15 April 2014

Sermon – “Pilate” (Matthew 27:11-26)

In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem there is a block of white limestone, almost three feet long and two feet across, on which is engraved this inscription:

To the Divine Augustus Tiberius
… Pontius Pilate
… prefect of Judea
… has dedicated [this]

The “Pilate Stone”, as it is called, was discovered in 1961 by Italian archaeologists. Dating from the first century AD, it had been reused as a part of repair work on a staircase leading up to the seating in a theater in the coastal town of Caesarea Maritima. Caesarea Maritima was the governmental and military headquarters of the province of Judea since 6 AD onwards. There Pontius Pilate held sway during his ten years as procurator or prefect, from 26 to 36 AD. The inscription is significant because it is the only actual Roman evidence for the historical existence of the man we meet in this morning’s Gospel reading, the man who has been immortalized in our creeds in the words, “crucified under Pontius Pilate”.

Rising from the ranks of the military, Pilate owed his appointment to the influence of Sejanus, for a time the most influential and feared citizen of Rome. From the beginning of his tenure Pilate did everything possible to antagonize the local citizenry. Previous occupants of his office had respected Jewish customs by removing all images from Roman standards in Jerusalem. Pilate had them secretly brought into the city at night. When the people appealed to have them taken down, Pilate waited five days and then had his soldiers surround the petitioners and threaten them with death. When they would not relent, he finally had the images removed.

Some time later he created further ill will when he had gold-coated shields honoring the emperor Tiberius placed in the Temple. When he refused to take them down, the Jews wrote to Tiberius himself, who commanded that they be removed immediately. Later Pilate used Temple funds to build an aqueduct. When this was met with opposition, he had his soldiers attack, beat and kill scores of the protestors.

Philo, a first-century Jewish philosopher, described Pilate as having “vindictiveness and a furious temper”, and as being “naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness”. In Philo’s words, Pilate’s rule as governor was characterized by “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages and wanton injuries, executions without trial constantly repeated, and ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty. This, then, was the man before whom Jesus stood as this morning’s Gospel reading opens.

Are you the king of the Jews?

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate queries. We are reminded of a similar question asked at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel: “Where is the one born king of the Jews?”—and of the sign which would later that day be placed above Jesus’ head on the cross: “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.” The wise men asked their question in reverent inquiry. Pilate’s came with a sneering superiority.

His aim was no doubt to ridicule both Jesus and the religious leaders at one and the same time. The sad figure who stood before him, his hands bound and faced bruised, looked like anything but a king. As Pilate snickered, I can imagine the chief priests and the elders seething. But there was nothing they could do. They were the ones who had brought Jesus here.

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus’ answer must have ricocheted back at him like a lash: “So you say.” I am rather attracted to Bishop B.F. Westcott’s alternative translation of Jesus’ reply, which turns it into a question: “Is that what you say?” It makes the irony of Pilate’s question all the more stinging. In the end it doesn’t matter which way you translate it really. Either way, this man who was accustomed to absolute power, this little tin god, had been trapped in his own words by a helpless prisoner—and a Jew no less.

It took Pilate a moment or two to regain his composure. “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” To which Jesus makes no reply, nor to any of the other questions that Pilate puts to him. Indeed, the next words we hear from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel do not come until he is hanging on the cross. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).

Now Pilate was a man who had seen everything. He had watched (and probably with some degree of pleasure) as his soldiers had beaten people senseless and committed other acts of cruelty and even murder. His final act as procurator of Judea in AD 36 was to order the slaughter of a whole crowd of Samaritan pilgrims. But he did not know what to do with this man who stood before him. Matthew tells us that he was amazed—the same reaction as the crowds in Galilee as they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. Pilate was no less amazed.

Whom should I release?

We do not know what crept into his mind at this point. But for some reason it hit upon Pilate to explore a legal loophole. Perhaps it was the name, Jesus. In any case, it occurred to him to take advantage of an obscure custom that allowed him to grant liberty to a single prisoner, anyone the people chose. And so he gave them the option of choosing between two Jesus—a notorious brigand, Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus the would-be Messiah.

However Pilate was not to be let off the hook so easily. At that very moment, as he sat on the judgment seat, a message was brought to him. It was from his wife, warning him not to become any further involved with Jesus, whom she described as “that innocent man”. The word used here is in fact “righteous”. It is the same word that Peter used as he looked back to the events of the cross and wrote, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

The interruption, brief though it may have been, did not serve its purpose, however. Indeed it did quite the opposite. For it gave time for the chief priests and the elders to agitate the crowd further against Jesus and to call for Barabbas. So when Pilate turned to them again and asked for the second time, “Whom do you want me to release?” he was met by the unanimous reply, “Barabbas!” “Then what should I do with Jesus?” “Let him be crucified!”

Now crucifixion was a particularly horrific form of death, reserved for the lowest of the low—traitors, slaves and dangerous criminals. Writing a century before the time of Christ, Cicero described it as “that plague” and recommended that even the word “cross” should be far removed from the thoughts, eyes and ears of a Roman citizen. Any Jew witnessing a crucifixion would naturally think of the passage in the Old Testament Law that states, “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). So it was that the apostle Paul could reflect in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’ ”

While Pilate may not have been fully aware of the particular Jewish horror at crucifixion, he was aware of its particular cruelty. And so he asked one more time, “Why? What evil has he committed?” But his questions only caused the crowd to clamor even more vociferously, “Let him be crucified!”

What unfolded at that point was one last, desperate measure on Pilate’s part—not to have Jesus released (Things had gone far beyond that point and he knew it.) but to exonerate himself. Washing his hands in the sight of all he proclaimed, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

Of course Pilate’s words were hollow. He could not evade responsibility for what was unfolding. He knew very well (as he himself admits in John’s gospel) that he had full power to release Jesus or to crucify him. I would be surprised if Pilate had not engaged in questionable justice many times over the course of his career. Yet there was something within him that made him want to be, in this case at least, innocent. But that was not to happen—and there was no amount of hand washing that could make it so. The only innocent person in the scene was Jesus, the Lamb of God without spot or blemish.

The people too protested their innocence as they cried out in frenzy, “His blood be on us and on our children!” We need to note that Matthew has been very specific in his use of words here. He does not say that the crowd answered Pilate, but that it was the people. It is the same word that was used at the beginning of the gospel by the angel who spoke to Joseph in a dream, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And so his blood would be upon them and upon their children, not as a curse, but to redeem them—and not them alone, but all people everywhere. “You are worthy, Lord, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

With their cries still echoing, Matthew tells us that after having Jesus flogged, he handed him over to be crucified.

What should I do with Jesus?

On Palm Sunday we read the Gospel in a way that is different from every other Sunday in the year. One of the benefits of that is that it reminds us that we are not just to be passive observers of the events surrounding Jesus’ death on the cross, but participants. The apostle Paul wrote of “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). We have not fully appropriated the meaning of the cross until we have been there, until we have been able to see ourselves in each of the people involved in the story:

·      To acknowledge that, like Pilate, I am not without guilt and that only Jesus can make me clean;

·      To recognize that, like Barabbas, in spite of my sin Jesus has died for me so that I might go free;

·      And to see that I too am one of those wayward and rebellious people whom Jesus came to save and for whom he shed his blood.

In our hymn book there is a hymn, which no doubt we will sing before this week has ended, and which includes the words:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?

Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.

’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied thee!

I crucified thee.

As we look at the cross today, it is not to induce guilt or to assign blame. It is to turn once again in faith and gratitude to our wondrous God, who for our sake made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

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