Friday, April 2, 2010

Pilate the Politician: A Political Meditation for the Season

The Story of Pilate provides an opportunity to reflect on power and politics in Jesus’ time and in our own lives.

Rome is the occupying authority of Jerusalem, Pilate, the Roman governor. He is indeed the top politician in Jerusalem.

The high priests and elders, politicians in their own religious bailiwick, have held their court, and they bring the defendant Jesus to Pilate who as civil authority has the power to mete out punishment.

Pilate is not a rubber stamp for the priests – Instead, he uses his position to question Jesus:

“Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus responds simply “you have said so.”

The priests and elders make their accusations against Jesus, but Jesus remains silent. He does not defend himself,

What kind of man is this? What kind of power does he have?

Pilate questions Jesus a second time: You hear how many things they say against you; what do you say?

But Jesus gives no answer.

Pilate, the gospel tells us, knows that the priests are envious of Jesus. The priests – and Pilate - understand the power that comes with their positions. But Jesus has a different kind of power, the power that emanates from his very person.

In the face of Jesus’ silence and lack of defense, Pilate, we are told, “Wondered greatly.”

Jesus’ refusal to play the power games makes Pilate pause and listen.

Pilate is perceptive: He understands power and he understands politics; he understands the priests’ and elders’ motives: they want to get rid of this troublemaker who threatens their authority.

Pilate is also traditional: he adheres to the Passover custom of releasing a prisoner to the Jews. So he asks the crowd –

Who do you want released -- Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?

Then a remarkable interlude occurs: As the people talk, Pilate is interrupted by a message sent by his wife.

She has had a dream that has disturbed her, and she warns her husband against harming Jesus, whom she calls “this righteous man.”

Pilate allied himself with a woman who pays attention to her dreams, to her intuitions. The message to Pilate can also be seen as a message from Pilate’s own intuition about Christ’s innocence. At the very least, the message reinforces Pilate’s reluctance to harm Jesus.

Pilate thinks, he perceives the motives of others, and he intuits what is going on.

And yet . . . and yet . . . he ultimately will give in to the mob.

Returning to the crowd, Pilate continues:

Which of the two do you want me to release?

And the crowd, which has been instructed by their leaders, the priests and elders,

This crowd says “Release Barabbas.”

Pilate still struggles with his own instincts as he asks again the fatal question:

Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ.

The mob shouts: Let him be crucified.

Yet Pilate is still not ready to give in: “Why, what evil has he done?” he questions.

Let him be crucified.

The polls are in – the crowd wants death for Jesus. Despite Pilate’s wonder at Jesus’ person, his understanding of the envy of the priests and the manipulation of the crowd, despite his intuition that Jesus has done nothing wrong, Pilate gives in.

Just like that.

The gospel says “He saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather than a riot was beginning.

Even though Pilot may be afraid he has other options. He has an army at his disposal. He could use military power to quell the riot. But he does not.

Instead, he takes water and washes his hands.

He says to the crowd “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

Pilate thinks he is absolving himself by doing the crowd’s will.
He knows the score but he is unwilling to stand up to the crowd OR take responsibility for what he does.

The priests and the crowd need Pilate to do their will, and Pilate thinks he needs them.

Finally, there is a chilling conclusion to the story of Pilate. Not only does he give in to the crowd but once he has agreed to have Jesus crucified, he must go the whole way: scourging Jesus before delivering him to be crucified, torturing him: Jesus is beaten, probably whipped with belts and metal balls as was the practice prior to crucifixion. Jesus suffers torture so violent that muscles and sinew are torn and the flesh is bleeding, and he is losing consciousness even before he attempts to carry the cross to Golgotha.

The Bible does not tell us, but Pilate has probably left the scene: he has washed his hands; he does not want to see the consequences of his decision.

This is a story about power – the power of God that Jesus has demonstrated throughout his short life to heal and teach and love, the power that does not need to boast or defend itself against its enemies, even in the face of death.

And it is the story of the other faces of power – the priests and elders’ envy of Jesus’ power. And the power of Pilate, the politician, who had a choice to use his power for good or for evil.

But the Church and the State are not the only forms of power.

Like Pilate, we too have been given many forms of human power. As Americans we enjoy a degree of prosperity and well being beyond most of our fellow creatures on this planet. As people of faith, we know what is right and wrong. We exercise a great deal of personal and collective power.

The question remains: how do we use our power – within our families, our relationships, within our places of worship, the workplace, our schools and other organizations? How do we use our power as citizens of our community, the nation and the world?

Do we like Pilate give in to the easier way and wash our hands of the pain we see, the pain we inflict.?

How do we use our human ability to perceive, to think, and to feel? Do we seek to follow Christ’s example to heal, to love, to serve others?

May we learn from Pilate to strive toward using our power in the service of God, the Christ of our better nature and to pray for forgiveness when we, like Pilate, fail. Sphere: Related Content

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