John 18:28-19:22

When someone shows you who they are, you should believe them the first time.

Pontius Pilate arrived in Caesarea by the Sea in 26 AD. Tiberius had named him prefect of Judea, and he was coming to take over that position. He belonged to the lower nobility of the equestrian order, not to the more aristocratic senatorial class; in the eyes of those above him, he was a man who had to make a career.[1]

Pilate has high aspirations, but at the moment is in a backwater of the empire. It is one of those places that is the product of imperialization or colonization, depending upon how you want to look at it. But he has a challenge before him because there is a conflict arising among the people you see, and conflict is not good for commerce, and commerce is really the reason he is there in the first place.

The prefects’ primary functions were military, but as representatives of the empire they were responsible for the collection of imperial taxes, and also had limited judicial functions. Other civil administration lay in the hands of local government: the municipal councils or ethnic governments such as—in the district of Judaea and Jerusalem—the Sanhedrin and its president the High Priest Caiaphas.

Now, Caiaphas is not the focus here today, but let me digress enough to say that sometimes people draw a sharp distinction between him and the guy I am talking about. Caiaphas is a religious person who has political influence. Pilate is a political person who has religious influence. Why? Because he is a roman in the roman empire whose official religion identifies the Caesar as god. And because everyone knows that there is only one God, or at least Caiaphas and the religious folk know that, there cannot be two. So either somebody has wrongly identified their object of worship, accidentally; or somebody is a blasphemer…claiming God’s rightful place for somebody or some thing that is not God. It happens easily when something other than God becomes the object of our ultimate concern. And his influence on behalf of the emperor cult comes on the edge of a sword.

There was a person[2] at the time who wrote down an occurrence of just this kind of religious clash. He said that while past prelates had respected Jewish customs by removing all images and effigies on their standards when entering Jerusalem, This man allowed his soldiers to bring them into the city at night. When the citizens of Jerusalem discovered these the following day, they appealed to this guy to remove the ensigns of Caesar from the city. After five days of deliberation, He had his soldiers surround the demonstrators, threatening them with death, which they were willing to accept rather than submit to desecration of Mosaic law. Finally the images were removed. I find it hard to believe that Pilate did not anticipate the problem with caesars ‘graven images.’ Any chance this was done intentionally? Do you feel the tension there?

In the midst of all this the religious authorities are about to get unhinged at another guy. This local rabbi has attracted a crowd of followers whose faith practices contradict the ‘way we’ve always done it,’ and whose allegiances don’t allow for Caesars. The religious leaders are mad because he questioned the entire economy of the temple. The focus on money at the expense of doing ministry was eating away at him. He sees this injustice first hand, and bothers him so much that he chases the money changers and merchants out. This idolatry is not limited to the first century, we are guilty too.

Because we have baptized capitalism, made a sacrament of low taxes, and defined money as free speech, I wonder what tables Jesus would turn over today. I also wonder if what Jesus now regrets is that we no longer let the abuse of the poor make us angry.[3]

The same religious leaders who are nervous about his growing following, who are upset by his calling out the injustice in the temple, also believe he has blasphemed by claiming to be the ‘Son of God.’ So, he has to go. But here’s the problem. Their own ethics don’t allow them to kill somebody. In fact, if they did that with any frequency they’d have the Romans coming down on them for disrupting the peace. So what is a pious, upper class, religious leader to do to keep the system of privilege going? Why get the system to kill the one who is questioning them, that’s what. So they take him to my guy, Pilate.

Now, Pilate doesn’t want to deal with this. He knows a zero sum game when he see’s it. He is in trouble no matter what he does. But some of the reporters of the time remember that he is a ruthless egomaniac that is willing and able to squash any opposition by force. If Jesus was making trouble, he was making trouble for both Caiaphas and Pilate – and trouble for Pilate was still trouble for Caiaphas. It would seem to be a ‘gimmie’ to take this “brown skinned, marginal, jew” to the ruling whites from Rome and have them take care of him.

Pilate is playing a chess game with the Sanhedrin and the people. He is aware of the pitfalls. When they bring Jesus for judgement, Pilate realizes that there isn’t (technically) any reason for him to intervene. But the religious leaders know that Pilate has intervened plenty of times in the past with less reasons than this. His ethic is entirely situational. His violent tendencies are his only predictable quality.[4]

Listen, he once spent money from the Temple to build an aqueduct. The religious leaders complained. So he had soldiers hidden in the crowd of Jews while addressing them and, when Jews again protested his actions he gave the signal for his soldiers to randomly attack, beat and kill – in an attempt to silence Jewish protest.  It happens. If people are speaking out, even if they are right, there are ways for the powerful to do their best to silence them. You can brutally turn them back. Or you can pass legislation that allows the government to seize their possessions. Power does that stuff to shut you up.

And that is what the religious leaders were doing. They wanted Jesus shut up. They were not as powerful as Rome, so it would be helpful if they could get Pilate to do their work. Ordinarily this might have not been a problem. Pilate was a guy who regularly killed people and dealt in alternate facts. During his interrogation, Jesus tells Pilate:

‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’[5]

You can read Pilate’s response as an honest and straightforward question. Or it can be read as rhetorical, not expecting an answer, from a man who is used to speaking lies in the place of truth to get what he wants.

It is understandable that Pilate freely substitutes the concerns of commerce over justice. But the religious folk? Even those you expect to know the truth sometimes get the object of their faith mixed up. Instead of God, it becomes something more convenient. Sometimes it is easier to hitch your wagon with a known tyrant whose violence can be predicted rather than a God who works independently in subtle and mysterious ways.

Then, Pilate brought Jesus out one last time and said to the religious leaders,

‘Here is your King!’ 15They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’[6]

And then Pilate knew he had everyone right were they needed to be. Despite appearances, the religious question is a convenience. The real issue is that Jesus has transgressed is the economy of Rome and the economy of the temple. Now there is no going back.[7]

“So Jesus’ crucifixion is not a terrible mistake, or the result of an unfortunate combination of circumstances. The Son of God is executed by the representative of there Roman Empire, at the instigation and initiative of the local (religious) aristocracy.”[8] This is not the last time that religious leaders enlist the help of a ruthless tyrant in service to their own ends. In the case of Jesus, history has wanted to blame the religious leaders because this gospel was written at a time when the church was interested in getting cozy with the empire. And it is easier to not offend the empire if you place the blame on the Sanhedrin.   But Pilate, despite his protests of innocence, is the one who allows this to happen. Blame is shifted somewhere else by the powerful all the time.   Both the religious establishment and the politicians have shown just who they are and unfortunately, not everyone believed them.

This story easily translates into our times. Jesus is saying that God does not bless the current state of affairs, no matter how much we like it. So there are a couple of lessons to be learned here. For people like Pilate, especially among those who love the empire more than anything else, it is easy to get your facts wrong and commit all kinds of atrocities. For the sincerest folks, even the religious establishment, who are attempting to be faithful, there is always a danger…the danger is that you confuse the emperor, whoever it is, with God. In both cases, what you lose in that bargain is your soul.

When someone shows you who they are, you should believe them the first time.


[1]Jose A. Pagola, Jesus: A Historical Approximation, Convivium: Miami, 2007, p. 361

[2] Josephus, The Jewish War

[3] Michael Piazza, “The Liberating Word,” March 9, 2017.

[4] Pagola, p. 362

[5] John 18: 37-38

[6] John 19:14-15

[7] on Pilate and Caiaphas’ complicity, see Pagola, p. 363.

[8] Pagola p. 367

[9] John 18:19-22