Procurator Pontius Pilate was a career statesman. His star was rising when he got the assignment to Palestine. He was the fifth prefect to oversee the land and after a brief stumble early in his career had shown some talent in leadership. Legend has it that his mother was a pictish girl from Scotland and his father a minor Roman official. Whatever the story, getting the assignment to rule in Palestine was potentially a step towards greater things in the Empire. I wonder how coming from humble stock, scrapping your way to the top of the heap impacted his style of rule. What little we have of his leadership show a man who is capable of exercising force though not the shrewdest of politicians.
Pilate was the leader of an occupying force in an occupied land. He was sent by Rome for one purpose, rule the little known, little understood, but somewhat important little land of Palestine. He was the face of the mighty Roman empire. He spoke for the Emperor, Tiberius. His hold on the land was not strong. Only a foolish leader would think that they could rule in that area without some struggles but so far it had not been terrible. As occupied lands went, Israel was not the best nor the worst that he had been involved with over his rising career as a statesman.
Our text this morning finds him in Jerusalem, overseeing the chaos that was Passover. Thousands descended upon the city from all over the world making it a melting pot of potential danger. Last year had been a bit of a disaster. There had been unrest during the celebration which had boiled over into violence. The Procurator, dealt with it as he had the power to, putting it down with the force he was comfortable wielding. It was not remembered kindly by the populace, Luke would remember it as the day that the “blood mixed with the sacrifices…” It would become the signature event of Pilate’s time as Prefect – insurrection put down with violence. He has to do so several times, each with more energy until finally, it was an insurrection put down with such force in Samaria that resulted in his getting called back to Rome.
There would be no such bloodshed this time. He was convinced that he could hold the city from itself. These Jews were a volatile people. Why couldn’t they just settle down and become Roman? Others had. It seemed like those that he served with, the other prefects, none of their lands had the kind of unrest that his had. Every year it was something else. Someone else. Rising up and rebelling. All they had to do was pay their taxes. Really. That’s it. At the end of the day, Rome was not interested in the Jews becoming Roman, of worshiping their gods and taking their traditions. Tiberius, as all Caesars before, was interested in one thing – money. Bring home the tribute. In exchange, we’ll give you peace. The Pax Romana – Roman Peace – was to be the payoff.
To accomplish this, Pilate had been given several Legions to command but most of his forces were auxiliary forces who, scorned by their brethren, served the occupying Empire. He had brought them with him to Jerusalem. He would have Romans by his side. He was not confident in the Auxiliaries to do exactly what they were told. He had paid a political price for that last year when the riot was put down during Passover. The Jewish face of the Empire, Herod, had smeared his name a bit in court as a brutal man though his rule was no more or less violent than the last. He wished Herod would get it into his head – Tiberius would never trust a non-Italian to speak for him. So Herod served Pilate and Pilate served the Prefect of Syria and he served Tiberius. This is the way of Empire. This is the way of the kingdom of the world. Everyone serves someone and everyone serves themselves.
Peace and money. This is all. This is all anyone ever wants. Money to do as they will and the peace to pursue it. The way of the world, the way of kings and kingdoms. So had it been for centuries and so it would remain for eons to come. Money and peace. The latter to be thrown to the side in pursuit of the former.
It was that peace that was threatened the day that the Sanhedrin came into his hall to condemn this peasant carpenter from Nazareth. They knew his weakness. They knew that his hold on the city was tenuous at best – in they came with their accusations of zealot, rabal rouser, and rebel. What was he to do? He had heard the reports. This Jesus, Yeshua they called him, had been notorious for some time. He had spies and informants moving with this crowds as he had drawn closer to Jerusalem. Herod had some dealings with another prophet of sorts, John the Baptist, and it had not gone well so Pilate was understandably treating this Yeshua thing with kid gloves.
He had stood by and allowed the Prophet to enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. He had heard the back brief from his centurion about how the poor and slave class saw in the peasant carpenter some kind of King. He heard how they brought out branches and even threw their coats – the only outer garment they owned – on the ground so that the feet of the donkey would not touch the ground. Such was their devotion. Perhaps there was something to what the Sanhedrin was saying. He never trusted them. They claimed allegiance to Caesar and the Empire but he knew better. They cursed the ground he walked. It was always like this. In trying to maintain some semblance of “what used to be” they tried theological arguments, trickery, archaic legal arguments under their religious law, character assassination but in the end, they capitulated to the only real power in the world. Roman power. They brought their theological issue into the very seat of secularity to be judged by a secular Prefect. What little respect he might have had for their monotheism, their puritanism, their law-abiding, was blasted as they called upon all sorts of arguments to get him to “do something about that carpenter.”
And what had Jesus done? Healed some people? Called them names? Pointed out their hypocrisy? How did Jesus’ teachings hurt them in any way? People were paying their taxes – not just to Rome but also to the Temple. They were getting theirs. What they were not getting was respect. Yeshua was calling them out for what they were – power hungry, greedy, abusive. People liked Jesus. It threatened their power. It threatened their place in society.
None of this really mattered. Who really cared whether or not some widow put money into the temple tax box? So what if these men in their clerical class lived off the poor? As long as the tribute was paid to Rome, peace would come by the sword. Peace would remain in Jerusalem. These Sanhedrin only mattered to Pilate as they stood in the way of another peaceful Passover. They would play their part in the pageantry was was Jerusalem and he would play his – at the end of the day, money went into the chest and the chest went to Rome. If religion was a part than fine, whatever gets the job done. That is the kingdom of the world. That is the kingdom of mankind. That is life. So be it. Jesus would come to court.
He had tried to pawn his problem off on Herod but the crafty politician would have none of it. He could not pass the issue up the chain or the Prefect of Syria would put a bad word before the Emperor. Perhaps Pilate could not do the job, perhaps he should be replaced. No, he would deal with it. Here. Now.
Jesus enters the court. Pilate saw the abuse. He saw the blood, the bruises. Whatever had taken place last night had not been kind to the peasant. He looked exhausted. Caiaphas had been clear in his accusation – Jesus had threatened the rule of Roman Law. They could not execute him, only the Romans could do that. Pilate saw through it, he knew their charges were bogus and false. He called them out, “Judge him according to your laws.” But they would have none of it. They wanted death. Death was to be the price of peace.
Pilate goes straight for the jugular – “Are you king of the Jews?” Silence reigns. Everyone hears the real question – are you a rebel? Are you a zealot? Do you claim leadership of the Jews? Jesus looked at him in the silence. Quietly, through bruised lips he says, “Are you asking me this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate smiles. Only these people would respond like that. You can’t get a clear answer from anyone in this miserable land.
“Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests turned you over to me. What did you do?” Pilate is annoyed. There is no danger in this man, give me something, anything and I can toss him in jail for a little while, protect him from these priests who want to kill him and wait till the whole thing blows over. He didn’t bite.
“My kingdom,” said Jesus, “doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of king. not the world’s kind of king.” Pilate stares at him. What was he talking about? Two kingdoms? Man’s kingdom? What other kind of kingdom could their be? Money, power, land, respect – that’s the only kind of kingdom there was and everyone, including these religious leaders, wanted a piece of it. But he wasn’t a part of that? He didn’t want money or power? What?
“Are you a king or not?”
“You tell me. Because I am King (not a king), I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for truth, recognizes my voice.”
More opaque comments. What is wrong with these people? Why kill? Why did he ever want to be a leader? He could have been a farmer, comfortable on his land in middle Italy, sending grain to Rome for festival but no, here he is in dirty, dusty, smelly Jerusalem discussing truth with a poor Jewish carpenter prophet.
Exasperation. “What is truth?”
There was no saving this man. He wouldn’t even save himself. In a last ditch effort he offers the crowd a murder or the harmless Jesus but they take Jesus. Let him die than. Let him die for peace.
Two kingdoms. Pilate is king of one. It’s the sexy one. The grasping one. The one people dream and work toward. Its the one where you work hard, please who you have to please, pay your dues and maybe one day, you too can retire to the beach somewhere and tell your stories. This kingdom is marked by constantly searching and seeking for wealth and glory. It is temporal. It is subjective. It is here. Now.
The Jewish leaders wanted it. They wanted it to remain status quo. They had abandoned (as Jesus was so fond of pointing out) their obligation to care for the community, the poor, the widow, the orphan, to establish a high caste. A learned caste of scholars and clergy. A class separate from the poor they were supposed to serve and instead very focused on how many miles a person could walk on the Sabbath. What? healing a man on the Sabbath? This has never been done – it does not matter that it helps people, it violates some obscure interpretation of an ancient law – anathema. “Kill him,” they said. What threat was he to them? When had he ever threatened their lives? Perhaps their livelihood but never them, never their families. They had tried to get rid of him through theological arguments. They planted people to question him publicly, they called him out, drug his name through the mud but in the end, they couldn’t stop him. They couldn’t change what was clearly changing. Life, as they knew it, was never going to be the same. They were becoming irrelevant. “Kill him,” they said. So they went to the Law. If all else fails, we can use the secular courts to maintain the past. We’ll lobby congress, we’ll throw money at it, we’ll make laws and change laws and throw out the bums that won’t get it done. We’ll make mountains out of molehills and destroy whoever stands in our way. But their heart showed out. Their hatred marked them and instead of their legacy being that they cared for those around them, that they represented the best of the Kingdom of God, that they showed the world what it was like for a people to commit to God, they demonstrated that they were just like everyone else. They were just as corrupt. They were just as depraved. The lusted for power and killed to hang on to it.
Have you made the connection yet? The Church does the same. At it’s best, it is the kingdom of God. At it’s best, it cares for those that are in need, for all that is holy and right. At it’s best it is the body of Christ in the world. When people come into contact with a Christian, they come into contact with Christ. But then, they get lost. They get entranced. They get sucked into the lie that money means influence and influence means power. They take the calling of God to serve and twist it to be that by making money on the backs of others I am serving them. By having power, I am serving them. All is fair if Abortion is at stake. I can hate others, be spiteful and destructive if it just keeps two people of the same gender from “getting married.” (contracting with each other for tax benefits etc) What are we doing? What is truth? What kingdom are we serving?
Who are you serving? Live your convictions. Live what God has called you to be and do but my friend, do so in the reality of God’s kingdom – a kingdom of love, care, peace, joy, patience, gentleness… – do so in a kingdom marked by sacrifice and love rather than hate and animosity.
Christ is the King. We are his servants. Let our service be marked by the fruit of the spirit rather than the fruit of the world.