Who’d be Pontius Pilate? Perhaps when he was growing up he dreamt of being famous. If that was so, he certainly achieved his dream. His name is one of the most often repeated in the world. That’s because it’s there in the Creed, the Christian statement of belief which is used in worship by millions of people in churches all around the world. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate”. As it happens, we don’t use the Creed in this service today, because we substitute a shorter affirmation of faith, but it is there in most of our other services, and even if we aren’t saying it, countless millions of others will today. The rhythm of worship flows on continuously around the world, so I doubt whether there is a single moment when someone somewhere isn’t saying Pilate’s name. He is certainly remembered.
But not in a good way, of course.
We don’t know much about Pontius Pilate, but we do know that he administered the Roman Province of Judea from 26-36 AD. There are coins bearing his name, a dedication stone at a Roman theatre in Israel, and some Roman historians mention him too. Their writings tell us that he eventually fell from favour with the Emperor because he badly mishandled a Samaritan revolt. It wasn’t the first time he’d got it wrong, and in the end he was ordered back to Rome. He then disappears from the official records, which suggests that it probably didn’t end well for him. Whatever his Roman bosses thought of him though, the verdict of history is really based on this one decision he makes when an apparently insignificant carpenter’s son from Nazareth is brought before him accused of inciting rebellion. Did he imagine this case would matter so much? Probably not, but he got it wrong, and for that mistake he has been singled out for two thousand years of vilification. Like I said, who’d want to be Pilate?
But I don’t think the Gospel writers ever really intended us to dump all the blame on him. In fact, I think it was quite the opposite, and the Gospel reading we heard today helps us to see that. Pilate doesn’t come across as wicked, just someone who was confused, caught up in a situation he couldn’t see a way out of, hemmed in by conflicting pressures. At the crucial moment, he makes the wrong decision, but how can we be sure we would have acted differently? That is the question the Gospel writer is asking us to ask ourselves here. What do we do when things are tough and the way ahead isn’t easy? I’m sure we’d like to think we are rational, kind and reasonable people, but the chances are that actually, like Pilate, we fall back on old ways of coping, old responses, old ways of seeing the world. Even if they never really worked, we keep on trying the same things.
That’s what Pilate is doing. When an angry mob of religious leaders brings Jesus before him he can’t really understand what all the fuss is about. He’s seen far worse than this man – Judea was full of revolutionaries of one sort or another. Sometimes they had armies behind them, but this Jesus seems harmless enough. He has no soldiers, no weapons, and his followers – well - they’re just a bunch of peasant fishermen, not to mention the women, the children, the sick and disabled! But for some reason the Temple authorities have really got it in for this Jesus. It’s probably just one of their ridiculous religious hang-ups, thinks Pilate, but he knows he will have to smooth things over if he can, so that he doesn’t get it in the neck from his superiors. So he does what comes naturally to him. He starts to analyse who has the power in this situation and what they are likely to do with it, not so that he can do what is right, but so that he can do what is in his own best interests. It’s all about power.
Pilate lived in a world where having power and keeping it was a prime concern. There were no human rights laws, no war crimes tribunals, no real democratic processes. If you were lucky enough to be born to power, or strong enough to seize it, you could often get away with using it however you wanted. A Roman father had power of life and death over his family and his slaves. He could kill them or have them killed if he wanted to. A governor like Pilate, as we see, could dispense summary justice – where’s the counsel for the defence at Jesus’ trial? And over everyone there was the absolute rule of the Emperors, who were often completely ruthless and sometimes quite deranged. If you wanted to survive in this world you had to become very skilled at reading the signals, backing the right horse at the right moment, playing the power games, and that is what we see Pilate doing here.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks Jesus, because that’s what he’s been accused of claiming.
“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus replies. “Do you really want to know,” is what he means, “does it actually matter to you whether I am King of the Jews or not, or are you just fishing about to see whether I’ll agree to recant, so you can sweep all this aside?”
Jesus has hit the nail on the head; and Pilate is clearly irritated by that.
“I’m not a Jew, am I? It’s your high priests who have handed you over. What have you done?“ The actual rights and wrongs of the situation are neither here nor there to Pilate – the issues are nothing to do with him. All he cares about is defusing the tension so this whole mess will go away.
At this point Jesus could try to explain all the ins and outs of Jewish faith, the theological differences between him and his accusers, the reasons why he believes his approach to his religion is the right one and theirs is wrong – but that is never going to work, and Jesus knows it. Pilate doesn’t need a crash course in Jewish theology; he needs a whole new vision of the world. There’s no way he’ll be able to understand what Jesus is about while he is blinkered by the anxieties and suspicions that are so deeply woven into his make-up.
This story, from near the end of John’s Gospel, reminds me of another one from near the beginning. Right back at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry another man comes to talk to him. His name’s Nicodemus. He’s a high-up religious leader and he comes by night, under cover of darkness to try to suss Jesus out. Can Jesus really be the Messiah God has promised? “Truly I tell you,” says Jesus to him, “no one can see the kingdom of God – God at work here among us – unless they are born again.” Nicodemus doesn’t get it – “how can a grown man like me climb back into the womb and be born again?” he asks? But that wasn’t what Jesus meant at all. Being born again, or born from above, as some translations put it, is about starting afresh, seeing the world, yourself and others in new ways, from new perspectives, giving up the prejudices that have blinded you so that you can see the presence of God right here, right now at work around you.
Jesus’ message to Pilate is essentially the same. “My kingdom is not of this world.” says Jesus. He doesn’t mean that it is just spiritual, or about life after death, he means that the kind of life he’s calling his followers to is one which is so unlike the life Pilate leads that it might as well be a different world. Jesus’ kingdom starts from a completely different place. It can’t grow in the world Pilate inhabits, a world of slippery words, careful calculation, backroom deals and fear that keeps you looking over your shoulder all the time. Its values and priorities are entirely different. Jesus’ kingdom – his world - is one where we don’t need to be anxious about proving ourselves all the time, because we know we are already loved eternally by God, where we don’t need to climb over others, putting them down to make ourselves feel more important, because we’re part of a community where everyone matters and is of equal worth – that is a hard thing to say this week, when we are so much at loggerheads in the church, but it is still true and it’s especially important we hang on to this truth at the times when it is hard to do so.
Jesus’ kingdom is a kingdom, too, where we can afford to fail, to lose, even to die, because we are held in hands which will never let us go, no matter what happens. That must be very much in Jesus’ mind as he stands before Pilate, the man who’ll decide whether he is executed or not, but it’s clear that Pilate is far more afraid of Jesus than Jesus is of Pilate.
One modern translator of the Bible translates Jesus’ final words to Pilate like this. "Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice" (The Message).
Of course, Pilate doesn’t recognise that truth. He doesn’t get it, any more than Nicodemus did. He’s as baffled at the end of the conversation as he was at the beginning. That’s his tragedy.
But it doesn’t need to be our tragedy too - that’s why the Gospel writer tells us this story. That voice of truth calls us to ask ourselves what power games we play, and why we might feel the need to play them, what pressures weigh on us that might make us behave in ways that distort and diminish us and others too. It’s not that we shouldn’t stand firm on the things that matter. Jesus stands firm here for those he has championed, the poor and the outcast. If he backs down now to save his own skin, where will that leave them? They will once again be told they don’t matter, not really, not enough. But this story reminds us that we shouldn’t let fear rule us and push us into anxious manoeuvring, but rather be guided by the love of God who is with us whatever is happening around us. Otherwise we might find we’ve condemned to death the very things that could have brought us life and hope and peace.