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Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.” Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.
There has been a tendency in the Christian telling of the Passion story to exonerate Pilate, or at least to make him an unwilling pawn of the Jewish leaders and crowds. Pilate, it is claimed, was a truth-seeking man who was caught between a rock and a hard place. Were it not for the pressure he received from the Sanhedrin and their supporters, he wouldn’t have crucified Jesus. This view of the noble Pilate seems at first to fit the facts of the New Testament Gospels. But, upon closer scrutiny, it falls short in a number of crucial ways.
First, it overlooks Pilate’s record of cruelty in his dealings with the Jewish people. Far from being some benevolent ruler, Pilate frequently offended and grievously mistreated those he was sent to govern. The Jewish historian Josephus records an instance when Pilate used money given to the Jerusalem temple for one of his pet projects. When a crowd of Jews objected, Pilate killed a great number of them (Antiquities 18.3.2). The Gospel of Luke records a similar instance when Pilate killed a number of Galilean Jews, mingling their blood with their temple sacrifices (Luke 13:1). The first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, once wrote a letter to Caesar, in which, among other things, he blamed Pilate for: “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injustices, constantly repeated executions without trial, and ceaseless and grievous cruelty.” (Legatio ad Gaium, 301-302).
Second, it’s unlikely that Pilate would have been forced to act contrary to his will by the Jewish leaders and the crowd they rounded up to call for the crucifixion of Jesus. Pilate was surely aware of Jesus’s widespread popularity among the Jewish people. This, in fact, would have been a major concern to him, especially during the Passover, when the normal population of Jerusalem (around 35,000) swelled to perhaps ten times that amount. In other words, if Pilate had wanted to keep Jesus alive, he surely could have “gone over the heads” of the Jewish leaders to the large group of Jesus’s supporters and admirers. Of course Pilate didn’t need anyone’s approval to have Jesus killed. He had the authority to order execution. But Pilate was no doubt concerned about whether such an action in the case of Jesus would lead to revolt. So, we have every reason to believe that Pilate in fact wanted Jesus to be crucified; otherwise he would not have sentenced him to death.
Third, what we see in the Gospels is, in all likelihood, a carefully scripted plot by Pilate. Knowing how popular Jesus was among the masses, Pilate knew he faced the possibility of insurrection if he himself was believed to be responsible for the death of Jesus. So he had to find a way to use his authority to crucify Jesus, and, at the same time, to publicly wash his hands of this decision. Thus he cleverly toyed with the Jewish leaders and their supporters, until it appeared as if he was compelled against his will to have Jesus crucified. Thus Pilate could get rid of Jesus and, at the same time, insure that popular anger would be directed at Jewish leaders and not at himself and Rome. In another place I have written this about Pilate and his decision to have Jesus crucified:
The fact that Pilate had Jesus crucified strongly suggests that he saw Jesus as a threat to Roman order. Though not your ordinary brigand or revolutionary, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God (not Caesar) and accepted adulation as a messianic (kingly) figure. Moreover, even if his answers to Pilate were minimal, Jesus didn’t reject the charge that he claimed to be king of the Jews. So, even though Jesus wasn’t your run-of-the-mill Zealot, he was still the sort of person who was dangerous to Rome, and was therefore worthy of death, at least from the Roman point of view.
Why have I taken time to establish Pilate’s actual guilt for the death of Jesus? For one thing, this is an important antidote to the a-historical and anti-Semitic tendency among some Christians to exonerate Pilate and blame “the Jews” in general for the death of Jesus. To be sure, most (but not all) of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted Jesus killed and plotted to that end. But Pilate must not be excused for his central role in the death of Jesus. He alone had the authority in Jerusalem to sentence Jesus to death by crucifixion, and he must bear this guilt.
I have focused on Pilate for another reason as well. I see him as a paradigm of the person who fails to take responsibility for his actions. Perhaps Pilate really believed he was innocent of Jesus’s death. Perhaps, as I have suggested, he was playacting for his own political benefit. Either way, Pilate issued the verdict that sent Jesus to the cross. Yet he did so in such a way as to appear innocent of Jesus’s blood. He did not take responsibility for what he had done.
How often do we do this sort of thing ourselves? How often do we rationalize our sins, blaming them upon others? How often do we fail to take responsibility for what we have done wrong, preferring to assign credit to our parents for raising us wrong, our society for mistreating us, our boss for abusing us, our spouse for misunderstanding us?
I can’t tell you how many times, as a pastor, I have heard people try to evade responsibility for their own sins by pointing to the sins of others. And, if truth be told, I’ve done plenty of this myself.
Why is this wrong? Well, for one thing it’s dishonest. Yet, beyond this, when we fail to accept responsibility for our sins, then we lose the opportunity to experience forgiveness for them. If I’m blaming others when I do wrong, then surely I won’t confess what I’ve done as sin. And this, in turn, will keep me from experiencing the grace of God with respect to my particular sin. (I’m not saying this will keep me out of Heaven, but rather that I will fail to enjoy the fullness of God’s forgiveness in this life.) When we’re tempted to be like Pilate, we’d do well to remember a portion of the first letter of John in the New Testament:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
As you look at your life, don’t be like Pilate. Don’t try to wash your hands of that which you have done wrong. God isn’t fooled. Rather, tell God the truth about your sins so that you might experience his forgiveness through Christ.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Can you think of times in your life, perhaps in your work life, when you needed to make a difficult decision but, like Pilate, didn’t want to be held responsible for that decision? What did you do?
Are you ever tempted to blame your shortcomings, even your sins, on others? Why do you do this?
Are there certain sins you have not confessed to God because you’re still trying to get out of responsibility for them? What might help you tell the truth to yourself and to God about your sin?
Gracious God, you know how easy it is for me to be like Pilate. I don’t like to take responsibility for my failures because I feel so ashamed. I find rationalization to be natural to me. I can fool myself into thinking I haven’t really done wrong. So forgive me, Lord, when I follow the way of Pilate.
Help me to acknowledge my sins, both to myself and to you, rather than wallowing in my pointless excuses and defenses. By your Spirit, guide me to see clearly where I have missed your mark, so that I might confess truly and fully. Help me to experience the forgiveness you offer in Christ, and to live in the freedom of the cleansing you alone provide. Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentary: My Kingdom is Not of This World (John 18:36)
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