take over from Pilate the chief justice.
In verse 7 we see Jesus’ enemies change their tactic. Their disagreement with Jesus was religious. In 18:19 the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. When they bring Jesus to Pilate they make a political charge; in 18:33 Pilate asks Jesus, ‘are you the King of the Jews?’ By 19;7 the accusation has changed back, they are accusing Jesus of heresy; it is a religious disagreement again. It is the first time they have made a specific accusation , ‘We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, becauſe he made himself the Son of God’.
Pilate is rattled. He is out of his depth here. Pilate is a hard-nosed government official, he has no interest in religion. Pilate knows enough to realise that he knows nothing. Pilate is like modern secular politicians; they have no strong religious views themselves and they can’t understand those who have strong beliefs.
Secular people think that their view is the normal one. They assume their answers must be the correct ones. They are concerned with the things of the material world and have no response to make to the big questions of life.
Pilate is no different from secular politicians. Pilate could cope with the day-today questions, but when it came to spiritual matters, Pilate was at a loss. He couldn’t understand what people were talking about.
Pilate is floundering. He is losing control of the situation. In verse 9, he goes back into the palace and he tries to get a hold on things again. “Whence art thou?” he asks Jesus. Pilate is trying to assert his superiority; if Jesus answered ‘Nazareth’, Pilate could have made play of the fact that he himself was from Rome, a much more significant and important place and that Jesus should therefore listen to him.
Jesus doesn’t answer, so Pilate resorts to using threats, “Speakest thou not unto me? knoweﬅ thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?”
The answer Jesus gives is the answer any devout Jew would have given. The Jews believed that God was Lord of all and that all power therefore came from him. Jesus is also making the point that his arrest, trial and crucifixion were within the authority of God. They were God’s way of saving the people who have rejected him.
There are verses in the story of Jesus’ trial that have been used in a very anti-Jewish way down through the centuries; verses like 19:11 “therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin”.
In medieval times and onwards, Jews suffered bitter persecution and violence; they were labelled ‘Christ-killers’ by the Church and suffered the most appalling crimes. Anti-Semitism culminated in the demonic Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism still persists in many quarters.
The Christian Gospel should never ever have been used as a basis for attacks on the Jews. Jesus is Jewish; those who wrote the Gospel accounts were Jewish. The issue here is not the Jews rejecting a Christian, there was no such thing as Christianity; it only begins after the resurrection. The issue here is God’s own beloved people rejecting his love.
In Jesus, God’s love is made available to all people everywhere. The rejection of that love, which began in Jerusalem, is just as strong amongst those who would claim to be members of the Christian church as it is among any other people. If we had been in Jerusalem, would we have behaved any differently?
Jesus’ enemies realise by verse 12 that Pilate is not interested in their religious dispute, so watch how the charge against Jesus switches again. It was religious; then it is political; then it is religious; and now they switch to a political charge, ‘If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himſelf a king, speaketh against Caesar”. This is their trump card against Pilate. They know he has been in trouble in the past; if he gets in trouble again, he will be heading down the road.
Pontius Pilate knows he is cornered and he very deliberately takes a legal role. Jesus is brought out and Pilate sits down in the judge’s seat. What is going on in Pilate’s mind. He seems to be in turmoil. He has tried to release Jesus at least three times. Even for a hard-headed man, it must have been difficult to accept that he was going to have to execute an obviously innocent man.
Pilate has one last trick. ‘Behold your King’, he says to the Jews. He is taunting them, provoking them. They respond as before, ‘Away with him, away with him,crucify him!’ Then Pilate asks them slyly, ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ and they walk into his trap, ‘we have no king but Caesar’.
Pilate has conceded the life of his prisoner, but the Jews have conceded everything in which they believed. They have disowned God and everything they have stood for, ‘we have no king but Caesar’.
Pilate is a difficult and complex character; a man of power who is ultimately too weak to exercise his authority. One legend says he finished his days in modern day Switzerland, living beside a lake and constantly wishing for water with which to was his hands.
How did his eye witness experience affect his life?
How does our reading of the Holy Week story affect our lives?
‘Behold the man’. How do we respond?