Pilate’s Choice

The year is approximately 29 A.D. and it is around April. The fresh scent of rain and olive wood fills the air. You try and roll over in bed, but you cannot escape the noise--the clamor. The streets of Judea are still damp and dark with dew. The first rays of a murky dawn filter through the window on your grizzled face.

Through the window, you can still hear the hum of devout Jews celebrating their Passover along with the creaking of carts as the merchants rush off to their place outside the Great Temple of Herod Antipas. Yet it is not the prayers of manic mothers or the beating of hoofs which arouses your attention. You are above these things. For you are the Roman governor of this land. You are Tiberius Caesar’s representative and right-hand man, brought to this far corner of the known world to commence justice. But it is not justice or the empire which wakes you. No, it is your wife, Claudia.

At first, you are angry. Your impulse is to tell her to shut up and let you sleep. It will be a busy day, and you need your rest if you are going to do anything about those meddlesome high priests and courtiers. But you hear her moan and begin to notice that she is crying. Her dusk colored cheeks and black hair is coated in a fresh panoply of tears and there is a hollowness beneath her eyes which warns you she has been up for a good part of the night.

Ashamed and a little unnerved, you throw your steady arms around her and ask her what is wrong. But to your shock, she cannot be consoled. She weeps harder and drowns your chest in pain. Finally, you manage to pray an answer from her lips.

“I am not crying for myself,” she tells you. “I am crying for you.”

Dumbfounded you wonder why. You kiss her gently and press her for an explanation. She tells you that you are going to judge a good man, a holy man blessed by the God of the Hebrews. She tells you that if you kill this man, you shall find yourself in Hades forever. A tad disquieted you ask her who told her this information. She confides to you it came to her in a dream. You laugh.

“A dream,” you snap. “Am I to be condemned by a dream?”

Sure enough, an hour or so later you find yourself confronted by the Jewish authorities. Only the night before they apprehended a wandering prophet, a man named Jesus of Nazareth called, “King of the Jews.” At first, you try and dismiss the case. Jesus has not broken any Roman laws. He has not upset any Roman customs. Therefore there is no legal reason why he should die. But the high priests insist that any man claiming to be “King of the Jews” must be no friend of Caesar. These hypocrites go so far as to argue they have no king but Caesar. As you know well, behind your back these same Jews pray for an anointed one or messiah to rescue them from Roman occupation. The only reason why they want Jesus dead is that he challenges their faulty authority, because he speaks with a greater authority, because he claims to be more. Just how much more remains unclear to you. Tired and intrigued, you call the prisoner before you and question him on his doctrine. You ask, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” he asks, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” you snap growing weary of the conversation. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
At this Jesus smiles and looks at you in a way which makes your blood run cold. He says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” you ask more uneasy than ever before.
Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

At this moment you jest.  You retort, “What is truth?” Yet as you walk away, you realize that the jest is far from funny.  In reality, it is the very object which may lead to your undoing. The truth … You have never thought much about the truth. Since you were a child, since you were a soldier in the ranks of the emperor, you never bothered with the philosophers. All the good men like Socrates ended up dead.  But this man, this king is no philosopher. He is not the love of wisdom or the friend of the wise. Deep in your heart, although you refuse to admit it, you know that he is love just as he is wisdom. This man, this king, this God is truth. And therefore you do the only thing any liar can do--you wash your hands of the whole business and leave other people to kill the innocent on your behalf.

In this crime against God, in this act of God--slaying, which kind of person does the everyman represent?  Are we the prisoner or are we the judge? Are we the truth or the man who judges the truth unwisely?  What Pilate does not understand is that the truth, the second person of the Holy Trinity, has become a man, and that this man will one day sit in judgment over the living and the dead, including the Roman who condemned him. The irony of this scene can only be put in contrast with the coming of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, “The New Jerusalem.” This is the “kingdom come” of the Lord’s Prayer. For one day untold years from this encounter, we know through revelation that we all shall rise and see the son of man coming in the clouds in glory sitting at the right hand of the father, that this Jesus who has been humiliated at Pilates hands shall himself pass final judgment on  Pilate.

Then how shall Pilate the condemned plead his case? Shall he cry, “But Lord I did not know you?  Was I not a Pagan unaware of your coming?  Did I not conduct myself justly in other cases or loving to my wife? Did I not love my country or my empire or my Caesar kindly? Did I not wash my hands of this business?” To which Christ may respond, although we cannot know until the day, “You washed your hands but did not wash your heart. For you loved Caesar more than you loved me, just as you loved your house and wealth more than you loved the least among you. You loved your pomp and circumstance than the prisoners you slaughtered for political expediency. Though you did not know my father by faith, you know your conscience and reason. These cried out to spare me, but you would not heed them, preferring your throne of judgment over my father’s mercy. Worst of all, you cried, “What is truth,” denying the truth that knelt before your living face, the same truth which molded your mind and heart. Then you denied objectivity or the law of good and evil, but now you plead me to do good, having born fruits of injustice.”

However, not all roads are certain, and I do not personally condemn Pilate. For perhaps, as some in the East say, the judge who mocked the truth repented and became himself an apostle of the way, a saint of the living God. Perhaps he left his throne of power and office under Caesar to walk among the multitudes, preaching the Good News of the rightful king. Perhaps he even turned to God for mercy shortly before his demise, having lived alternatively as a civil servant until the end, believing only in secret the things he had witnessed. No reliable record informs us of his life or end. Thus, Christ may say on the final day, “In the beginning, you washed your hands for Caesar. But after my rising, you learned to wash from you the imperfections of the heart. Come and enter into your reward. For though you were once first, you chose to stand last and though you offered up my body to the cross, you have shown these members of my body, the church, holiness and rest.” Which of these two outcomes is more likely--the Pilate who is condemned or the Pilate who is saved?  I cannot tell. But this episode offers us a fresh opportunity, to peer beyond the window of centuries and remember that we may be judges here for a little while under authority, but someday the Lord of all authorities shall come and judge us according to his Word. Then, may all who read this post, myself included, be able to  proclaim with a  heart most pure, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen