March 29, 2007 Leave a comment
Passion/Palm Sunday Yr C, 1/04/2007
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Jesus and Pontius Pilate”
Today we focus on one of the key actors of Christ’s Passion, Pontius Pilate. In our Nicene Creed we confess the following: “For our sake he (i.e. Jesus) was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” And in our Apostles’ Creed we confess a similar truth: “He (i.e. Jesus) suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Both of these creeds reflect the truth of what is recorded in all four Gospels—Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, was responsible for the trial, sentence and crucifixion of Jesus. Who was this Pontius Pilate anyways? What kind of a person was he? Let’s take a closer look.
Pontius Pilate, according to an inscription verified by archaeologists in 1961, in Caesarea Maritima, was Roman Prefect of Judea. He held this office for ten years, from A.D. 26-36. In light of the political power structure in Judea at this time in history, it seems that Pilate may have been a shrewd, politically correct type of politician who knew how to protect and preserve his political power.
According to biblical scholar, Dr. David L. Tiede: the high priesthood was a complex political and religious office in first-century Palestine, and the Romans controlled it as much as possible. Since the era of Herod the Great, who killed the last of the Hasmonean priests, the Romans appointed the high priests and at times controlled the rituals by holding the priestly vestments. For many years a new high priest was appointed annually by the procurator, but Caiaphas was reappointed for 18 years, including 10 by Pilate. He knew how to get along with the Romans.1 I would add that the reverse also seems true; Pilate knew how to get along with the high priest Caiaphas.
According to Jewish historians writing about Pilate, the Prefect of Judea comes across as: insensitive to Jewish religious scruples and all too ready to use brutal force to repress any dissent. According to Jewish historian Josephus, Pilate allowed Roman troops to enter Jerusalem bringing idolatrous images of the emperor. Only after the Jews vigorously protested in a confrontation with Roman soldiers, only then did Pilate remove them. The historian Philo records a similar incident, and the Jews were so offended that they sent a letter of appeal to Rome against Pilate, and only then, upon the emperor’s intervention did Pilate comply with the Jewish wishes. Josephus also writes about Jewish protests against Pilate when he ordered that funds from the Jerusalem temple be taken to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem. On this occasion, Pilate had Roman soldiers, dressed as Jewish civilians and armed with hidden clubs, mingle with the shouting crowd and attack the people at a prearranged signal. Many were killed or hurt.
In Luke 13:1, Pilate comes across as a political tyrant, with no respect for people of faith, having orchestrated the murdering of Galileans—mixing their blood with the blood from the sacrifices they were offering in the temple.
Again according to Josephus, Pilate was recalled back to Rome in A.D. 35 to give an account of a brutal slaughtering of a crowd of Samaritans, who had no intention of violence against Rome. Pilate treated the event as an insurrection and attacked the crowd with cavalry and heavy infantry, killing many in the battle and executing the leaders among the captured.2
As you can see, based on these accounts, Pilate was certainly no saint or righteous ruler by any stretch of the imagination. Now let us take a look at Luke 23 and see what kind of picture Luke presents us with here.
In verse one to seven, we are given an account of Pilate’s first meeting with Jesus. Jesus here is brought before Pilate by some of the Jewish religious authorities. They accuse Jesus of “perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” This first charge of perverting our nation, according to Dr. Tiede, was one of being a false prophet, hence a religious charge. Most likely Pilate didn’t want to deal with such a charge—leaving it up to the religious leaders. The second charge, “forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor,” now one would think that such a charge may have been taken seriously by Pilate, but according to Luke, he doesn’t even address it. There is irony in this charge, for the Jewish leaders who lived by their laws would have followed the law of not bearing false witness against one’s neighbour—yet, that is what they are doing here. Jesus never forbade Jews to pay the emperor taxes, rather he had taught that one should give to God what belongs to God and give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. The third charge, his claim that he was the Messiah-king, of course, for Luke and us Christians is true, but he is a different Messiah-king than either the Jewish leaders here or Pontius Pilate had in mind. He was not a military-political leader with the intention of overthrowing the Roman occupation by violent means. His rule was one of peace and love, over and above all earthly powers.
Pilate does pick up on this third charge, and asks Jesus if it is true. Jesus gives him a rather thought provoking, ironic, ambiguous answer: “You say so.” Jesus’ answer, according to Dr. Tiede, could mean: “If you say so!” or “You tell me!” or “You are saying so by means of this very trial!”3 It is interesting that Pilate does not respond to Jesus’ answer here. Perhaps he thought Jesus was crazy or maybe he thought he was actually acknowledging Pilate’s authority. At any rate, he declares Jesus innocent, finding no basis to the accusations against him. Jesus’ accusers continue, this time making the charge that Jesus stirs people up by his teaching throughout Judea and Galilee. This charge seems to be one made by the leaders out of envy over Jesus’ popularity more than anything.
When Pilate hears the word Galilee, he then tries to pass the buck and sends Jesus to Herod. Or the other possibility is that Pilate is paying Herod Antipas a courtesy, giving him the chance to deal with a citizen under his jurisdiction. However, the silence of Jesus before Herod seems to be one of the factors preventing Herod from pursuing any charges against him. So Herod, ironically, passes the buck back to Pilate. Although we are told that Herod had treated Jesus with contempt and mocked him. It seems in this mistreatment of Jesus, Pilate and Herod became friends. Perhaps Luke is thinking of what Paul said in 1 Cor 2:8 about the secular authorities: “none of the rulers of this age understood this; (i.e. Christ’s true identity and purpose) for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
So, once again Jesus is brought before Pilate. This time Pilate clearly states before the Jewish leaders and people that Jesus is innocent of the charges made against him, both he and Herod found him innocent. He then offers to have him flogged and released. The flogging may have been offered as a deterrent to cause trouble in the future, as well as a display of Pilate’s power and authority as the Roman prefect. The crowd is not satisfied; they continue to shout for the crucifixion of Jesus and release of the criminal Barabbas. A third time Pilate repeats that he has no evidence against Jesus to justify a death sentence. The crowd shouts even more vigorously for the death of Jesus. Finally, Pilate caves in to the clamouring crowd, perhaps acting out of fear of a riot, which might even endanger his political career, thus he agrees to release Barabbas and hands Jesus over to be crucified. Ultimately Pilate, trying to survive as a political leader, is unable to do so. Why? Because he could not remain neutral between the secular power passing the final sentence and the religious power that was clamouring for such a sentence against the innocent Jesus. Pilate, caught in the middle, finally gives in and has Christ crucified to save his own political skin. There is a tragic irony in Luke’s Passion Story, those who represent God are the enemies of God, and Pilate representing the oppressive Roman occupational power comes across as doing everything within his means to prevent Jesus from being crucified and yet cannot do otherwise—for it was ultimately God’s divine will being orchestrated in order to save humankind through the events of Jesus’ life, suffering and death.
As we focus on the last week of Jesus’ earthly life; as we ponder the people in the Passion Story; may we not say: “I would never do such things.” Rather, may we see ourselves in those ancient people; we too are guilty of nailing Jesus to the cross. Our sins also crucify Jesus.
Let us pray: Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do. Thank you Jesus that even in our sins and failures; even when we hurt you beyond imagining; you respond with love, forgiveness and salvation. Amen.
1 David L. Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), pp. 403-404.
2 I am indebted to Dr. Francisco O. Garcia-Treto, “Pilate, Pontius” in Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Paul J. Achtemeier, General Editor (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers & The Society of Biblical Literature, 1985), pp. 796-798.
3 Tiede, ibid, p. 405.