John 18:28-40 March 27, 2022
What is truth? Imagine that your life legacy came down to one three-word question caustically spoken under pressure. I doubt Pilate realized this episode would become the most crucial action of his life, marking his place in history. Most Roman emperors are forgotten, even though their power shaped history. But Pilate’s words are re-enacted thousands of times every year during Holy Week. No Caesar can top that. The early Christian creeds only name three humans; Jesus, his mother Mary, and Pilate. Moses, Elijah, Peter, Paul, and the twelve apostles don’t make the cut. But Pilate’s name is spoken when people recite the Nicene and Apostles Creed. If he had known this, he might have given a better speech than “What is truth?” Pilate did his best to wash his hands of Jesus’s blood. But blood on his hands became a derogatory phrase for a leader who doesn’t want to take responsibility for injustice but allows it to happen.
How does Pilate matter to the Gospel story, other than the man who happened to be the Roman authority when Jesus lived? Is he just a foil, or does his character shape the story? John’s Gospel has several rich characters who only appear in his version. Nicodemus, the Pharisee in the Sanhedrin, comes to Jesus at night and struggles to understand him. The Samaritan woman at the well is offered living water. Zacchaeus, the tax collector, is offered a chance at restoration. The disciple Thomas only speaks in John’s Gospel, as he comes to terms with doubts about Jesus’s resurrection. John is a master of using characters to show their inner struggle. They encounter Jesus and must make a decision. Some followed, some rejected, some failed to decide. John’s Gospel uses characters as opportunities to reflect on who we are. Which character captures your dilemma, your challenge, about how you receive Christ? How are you Zacchaeus, Thomas, the Samaritan woman, or Pilate?
What can we learn from Pilate about our faith journey? We don’t know much about Pilate’s life, and both historians and biblical scholars are divided on his legacy as a Roman prefect. Pilate comes from an equestrian family, the middle ranks of society. He likely rose through the military. Some speculate his name means “javelin.” This experience would suit his primary duties of enforcing the peace and collecting taxes.
First-century Palestine was a low-level assignment, far from the heart of Rome. It was a quarrelsome place. Many ambitious Romans might consider an assignment to Palestine as punishment for failure. But for a social climber of lower rank, it was an opportunity.
Rome often incorporated the gods of a colony and gave some autonomy, just collect the taxes. Rome’s attitude was, “Go ahead and worship Yahweh in your temple, just add Jupiter (who is the god that protects the state.) But Judaism resisted religious incorporation by gods of the conquerors for centuries; no Assyrian gods, Egyptian gods, Babylonian gods, Greek gods, so forget Roman gods too.
Most of the significant recorded events of Pilate’s ten-year term were religious conflicts. He tried to put imperial standards in Jerusalem, which had an inscription of the emperor and his title of “Divine Caesar, Son of God.” That flag did not fly. After the widespread protest, Pilate removed the standard. Pilate also had trouble with Samaritans. When a large group camped at Mt. Girizim to dig for artifacts from Moses, Pilate sent troops to stop them. The resulting massacre may have led to Pilate’s recall by Tiberius. Most ancient historians viewed Pilate as brutal and shrewd, which is why he lasted for ten years.
Christian writers like the author of John’s Gospel go a little lighter on Pilate. As we examine John’s story, watch how Pilate appears reluctant to execute Jesus. He executed and crucified numerous people, so why would he hesitate with Jesus? Was Pilate cautious about getting burned in another local religious dispute he didn’t understand? Or was he moved, even tempted, by seeing the truth?
Imagine this scene as a play on a stage divided in half. On stage left, the Jewish leaders are standing in the courtyard because they won’t go into Pilate’s headquarters. The author says they do not want to be ritually defiled and miss the Passover feast. There are only a few ways to be ritually defiled. There is contact with a dead body, touching unleavened bread, or contact with a woman menstruating. I don’t know which of these worried the anti-Jesus crowd at Pilate’s headquarters. Note the irony. They are OK with distorting the truth, falsely charging Jesus, and arranging his execution. But God forbid they come in contact with a bit of leaven and miss Passover! It’s like a church looking the other way on racism or homophobia, but change the hymnal and all Hell breaks loose!
Stage right is Pilate’s headquarters, where Jesus is held. Pilate must come out to talk with the crowd, then go back to speak with Jesus. The whole episode forces Pilate to move back and forth between Jesus, the man of truth, and the religious establishment, trying to coerce Jesus’s execution. The author skillfully uses this movement to illustrate Pilate as a double-minded man. Does he uphold Roman law and justice, or does he give in to the mob out of political expediency? Each move from stage left to stage right intensifies Pilate’s dilemma.
Imagine it is 6 AM, the sun is just up, so this early interruption better be important. Pilate opens the day with a lynch mob clamoring at his headquarters. The atmosphere may be like a Senate confirmation hearing, with lots of talk about law and justice, but it’s mostly posturing for sound bites and rallying the base. It’s a spectacle. Stage left is a woman who has an excellent rating from the American Bar Association; stage right is Ted Cruz ranting about Critical Race Theory, racist babies, and acting like he is defending children by not teaching them the history of race relations. Of course, his daughters go to the same DC prep schools and read the same books Kentanji Brown Jackson’s children read. It’s the old racist dog whistle to divide and conquer. Listen for the dog whistle with Jesus’s trial.
There is little interest in justice for Jesus. “What is the charge?” Pilate says.
“If he hadn’t done something evil, do you think we would be bothering you?” This anti-Jesus faction has a lot of nerve and sounds defensive already.
Imagine Pilate giving them a back-handed wave, “Take him and judge him by your own laws. It’s six-freaking AM, for Jupiter’s sake!” “But we can’t kill him ourselves,” they whine. What a lame lynch mob. Do our dirty work for us Pilate so we can go eat our Passover lamb and pretend our hands are clean.
Pilate must go back to stage right to interrogate Jesus. Rome’s leading man, the emperor’s representative, must do shuttle diplomacy between these barbarians and this hippy prophet.
“So Jesus, let’s talk. Are you the king of the Jews?” “Who told you that,” Jesus answers.
“Look, I’m from away. Your own people brought you here, so what have you done?” Jesus gives Pilate a mysterious answer, “My kingdom is not of this world. If I were king, I would have an army, right?” In The Message translation of the Bible, Jesus says, “I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king.” What does he mean by that? Some think his kingdom is otherworldly, in heaven and not on earth. But Jesus prayed, “thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.” I think Jesus means he is not the kind of king who has armies and tries to impose his will by violence and intimidation. He is not a threat to Rome.
Pilate jumps right in, “Oh, so you are a king.” Pilate wants to get a confession, conviction on the spot. Get this messy dispute among the natives over with. Jesus says, “You know what I was born to do? I was born to witness to the truth, and everyone who cares about the truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice.”
You know the next line. “What is truth?” I wonder how Pilate said those words. Was he sneering? “What is truth?” As in, “Truth is what I say it is. Truth is my decree and the sword of my Praetorian guard. Or was it more world-weary? “What is truth?” I can’t see what the truth is in this mess. I have no faith in truth.”
I think Pilate is plain-spoken. He sees the truth of the situation, but he doesn’t like it. He is caught between stage left, the power of the religious status quo, and stage right, Jesus, a frustratingly truthful man who has strong support from ordinary people. Pilate sees the glaring hypocrisy of the religious folk. The question is, what will he do about it? Will he sidestep the truth or defend what is right?
The author of John’s Gospel is masterful at showing us Pilate’s internal struggle, and next week we will read act two and see how Pilate is squeezed and his unsuccessful attempts to resolve the pressure he feels. The author is imploring us to see Pilate’s dilemma in ourselves. John’s Gospel wants us to feel the outrage of this moment. The Gospel confronts us with the question, if you were there, what would you do? What will you do when you face the truth, which puts us in an uncomfortable dilemma? If you are outraged by this story of Jesus’s trial, then what does it call you to do about the distortions of truth in the service of injustice today? Will you look away, or compromise the truth, or stand for what is right even if it costs you something?
Here is the hope of the Gospel. If we wrestle with Pilate’s tragic decisions, then maybe we can find the courage to live and act the truth in our lives. And the truth will set us free.
Most of the exegetical background for this sermon comes from Raymond Brown’s Anchor Bible Commentary on the Gospel of John. Its a classic if you don’t mind reading 30 pages of footnotes, and it helped me construct the scene at Pilate’s court.