Answering Pilate's Question

February 19th, 2012
Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

John 18:28–19:26

Had he been asked at the time, he would never have guessed that he would be known best for centuries afterward for the his role as summarized in the simple words of the creed: “he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Ironically enough, Pontius Pilate was, in other respects, not all that bad of a guy. He was a career official with considerable military experience, serving in a rather fractious part of the empire; Pilate’s career produced the second longest tenure of any Roman governor of Judea in those centuries, lasting a full ten years. What’s more—in most respects, Pilate did a difficult job fairly well. He had a conscience and sense of justice. He generally tried to do right by those who came before him, and he even wanted to do right by the prisoner named Jesus who was hauled into his residence early on that Friday of Passover Week. Indeed, Pilate’s face may well have been the most sympathetic into which Jesus looked that day.

Pilate had one rather tragic flaw, however. Unfortunately, Pontius Pilate was a coward, lacking the courage to back his convictions with his actions. The result for Pilate was not fame, but infamy: forever to be remembered not for all of the many right decisions he may have made, but for a single wrong one. Perhaps we can identify with him just a little here. Sometimes the good things we do can be wiped out in a single blow with one stupid or ill-considered decision. We say something that we wish we could take back. We make a judgment call only to realize that we blew it. We may even get blamed for being wrong when it’s not really our fault. Several years back, an Israeli weatherman was actually sued by a woman who said that, because he predicted a sunny day, she dressed lightly and got caught in a storm, from which she caught the flu, missed four days’ work, and had to spend money on medicine and suffer stress. It’s crazy, of course, for we can’t really blame the weather on any meteorologist. But we can blame Pontius Pilate. He did not simply make an unfortunate guess—he made a fatally wrong judgment. He chose to listen to the shouts of the mob rather than to the still, small voice of God, even while his every instinct may have told him that Jesus was innocent.

Being smart, Pilate surely understood that crowds can often be terribly wrong. The crowd is wrong, for instance, when it seeks to impose an injustice on a minority simply by overwhelming them with its number. The crowd is wrong when it tries to use its power to tyrannize individuals who dare to disagree with it. And the crowd is wrong when it attempts to press its cause with the sheer volume of its protest, and not with the soundness or rightness of its claims. God seldom speaks in the roar of a frenzied mob. Rather, God’s cause has often been championed precisely because someone was willing to stand up against the shouts of the many and do that which was right, no matter how unpopular. Pilate, however, was willing to sacrifice the sacred for the secular, the eternal for the immediate, the spiritual for the political. In the end, Pilate chose to put the service of Caesar over the fear of God.

If all that were not bad enough, Pontius Pilate did one other cowardly thing. He failed to accept the responsibility for his own actions.Washing his hands in front of the crowd, he told them, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; I find no fault in him; it is your responsibility if we kill him.” But then, of course, it was not their responsibility; for it could not be. On that fatal day, only one man had the authority to order the crucifixion of Jesus, to say “Let him go” or “String him up.” Only one man could overrule the mob and do that which in his own heart he knew was right, and that was Pontius Pilate. Thus, just as no one else had the power to crucify Jesus, so Pilate could not deny his responsibility afterward. Neither can we. When it comes to the kind of important questions that have to do with Jesus Christ and our response to him, we cannot shrug that responsibility off onto anybody else—it is ours alone to make, and the simple truth is that none of us were ever made for neutralities. What’s more, the most important decision any of us ever make is the same choice Pilate had to make on that day of the Crucifixion, namely “What should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 27:22)? Can we fit Jesus into our lives, or must we deny his Lordship altogether? Shall we stand with him for truth, or shall we crucify him again by the things we do that kill his spirit within us, that drown out that still, small voice speaking to us? Will we acclaim him as our Master, or reject him as an imposter? Pilate could never have imagined that for one wrong decision he would forever remain known. Yet how much like Pilate are we? Have we listened to the crowd rather than to God, sacrificing the spiritual so as simply not to mess up the material in our lives?

Good Friday is the day when Jesus stands before us, and all must now decide: what will we do with this Jesus, who is called the Christ?

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