Power and Passion 1: Pontus Pilate
Passage: Luke 23:1–23:25
I was so naïve. I was sitting in the common area of our vacation condo watching TV and talking to my brother. Emily, my wife, had woken up and had come into the room. We all talked for a little bit and then my brother went into his room to get dressed and ready for the day, our first real day on vacation in Aruba. Emily called me into our room indicating she had something to show me. It was a pregnancy test she’d taken that moment. And it was positive. We were pregnant with our first child.
So yes what I’m telling you is Emily and I found out we were expecting our first child while we were on vacation in Aruba, we’re the worst. But in that moment I was blindly happy. I was filled with joy. I wasn’t thinking about sleepless nights, I wasn’t thinking about dirty diapers, I wasn’t thinking I’ll never be able to leave my house within five minutes of the time I want to leave my house. Because I was naïve. I had no idea how this news was going to change my life.
There are times in our lives when we get news that fundamentally changes our lives. I’m sure you’ve been there. Whether it was your own story of discovering you were going to be a parent or job opportunity or a chance encounter or a tragic phone call or a diagnosis. There are moments that change our lives. Sometimes we are aware of it in the moment. Sometimes we discover it only months or years afterward.
Easter is that moment not only in our lives but also in the history of the cosmos. Easter is the central moment of all time. It is the moment that defines all of history. It’s the moment that truly defines our lives. But we don’t always recognize that. We don’t always see that. I didn’t realize in the moment how much being a parent would upend and change my life and similarly we don’t always realize the deep impact that Easter has on every aspect of who we are. We need time, we need space, we need an opportunity to contemplate and process the implications of Easter on us all.
So that’s what we’re gonna do for a few weeks. We are going to look at how Easter can and should transform us. And we are going to do it through looking at different characters in the Passion narrative, in the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, conviction, and execution. Why are we revisiting this story? Didn’t we just talk about this story?
Each character in this story represents a different way of embodying power in the world. Why is power important? When we talk about the Easter story failing to transform us fully I think oftentimes we are talking about areas of power. What happens is that we divide, we sequester different aspects of our life. There’s our faith and there’s our work. Or there’s our faith and there’s our politics. Or there’s our faith and there’s our consumer choices. Our faith covers one aspect of our lives but we don’t allow it to impact all of our lives. Pastor and theologian Sam Wells writes, “I believe that in Jesus’ resurrection lies the power to transform the passion of our lives. This transformed passion gives disciples a new power that is best described as a new politics because it changes so many of the things we take for granted about what makes the world go round.” In looking at the way different people in the Bible used or failed to use their power we can look at our lives and see how Christ’s passion can transform the ways we use or don’t use our power. And the power of the resurrection can channel our own power so that we can be a part of God’s transformative work in the world.
The first person we are going to look at is the man who condemned Jesus to death: the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.
Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor assigned to keep the peace in Jerusalem. We don’t see him in the Gospel narratives until the Holy Week Passion story. We see Jesus having conflicts with a number of different people and groups. He has conflicts with the Pharisees. He has conflicts with the Sadducees. He has conflicts with Herod. He has conflicts with the Temple authorities. So when we meet Pilate it’s easy to get the sense that he is an honest power broker trying to mediate a conflict between Jesus and someone else.
The truth is that Pontius Pilate was anything but the passive figure we see in the Passion story.
In the outer regions controlled by the Roman Empire the primary grammar was money, wealth, and patronage. The prime measure of wealth was land ownership. If you owned land you could use the land in the acquisition of more wealth through farming, industry, etc. But since Rome had the ability to kick anyone they wanted out of any land they wanted, large or small, if you wanted to own vast expanses of land you had to keep the Romans happy. If you’re King Herod the Great and want to maintain your own autonomy you keep the Romans happy. If you’re Herod’s sons and want to keep the piece of your dad’s kingdom you inherited you keep the Romans happy. If you’re the Temple authorities and want to maintain independent administration of Israel’s religion you keep the Romans happy. So anyone that had any power owed their continued holding of power to the Romans. Anyone that had any wealth owed their continued holding of wealth to the Romans.
And two things kept the Romans happy: 1) taxes flowing into the capital and 2) the peace kept.
But even with power and authority dolled out to local leaders, Rome had members of their own aristocracy charged to ensure that the local leaders were holding up parts one and two of their contract. Pilate was one of those leaders. He was a Roman aristocrat belonging to the equestrian class, think medieval knight. His parents were rich and influential, but were not of the Senatorial or class of Romans who could hold official power in the capital. Members of the equestrian class typically gained notoriety through serving as military officers. And if they served the Roman army well as officers they could be granted ruling power as a prefect or governor over an administrative area. Becoming the fifth prefect of the province of Judea in AD 26, Pilate would have realized the pinnacle of his and his parent’s ambition. You don’t become the prefect of a Roman province without being incredibly shrewd, knowing the right people, being incredibly political, and making all the right moves.
Simply put, Pilate was no rube. He was no dummy. He was someone who had reached the highest office available to someone in his station. And as such he was someone not to be ignored and not to be underestimated. When we look at his actions in the Gospel narrative we ought to assume not just intent behind his every move, but also calculation. He knows what he’s doing. Or at least he thinks he does.
With that in mind let’s take a look at how one of the Gospel’s describes the interaction between Jesus and Pilate.
Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.” So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.” But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.”
Pilate encounters Jesus because the Temple authorities bring Jesus to him. They need to have a good reason to make Jesus Pilate’s problem and here we see they show Jesus is putting the two pieces of their contract in jeopardy. He tells the people not to pay taxes and he’s saying he’s a king. Both are a lie, at least as Luke has narrated Jesus’ teaching. But it reveals the limited power and imagination of the Temple authorities. They can’t do to Jesus what they want to do to him and the only way they can get Rome to do it is to trump up charges that have nothing to do with their problem with Jesus. It’s all a farce. And Pilate sees through it.
On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends —before this they had been enemies.
Pilate hears that Jesus is a Galilean and sends him to Herod, brushing off the Temple authorities by sending Jesus to a lower level politician. It’s a backhanded show of power to the Temple authorities; Pilate is saying this isn’t on my level.
But consider the scene. Jesus and Herod. Herod is surrounded by the trappings of being a king, he has the wealth, the privilege, all the trappings of royalty that Jesus doesn’t have. And yet he is no king. And here we are two thousand years later gathered to say Jesus is a king. And really Herod’s no-king-ness is highlighted by Pilate’s presence. Pilate sends Jesus to Herod but Herod doesn’t have the power to do what the Temple authorities want. Only Rome could execute. Once again we see that Herod might surround himself with the trappings of royalty, he might call himself King, but he is just as powerless before Rome’s power as anyone else.
Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate in costume and Luke says that day they become friends. They became friends because that day they agreed on the same thing: Jesus was irrelevant. Insignificant. Not worthy of the rabble the Temple authorities were rousing. Boy were they both wrong.
Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.”
Once again we see Pilate passing of Jesus as insignificant. He’s not worth my time. Pilate has Jesus flogged which was more a show of power than it was anything else. Think about it: Pilate says after examination Jesus isn’t guilty of the charges but has him whipped anyways. Why? Simply because he can. The whole point of the flogging was the demonstrate power.
But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.) Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.
We are gonna talk about Barabbas next week so I’ll save discussion of the comparison between Barabbas and Jesus for then. But to stay on Pilate what has happened is Pilate has put himself into a corner. He’s dismissed the desires of the Temple authorities and his dismissal has led the crowd to ask something inconceivable. Put to death a man Pilate just declared innocent and release a convicted murderer and, in Rome’s eyes, terrorist.
As the crowd gets more and more riled up Pilate would be getting anxious. Because if a political miscalculation led to a revolt he would be relieved of his duty and the Emperor would send someone else in his place, someone who could effectively keep the peace. And remember, this is the highlight of Pilate’s career; he’s been working his whole life to get here. So if you’re Pilate and your dismissal of your allies’ concern is putting the capital city of your province on the brink of revolt, what are you going to do? And the capital city of your province revolting would lead to you getting fired from the job you spent your career trying to get? Especially if you’ve already deemed the person sitting before you as insignificant? You’re going to do what you can to make people happy. And so he sends Jesus off to die.
It’s an amazing irony that the central moment in the history of the cosmos happened for reasons of political expediency.
Probably the most famous action Pilate does in this episode happens in Matthew’s Gospel. Pilate washes his hands. He makes clear the symbolism saying that he is not responsible for what is happening, that he is merely giving into the wishes of the Temple authorities and the crowd. Though he gives the order they bear the responsibility.
And this is where I want to talk about our own use and exercise of our power. How often does our use of our power mimic Pilate’s? Pilate had a choice between following his conscience and releasing an innocent man or going with the flow and killing him. I think Pilate knew what the right thing to do was. And he knew what the right thing for his own self-interest was. And he chose his self-interest. And his rationale for it was basically; I mean what else can I do?
How often do we hear from people involved in large-scale corruption what could I do, I was one person. How often do we hear the excuse from people I was just following orders, I was just doing what I was told to do.
What this piece of the passion narrative teaches is that we do our communities and ourselves a great disservice when we fail to realize the power that we do have. Pilate has absolute authority here. He can tell the people I’m not killing Jesus I don’t care what you think, go home or I’ll send the army to get you home. His power here is absolute. And yet he acts like he’s powerless to do anything other than what the crowd wants.
We are all powerful. Whether or not we believe it. We each have spheres of influence wherein we can work for good. In our families, in our places of business, in our communities. Pilate ought to teach us to use the power and influence we have for good and to be wary of attitudes that say we are powerless to allow injustice, oppression, and evil.
Sam Wells writes in his book Power and Passionthat is serving as my guide in this series about a housing community:
On one housing estate there was a large empty field, fenced off by the city council. Local residents had often asked to be able to use it for sport and recreation, but there were always civic reasons why it was not possible—mostly referring to the debris on the park and fears of litigation. One morning two local parents arranged for a street of children to clear the park of cans, bottles, and other litter. They made sure the newspapers were aware. They did not tear down the fences, but the carefully dismantled all the local authority’s reasons for keeping the fences up. Soon, soccer matches were being played on the field. The council seemed to be able to find sums of money for equipment after all. It became obvious that attempting to sell the park to a major retail developer would be politically disastrous. Those two parents began with a bottle clear up. Within weeks they had a youth movement. It turned out they were not as powerless as everyone initially thought.
He finishes with this quote: “It is no use saying, ‘Really there is nothing I can do.’ Politics begins when one realizes there is plenty one can do. Discipleship begins when one realizes that what one must do is to do what Jesus did.”
You have power. You have influence. How can you unite the passion of Jesus with your passion and use your power and influence to being about Kingdom change? Let us pray.