Second only to Julius Caesar, Pontius Pilate the governor of Judea who sent Jesus to the cross is one of the best-known Roman citizens who ever lived. His name is etched into the Christian creeds and is a vivid secondary figure in the Gospel passion stories.
Please read Matthew 27:1-2,11-23
Pilate dithers over what to do with a man who is clearly no political threat. But Pilate has powerful enemies among Jewish leaders who will report his name to the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, and also start a riot if he does not get rid of Jesus promptly. Pilate wrestles with his conscience over Jesus, but (in a fashion that strikes us as all too familiar in modern day leaders) essentially tries to avoid the problem in the hope that it will resolve itself.
The historian Josephus paints a picture of a headstrong strict authoritarian Roman leader who, although both rational and practical, never knew how far he should go in a given case. Pilate’s job was to keep order while waiting for Tiberius to award him a more prestigious posting in, say, Syria or Egypt. During his ten years in office, according to Josephus, Pilate was far from the worst Roman governor the Jews had seen.
The Jewish philosopher and civic leader Philo of Alexandria described Pilate as ‘inflexible, stubborn, and cruel’ and accusing him of all manner of violent acts against the Jews, including executions without trial. Indeed, Luke 13 tells us of Pilate’s involvement in the execution of some Galileans who had gone to Jerusalem to worship. Pilate had incurred the enmity of Jewish leaders in Roman-occupied Palestine by insulting their religious sensibilities, as when he hung worship images of the emperor throughout Jerusalem and had coins bearing pagan religious symbols minted.
To an extent, though, history and the church have been kinder to Pilate than to Judas Iscariot. In John’s Gospel, Pilate is depicted as having accepted the Christian interpretation of the meaning of Jesus. Saint Augustine argued that Pilate believed Jesus was the King of the Jews. Indeed, in some areas of the Eastern Church, Pilate and his wife are venerated as saints.
Jesus’ claim to be the son of God was seen as blasphemous by the Jews and warranted the death penalty but for the Romans, blasphemy was not such an offence to warrant such a punishment – and Pilate had the final say. So instead, Jesus was presented to Pilate as a king, a political revolutionary and thus much more of a threat to Roman authority. So we can begin to see the dilemma Pilate was in.
He would have been surprised at Jesus’ lack or response and silence to his questioning. Roman judges disliked sentencing an undefended man and the courts had established the practice of offering a defendant three opportunities to respond before convicting by default. This approach is in one sense paralleled by Pilate stating three times to the Jewish leaders and the crowd that Jesus is an innocent man.
I remember little that my schoolteachers taught me but I do recall how my R.E. teacher speculated that Pilate asked whether he should release Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Christ he misheard the crowd shouting ‘Jesus’ and in the pressure and pandemonium released the wrong man.
Pilate capitulates to the opposition he faced. His wife also sends him word of a dream she has had about Jesus and urges him to ‘have nothing to do with that innocent man’ and Pilate abdicates his responsibility with a symbolic washing of his hands.
Most of us, at some time or other, find ourselves ‘between a rock and a hard place’. A dilemma. A situation where there is no easy answer or way forward. It may be as relatively insignificant as which new pair of shoes to buy or which route to take to a destination. Or… problems such as do we spend money on food or fuel this week? Or… whether or not take up a job offer, start or end a relationship, make the decision not to resuscitate…
Like Pilate, we too can be swayed by the opinions of others. Sometimes helpfully. Sometimes not. It can be tempting to only ask those who we know will ‘agree’ with our own thinking. We may feel hurt if someone tells us we are ‘wrong’ or challenges us – but perhaps they are the ones who have truly joined us in the hard place.
You may like to bring to mind a time when you were in a dilemma (maybe you are now).
What feelings did you have?
What or who was helpful in finding your way through?
When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.