Who’s Really On Trial Before Pilate

canstockphoto24890923The case of Jesus before Pontius Pilate wasn’t really an issue of whether or not Jesus claimed to be God.

Pilate didn’t really care about that stuff. That was religious stuff, which was for the Jews to decide.

All Pilate cared about was whether or not Jesus posed a threat to Rome.

He was convinced Jesus didn’t.

He was wrong.

Pilate is often described as a weak and feckless ruler who was lacked the courage to stand up against the Temple leaders and the angry mob and do the right thing, which was to declare Jesus innocent and refuse to execute him as a rebel traitor.

We really don’t know much about Pilate, but according to Josephus he was anything but weak. Josephus in fact portrays him as particularly ruthless, stirring up trouble among the Jews and Samaritans almost as an excuse to then retaliate with brutal military force.

This sometimes got him in trouble with Rome, which wanted him to cool it. Judea and Samaria were already powder kegs of unrest, and Rome didn’t need him continually lighting matches.

The only thing Pilate therefore cared about was whether Jesus posed a threat to Rome, but in Pilate’s mind the only threat to Rome would be a military threat. Jesus not only didn’t have an army but he refused countless opportunities to pick up a sword.

He could have easily done it. His disciples were just itching to do it. Lots of people were. In John 8 Jesus confronts “the Jews who had believed in him” (vs. 31) and offers to set them free.

If they believed in him, why did they need to be set free? Isn’t that what makes us free?

What “believed in him” meant is that they believed that Jesus was the Messiah who would lead them in a violent overthrow of the occupational forces in Israel and set them free from the yoke of Rome.

Jesus speaks to them without a sword, without an army, and with no intention of raising either. They were imprisoned to the idea that the only way to defeat Rome—or any other power—was through violence, through war, through killing their enemies in a bloody coup d’état.

They needed to be freed from that, much more than they needed to be freed from Rome.

Jesus therefore told them that if they would continue in his word—if they would listen to him, learn from him, and do what he said, they would be free.

Free from slavery to the great sin of human violence, which would only result in an even greater  and much more brutal Roman reprisal in which their dead corpses would be thrown into the always-burning garbage pit outside Jerusalem called Gehenna.

This is thus what is really on trial when Jesus stood before Pilate.

It’s interesting that it’s only in John where there is really any dialogue between the two. It’s brief, really only long enough for Jesus to tell Pilate that if his kingdom operated the way the rest of the world did “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” (John 18:36 NRSV)

That’s what the kingdoms of this world do.

Jesus’ kingdom operates differently. It’s an earthly kingdom, but not of this world. It’s a kingdom that eschews violence as  means of kingdom change.

In the other gospels Jesus remains silent. The confrontation is between Pilate and the chief priests, Temple leadership and the crowd they had gathered in their support.

The chief priests want Jesus crucified, and Pilate finds no reason to do so. Roman crucifixion wasn’t for any household criminal or nuisance; it was for those guilty of fomenting armed insurrection against Rome.

To Pilate a man without a sword or an army posed no such threat. He already had in custody three Jews who did, and three crosses were already being prepared for them.

Ironically, it was because of Jesus’ refusal to raise an army and kill some Romans that the Jews wanted him gone. They were itching for a fight. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, but a Messiah who refuses the sword is a false Messiah.

And that’s blasphemy. It wasn’t blasphemy for the Messiah to claim to be God’s son, the anointed one—that’s literally what the word means.

It’s only blasphemy when you aren’t anointed, and a messiah without an army is by definition a false messiah.

Everyone knows that overthrowing a military power must be done by force of arms.

Jesus insists that the only way to do it is through by force of love.

And that’s really what’s on trial here.

Will God’s people follow Jesus’ violentless ascent to the throne of the world, or will they follow the violent ways of the this world—of Assyria, Babylon, Rome, and every other great military power in history?

Pilate had already made that choice. He was committed to military force as a means of ruling the world and keeping the peace, which is why he didn’t see Jesus as a threat.

Pilate was wrong because when Jesus allowed himself to be sacrificed on the cross, he truly fulfilled the inscription under which he was crucified, “King of the Jews.” Indeed, king of the world.

But the chief priests and the people still had choice, and ironically it’s Pilate who presents the choice to them. He offers them the choice of receive one of the three insurrectionists about to be crucified into their circle, or to receive Jesus.

Choose Barabbas or Jesus.

Choose violence or non-violence.

Choose enemy-hate or enemy-love

They chose Barabbas.

They chose violence.

They chose hate.

Within a generation Israel was no more, the Temple was no more, and the armed rebels were no more.

The stench of their burning corpses filled the air around Gehenna.

Jesus was crucified because he chose to love his enemies rather than go to war against them.

His resurrection vindicated his choice.

We have a choice as well. We are addicted to violence. We still believe that the only way to have peace in the world is to conquer our enemies with a sword.

Many of us are like the Jews in John 8, believing in Jesus yet still choosing the power of the sword over the power of love.

And as long as we believe it the fires of Gehenna will burn.

But if we will listen to the teachings of the Resurrected One, if we will continue in his word, we will be set free by the power of unconditional love.

The power that led Jesus to the cross.

The power that led him out of the tomb.

The power that raised him to the throne as King of Creation.

Image by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Anke

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