For whatever reason, Pontius Pilate often gets overlooked in the story of Jesus’s crucifixion in Western Christianity. Many people brush over him completely, blaming the people of Jerusalem for Jesus’s death, and forget that it was in fact Pontius Pilate who gave the order—regardless of whatever political pressure he was under at the time.
Pontius Pilate has always been a man of fascination for me, I admit. He sings three my favorite four songs in Jesus Christ Superstar (and he only has three to sing), and is one of the two main characters in my favorite novel—the Master and Margarita—which is the story of when the Devil goes to Soviet-controlled Moscow and causes havoc. It is all explained away, naturally, by the Bolsheviks, for those of you who are looking for something new to read.
Those of us who studied history couldn’t even be certain if Pontius Pilate even existed outside of the Gospels, as we didn’t have corroborating evidence of him or his tenure as governor, until first a pillar was found with his name on it sometime in my lifetime (so, not too long ago). It was astounding, after all this time, we had corroboration outside of the gospels that there was a man named Pilate who was in some form of position in Judea. Then, suddenly, there was more. Recent archeological evidence in the past ten years discovered evidence of a walkway he sponsored that had his name inscribed in it. This was a beautiful thoroughfare which would allow Jews access to water sites, and was highly technologically advanced at the time.
I remember reading about the original archeological finding, looking at drawings of what the thoroughfare or walkway must have looked like, and it didn’t jive in my head with what we’re always brought to think of Pontius.
Pontius is political. He is weak. He bows to political pressure. Doesn’t he? He’s a Roman governor who doesn’t want to lose Roman favor. That’s why he bends to the Pharisees after all, isn’t it? He is by no means caring or magnanimous—surely. You don’t think “Pontius Pilate” and “philanthropist” in the same thought.
Or can we see hints of the man who would put together a public works project in the Biblical in the text? Can we see a man who doesn’t want to do wrong by a prisoner brought to him on the Eve of the Jewish Passover?
A Few Things about Pontius Pilate
First, let’s remember that Pontius has been warned by his wife to have “nothing to do with that righteous man” because she has had a “dream” (Matthew 27:19). He is a Roman man. We can reasonably guess that he believes in foretellings and dreams, so he is forewarned. This gives him a reason to try and get Jesus off on the charges—but at the beginning, there aren’t really many or any charges to be had.
Second, Pontius is a political man. That doesn’t mean that he is necessarily a corrupt man, whatever our personal opinions on politicians past and/or present. He knows which way the winds are blowing, but still he gives Jesus an out. He still gives him a chance to deny publicly what is being said. Of course, Jesus doesn’t quite take it the way a normal 100% human man would, but that doesn’t mean that Pontius didn’t try.
Let’s Go to the Text
Jesus is brought to Pilate on the Eve of Passover and can’t even go outside because his accusers are afraid of being defiled. I imagine the entire situation is one uncomfortable for Jesus. Being manhandled and arrested has got to upset and infringe on one of the 613 Jewish laws in one way or another. His dignity is certainly infringed upon.
If I were Pilate, I would be wondering, “What’s the hurry? Why can’t you deal with it yourself? Why can’t you put him in a jail over Passover and be done with it?” It would look—suspicious—any which way I looked at it.
But Pilate goes over to them and asks about the accusations.
Instead of receiving a direct accusation, he receives instead a deflection: “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have brought him to you.” This, to me, would again seem strange. Pilate is a man of position, a man of authority. If he asks a question, he certainly expects an answer and not a go around.
When Pilate next speaks, I think it’s clear that he knows that the Pharisees are up to no good. He tells them to take Jesus back to his own people and to try him by their own laws.
This is reasonable, isn’t it? Jesus is a Jew. If he hasn’t broken a Roman law, then he should be tried by the Jews.
Also, Pontius Pilate asked for an accusation, he wasn’t given one. Therefore, it’s not Pilate’s problem. He probably doesn’t want it to be his problem. I certainly wouldn’t want it to be.
Then comes the crux of the Jewish position. It is not the accusation, but the sentence that they are interested in. They answer: “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (A fact here that you may not be aware of: the Romans had the death penalty, the Jewish people did not.)
Remember, the Jewish Elders have brought a man, who they have not named, and have not accused of anything. All they have mentioned is that they want to give him the death penalty.
Shouldn’t that be sending up red flags to anyone in a position of authority? To any bystander? To any decent person? Should any person be condemned simply because another person wishes them to be condemned? Without proper trial or proper charges?
Pontius Pilate certainly didn’t think so.
Trial by Pilate
The “Trial by Pilate” might seem strange to us because it is unlike any modern trial we have ever seen. It is a trial of thought—a trial of faith—and a trial of religion. Pilate asks real political questions—such as, are you king? This, of course, gets to the idea of conquest. Do you want to overthrow Rome?
The thought process is something like this: a son of David would have right of kingship and he would use his kingship as a platform to start a political revelation to overthrow the Roman occupiers.
Instead, Jesus completely blows him away with his answers, and Pilate is left standing there, utterly baffled. “My kingdom is not from here,” is Jesus’s final reply. What is a Roman man, who believes (or at least professes to believe) that is own emperor is a god, supposed to take away from that?
One way to think about it is this is like a painting. Jesus and Pontius Pilate are painting together with their words. Pontius is painting in blacks, and whites, and grays—in the monochromatic colors. Jesus has the entire color spectrum at his beck and call. He’s painting with vivid oranges and cool blues and bright yellows. He has playful pinks and smooth greens and warm browns. Pontius Pilate knows he might be looking at a masterpiece, he just can’t see a way out of all the grays that his limited, colorblind vision sees. (And please, take this metaphor from someone who is colorblind and cannot tell the difference between greens and reds, and is often curious about them.)
And—because of this—and because Pontius Pilate is afraid of political backlash, Jesus is crucified. If Jesus had talked the Pharisees’ talk at the end, he would have lived… but he was set on a path that he had walked his entire human life… a path set in motion before that… a path that would end on the cross, that would end with saving the history of humanity in one single act.
Were you there when they Sentenced My Lord?
There’s a popular hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” It’s a very important hymn, but I think the important question we have to ask ourselves this week—is “were we there when Jesus was sentenced?” Did we stand by when an innocent man was sacrificed to political thought and political expedience, or did we stand behind him and help carry the load of the cross as he carried it to Calvary?
Should we not exercise caution in all our lives, and not sacrifice our fellow humans—whom Jesus loved and sacrificed himself on the cross for—in just the same way?
Did not Jesus teach us that God was love and we should feel love for all of our fellow humankind, regardless of whether they were our friend or foe?
Jesus is with you every moment to carry your burdens—will you be there to carry his?