WERE YOU THERE? Finding Ourselves at the Foot of the Cross
The Cowardly Leader Click here for audio
John 18:33-38, 19:6-15
Abigail Ozanne, MDiv
This Lent, we have been delving into the stories of the Passion Week and considering how we, like the people around Jesus, might have found ourselves at the foot of the cross.
This week, I want to explore with you one of the less positive characters in the story, Pontius Pilate. I want to share with you some of what history teaches us of this man and discover his motivations for his actions toward Jesus. I want to consider if we are ever like Pilate and what we can learn from his story. If this sermon is a bit more scholarly than sermonly, please bear with me. After all, I am a teacher by both training and profession.
Pontius Pilate was a Roman prefect, or governor, of the Roman province of Judea from 26 CE to 36 CE. He is best known now for presiding at the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. Like other historical figures from so long ago, there is much that we do not know about him and what little we do know is made of stories and legends embroidered over time to fit the purpose of the one talking about him. Gospel writers, historians, and theologians have all had their particular take on this man. While some of have tried to make him seem like a sympathetic character, others have described him as a brutal ruler.
Let’s look as what we do know about him. As a Roman governor, Pilate was expected to keep the peace by quelling any uprising and unrest as he saw fit. Though Pilate did not live in Jerusalem all of the time, he would have been in town for the time of the Passover Festival. Because the Passover celebrates God’s protection of the Jews and freedom from slavery to the Egyptian empire, it is not surprising that Jews would see parallels with the oppression by the Roman Empire. It was often a politically charged time. The crowds, festival atmosphere and excitement would also add to the unruly energy. Pilate needed to be there to assert the power of the Empire and keep the peace.
Pilate could be brutal and unfeeling toward the Jews. Historians record several incidents that demonstrate his lack of respect for the Jews and their religion. One incident involved Pilate allowing soldiers to bring standards and effigies into the city of Jerusalem during the night. Because such pagan images are considered idolatry according to scripture, the people were greatly offended at these images in their holy city when they awoke to discover them the next morning. The citizens of Jerusalem surrounded his house and fell prostrate for five days in protest, imploring him to remove to images. Pilate pretended to be ready to negotiate. He lured the Jews to the stadium where he had soldiers already hidden. The soldiers surrounded the protestors and threatened them with death. When all offered to accept martyrdom, Pilate had to give in rather than kill so many.
If Pilate is a brutal man, unfeeling towards the religious sensibilities of the Jews, then why does he hesitate to kill Jesus? In John’s Gospel account of Jesus’ trial, Pilate tries to appear to all as innocent of any wrong-doing. He begins by questioning Jesus. In his exchange with Jesus, he is trying to find out if this man is guilty of any offense against the state. One such offense would be to claim to be a king, because that would put him in opposition to the government dictated by Rome. Jesus’ answers seem evasive but he denies being an earthly king. Pilate tells the Jewish leaders that he finds no grounds against Jesus and offers to release him. Pilate is probably worried about the consequences of upsetting the people of Jerusalem by executing an innocent man. He also does not want to anger the Jewish leaders, who might then cause unrest, so has Jesus flogged to placate them. Already, Pilate is making his choices based on what is best for keeping the peace and therefore keeping his job.
As Pilate again questions Jesus, he begins to understand that this is no ordinary man. When Jesus does not answer a question, Pilate is amazed. “You won’t speak to me? Don’t you know that I have authority to release you and also to crucify you?” Jesus has powerful and clever arguments. He doesn’t act like a man on trial for his life should behave. Jesus should be afraid but isn’t. Instead, he verbally fences with Pilate, turning his words back on him. Pilate was afraid of the crowd before. Now he fears the unusual power of Jesus.
So Pilate looks for a way out of this tricky political situation. He knows that if he does not keep the peace, he will lose his position as governor. This is no idle fear, for a few years later he is indeed sent to Rome in disgrace for being ineffective and stripped of his title. Aware of his political position, the Jewish leaders increase the stakes by saying that Jesus is claiming to be a king and opposing the emperor.
Why not just crush Jesus and be done with it then? While the Jewish leaders are accusing Jesus of crimes against the state, Jesus is frustrating Pilate. Jesus should be terrified but shows no fear. Instead He tells the governor that Pilate has no authority over him other than the power given from above. His power is not granted to him by the emperor but by God. I think that Pilate realizes at some level that Jesus has power beyond his comprehension. It is this that he fears.
Caught between the anger of the crowds and the strange power of the prisoner before him, Pilate seeks to distance himself from the situation. He reiterates three times over the course of the trial that he finds no grounds to charge Jesus. By doing this three times, he is saying that he is completely, totally innocent. He repeatedly looks for a way to avoid executing Jesus. Pilate offers to pardon Jesus, has him flogged as a concession to the Jews, and, as is told in other Gospel accounts, tries to have him tried by Herod and finally symbolically washes his hands of the whole mess.
Yet Pilate is responsible. He is not innocent. He is guilty by association. As the Prefect of Judea, Pilate is a representative of the Roman Empire. When Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified, he is permitting and supporting capital punishment by the government of which he is a part. He is guilty in action. He could have stopped this. But he didn’t. Even though he knows that Jesus is innocent, he allows this innocent man to be brutally executed.
And why does Pilate do this? Because he is a coward. He is too afraid of what people will say, of how others will react, to do what he knows is right.
During this story, you may have been thinking to yourself that you would never act like Pilate did. You would never turn the innocent over to death. You would never be such a cowardly leader. Or would you? Or would I?
The truth is that Pilate acted in a very understandable human way. He was not some sort of super-villain. He behaved like many politicians, like many in leadership, a person just trying to hold onto what power he had. While we may not regularly have the power of life and death over others, we do have power to help or harm others, to perpetuate injustice or to stop it. We may try to excuse our behavior in such situations by minimizing our own ability to choose. Yet we always have a choice.
We, like Pilate, at times give in to fear about what others will think. Sometimes it is in small ways, not saying how we really feel or what we really believe. We may not stand up for the person getting bullied, not wanting to be a victim as well. Perhaps we stay silent about the injustice in the work place for fear of jeopardizing our job. We may not express an opinion that is controversial or unpopular just to avoid rocking the boat.
So what is the message for us in this story? What is the good news? Certainly we should not be cowardly like Pilate. Yet we also need to be cautious, to be aware of how easy it is to justify our actions to ourselves, to watch out for the seductive pull of doing what is popular, to avoid following a course of action just because it is the path of least resistance. We need to do what is right and never excuse our actions by saying that we were just following orders.
In this story, the one who shows strength of character in spite of the risks is Jesus. In a Roman court, in the face of suffering and death, Jesus stands strong and speaks truth. While we may never stand on trial for our life, while we are not Jesus Christ, Son of the Most High, we do have the power of God within us. We do have the power of truth. When in doubt, we should speak the truth and seek justice. And the greatest news of all is that even when we do err, Jesus Christ has conquered sin and death.
So do not be a cowardly leader like Pilate, doing what is best for yourself and pretending to be innocent of wrong. Have courage, speak the truth, and know that it shall set you free.