Text: Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 1:5-8, John 18:33b-37.
The Gospel certainly has a different tone from the first two readings today. We are confronted with the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and given no easy answers. I’ve been noodling on this reflection for a few months, and I can’t say that I’ve plumbed the full depths of the question, but I have come up with an interesting idea or two.
Nobody seems to know for sure how the conversation between Pilate and Jesus came to be written in the Gospel. Perhaps some unnoticed servant relayed what was said, or perhaps it was constructed by the divinely inspired evangelists, or something in between. However it reaches us, this dialogue is an important one, forming a central part of our cultural heritage and a rich focus for meditation and reflection. It’s in that spirit that I’ve undertaken to try to understand these readings, and through them, this feast.
To understand this conversation, we have to understand the circumstances surrounding it. Pilate was a Roman governor who had a solid understanding of Jewish law and custom, and an equally firm grasp of the realities of his situation. He had at his disposal about 3000 light troops scattered around Judea; if real trouble arose, he would have to call on the governor of Syria to send help, because the forces he had, while able to keep the peace under normal circumstances, were insufficient to quell a real rebellion. Unfortunately for him, the governor of Syria was absent in Rome, and so he had no backup; if there was a revolt, the Romans were doomed.
We often think of the Jews and the Romans as being at odds, but this isn’t entirely likely: the high priest could be removed by the governor, but Pilate had been quite content with Caiaphas for years. Caiaphas, you may recall, is the one who had suggested that it was better for one man, meaning Jesus, to die for the people.1 These two pragmatic leaders worked together quite well. Even so, when Jesus is brought to him by the Jews, Pontius Pilate wants to find out the real story, and invites Jesus to defend himself. The Jewish groups of Zealots and Sicarians had already caused plenty of trouble, but this Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t seem to fit the characterization of rabble-rouser, and Pilate figures that the real issue might be the Jewish authorities’ envy of Jesus’ popular spiritual appeal.
Surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t say much in his own defense. He makes no effort to explain the situation to Pilate, but implies his innocence by saying that those who have handed him over are guilty of “a greater sin”2 than anything Pilate is doing. He gives Pilate no reason to believe that he’s any threat to the empire, though, and so Pilate looks for a way to get him out alive. Meanwhile though, the Jewish authorities are spreading the story among the crowd that Jesus blasphemed, calling himself the son of God, and seeding shouts that Pilate takes as very threatening indeed. If the populace rises up, the empire may win the province in the end, but he himself will likely not live to see the end of the day, and thousands of Romans and Jews would die.
Sometime during this extended conversation, Pontius Pilate figures something out: Jesus is taking one for the team. Pilate knows that Jesus knows that a revolt would kill thousands, and so rather than making Pilate’s job more difficult, Jesus isn’t putting up a fuss, essentially exonerating the governor for doing his best to keep the peace. Why do I think that Pilate has seen this? Because when Pilate writes the inscription of Jesus’ crime, he writes, and insists on, the title, “King of the Jews.”3 As a leader, even if only in the worldly sphere, he appreciates what Jesus has done, and sees his self-sacrifice in defense of his people as a truly kingly act.
Pontius Pilate doesn’t know the half of it, though. As always, Jesus’ worldly, physical action is a symbol of a universal, spiritual one. Jesus is blameless in more than the political sphere; his action is an eternal sign of God’s love that is willing to give everything in service to us. It is to this love that John bears witness, writing, “Jesus Christ … loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.”4 Jesus is not a king by right of power, but by right of love, which is the source of all true power. Daniel and John both behold Christ’s glorification, as the inner truth of his caring and love for all creation is made manifest in his dominion over it.
Still, Jesus’ crucifixion is a stark contrast to the splendor of these visions, and took place even though Pilate realized the injustice of his condemnation; what happened?
Justice is not merely something handed down by a judge; it is a social, communal virtue. Had Pontius Pilate freed Jesus, it would have sparked the violence of rebellion, and Pilate would likely himself have died for defying the crowds—hardly a just reward. For justice to have been truly served would have required the active collaboration of all. Righteousness has authority, but so long as it is not respected, we will not live in a just society. The kingdom of God is not a kingdom ruled by force, but one in which each person and being participates in just action.
We are called to build that kingdom here and now, and it seems to me that restorative justice is an initiative which is part of that work. It calls on each and all of us to respond to harm and injustice not with more harm and injustice, but with caring and compassion for all, encompassing victim and perpetrator and everyone else affected. It demands that we sacrifice the selfishness of revenge and the pride of self-righteous condemnation, and like Jesus, work to show the way of truth and God’s love.
Jesus Christ, the self-effacing servant of all, is indeed the king of kings, and it is a sad truth that his kingdom is not yet of this world.5 May we be inspired by his divine love to follow his example; then we too will behold him coming in glory with the clouds6 because our eyes will be open, and we will enter into the dominion of God’s all-encompassing, everlasting love.
1: John 18:14
2: John 19:11
3: John 19:19-22
4: Revelations 1:5-6
5: John 18:36
6: Daniel 7:13, Revelation 1:7
My thoughts on Pontius Pilate's character and state of mind rely substantially on this analysis by Jona Lendering, especially where corroborated by other accessible sources.