Meditation Delivered by the Rev. Harold T. Lewis, Rector
Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh
Good Friday, 21 April 2000
"And Pilate went out to the Jews again, and told them, 'I find no crime in him.'" (John 10:38)
"Suffered under Pontius Pilate." With these words in the Creed, Mr. Pilate has earned an unenviable niche in history. Every time we recite the Creed, we remind ourselves that he is the one of the bad guys -- if not the ringleader --- in this most tragic drama of all time, the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Pontius Pilate is lumped with the chief priests, the Pharisees, the scribes, the soldiers, the mob, and everybody else in Jerusalem who had a part in the mockery, the trial, and the Crucifixion of Jesus. The phrase in the Creed is an unfortunate one. It really doesn't mean that Jesus suffered at the hands of Pilate, or was personally abused or tormented by him. It simply means that Jesus suffered during Pilate's watch, as it were. If we employed the same style of narrative today, we could say that every criminal in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania suffered under Tom Ridge. This afternoon, I would like to try to redeem Pilate's reputation, and in so doing, I bring forth Jesus himself as a character witness. Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus does not hide his contempt for Herod, whom he calls a fox, or the Pharisees, whom he describes as "a brood of vipers." But as we listen to the Passion, we see that Jesus has nothing like contempt for Pilate. In fact, if anything, he shows pity on the man caught, as it turned out, between a rock and a hard place. We can see Jesus looking with compassion into the soul of Pilate, a soul torn between heart and mind, charity and duty, sympathy and politics.
One reason that we might reconsider our evaluation of Pilate (and perhaps the reason that the Coptic Church to this day recognizes him as a martyr) is that it is through Pilate's interrogation of Jesus that we learn, succinctly, about Jesus' mission and ministry. Insights into that ministry are gleaned from the first four questions that Pilate puts to his prisoner.
"Are you the King of the Jews?" Pilate asks. Many think this question expresses incredulity. But more likely Pilate is simply doing his job by putting the charge to the accused, using direct questions in keeping with Roman procedure. We wonder, however, what answer Pilate expected to hear. Perhaps he expected Jesus to cringe and dissociate himself from the title. Maybe Pilate was bracing himself to hear Jesus rail against the Roman authorities. But in any event, Pilate is surprised. Jesus neither affirms nor denies his identity as king, but he does respond like one. Typically, he throws the question back at Pilate: "Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?" Jesus is addressing Pilate more as a human being than as Roman governor. Jesus is asking, in effect, Are you personally engaged, or is this just a formality? Do you have a personal interest in the question, or its answer?
Pilate is confused. He asks: "Am I a Jew?" Pilate cannot understand how this question could be of interest to him since he is not a Jew, not one of Jesus' followers. To himself, he recites the mantra, "There is no god but Caesar. There is no god but Caesar." Unfortunately, John's Gospel, in which he would play so prominent a part, had not yet been written, so Pilate couldn't turn to chapter 3, verse 16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him will have everlasting life." Like the Samaritan woman at the well, Pilate didn't know whom he was talking with. Jesus was no fly-by-night cult leader; he had come to save the universe, Pilate included.
Seeing that he was wading deeper into a theological mire from which he could extricate himself, Pilate decides to revert to his political role, and engage in straightforward interrogation, in an attempt to get at the facts of the case. He asks Jesus, "What have you done?" Maybe Pilate expected Jesus to answer the charges that had been laid against him; perhaps he expected Jesus to deny the charges, or to defend himself. But instead, Jesus launches into a discourse on the nature of the Kingdom, and explains that it is not of this world. This, in turn, causes Pilate to reiterate his first question, to which Jesus announces that he has come to bear witness to the truth.
This response elicits the final question from Pilate: "What is truth?" This is probably not the great philosophical question of all time that preachers and even nonreligious orators have made it out to be. It is probably little more on Pilate's part than a dismissal of the whole subject as irrelevant. Pilate had heard enough to determine that Jesus is not a political threat. So he tells the Jews, "I find no crime in him." He has gotten from the interview what he was after. But that's because, like so many of us, he heard exactly what he wanted to hear. Jesus had sown seed, but it had fallen on a beaten path. The judge had been judged. In this encounter between Jesus and Pilate, the role of judge and prisoner are reversed. Pilate ends up being tried.
There is a little Pilate in all of us. Like him, we can have a formal, distant relationship with Jesus, an intellectual curiosity but no real down-to-earth involvement. We are uncomfortable when someone tells us that he or she has accepted Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior, because that's just a little too intimate, thank you very much. We kinda sorta mouth the words when we sing "What a friend we have in Jesus," or "He walks with me and he talks with me and tells me I am his own," but we don't sing lustily. Like Pilate, we don't know whom we are dealing with. We want to make Jesus small, confined to sixty minutes on Sunday morning. But having made our obeisance, we figure we can take over for the rest of the week. Like Pilate, we pick and choose from Jesus' sayings, just enough to conform to the way we were going to lead our lives in the first place. Like Pilate, we are happy to find him innocent, so that we can claim to be blameless ourselves.
Let us pray:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus hath undone thee.
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee: I crucified thee.
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,
Think on thy pity, and thy love unswerving, Not my deserving.
Please feel free to contact Dr. Lewis if you have questions or comments about this or any sermon.
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