Today we move from the halls of Annas and Caiaphas to the palace of the highest ranking representative of the Roman Emperor in the region, Pilate. It was Pilate’s responsibility to safeguard the power structure and the economy that made the massive geographical and political and philosophical phenomenon that was the Roman Empire function. Pilate oversaw and directed a police force comprising of both Roman soldiers and locally sourced auxiliaries. With this force Pilate maintained public order through decisive uses of state violence, the disciplined collection of taxes, and the disbursement of funds to sustain these activities.
When I picture this reading in my head, I have a very strong image of Pilate. Most of you know my love of musicals and in particular Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. In the 2000 English version of Jesus Christ Superstar the role of Pilate was played by Fred Johanson, an extremely tall actor, who entered the screen during the portrayal of this reading dressed in costume very similar to an SS officer’s uniform. Quite an impression!
As the reading progresses, we hear that Pilate takes quite a bit of persuading to take this request to punish Jesus seriously. He really doesn’t want to get involved in what he believes he is being pushed to do. It is only in response to the statement that the ‘Jews’ make regarding their inability to put anyone to death that Pilate begins to interrogate Jesus and the discussion around truth begins. But if we back up for a moment, we need to be aware of the timing of this encounter. It is the Passover; Jerusalem is full of pilgrims and crowds can be unpredictable and volatile. Jesus, and we, know this so very well. Here were the crowds that welcomed Jesus into the city with Hosannas and palms now shouting less welcoming words at Jesus, instead he hears words such as blasphemer and liar. Pilate is in town to keep the peace, control the crowds and that is the initial reason he pays any attention to this Jesus person. The one who was celebrated as a hero coming into Jerusalem is now considered a criminal by those who welcomed him. This could go badly, and riots could ensue, and so Pilate pays attention.
Pilate begins to seek the truth behind what is happening, and he begins his interrogation with a question that has not been heard before – “Are you the king of the Jews?”
We will get this phrase “King of the Jews” another 4 times in the next thirty or so verses, but we’ll do more on that next week. If we think about it the language of “king” is something that Pilate understands, it is power language, and I suspect Pilate is keen to understand who this person is before him and maybe assess just what threat this Jesus is.
But Jesus’ power plays on a different field than Pilate’s. And Pilate can’t quite understand this. He is confused and irritated with their interchange and increasingly loses control of the situation.
Pilate is seeking facts, and the ones he gets he doesn’t understand. What are you looking for as you question Jesus? We all question our faith and our understanding at one point or another. Are there some things you would like some solid answers to and perhaps others you are able to sit loosely with? What is the truth you would like to hear or convey about this hero turned criminal?