Did Pilate get it right?

Posted: November 16, 2021 in Uncategorized

Did Pilate get it right?

Today in the three-year lectionary is Christ the King Sunday or as many today say, the Reign of Christ Sunday or as it used to be known as the Feast of Christ the King, or the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, festival celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church in honour of Jesus Christ as lord over all creation. Essentially a magnification of the Feast of the Ascension, it was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It is not all that young in the liturgical history of the church having no real tradition alongside Lent and holy week and Advent which have been celebrated for more than 1000 years, Christ the King Sunday has only been a part o There is however something that has kept it alive in the lectionary and its coud be thatf the Liturgical calendar since the 1920s and it was added for sort of political reasons. In the fallout of World War One and amidst the Kaisers and Kings and Czars, it felt to the church that it was time to reassert that Czar Ferdinand or Kaiser Wilhelm isn’t king, Christ is king. So some 96 years ago this day was added to the church year. And it has to be said that the idea of “king” and “kingship” have been debated ever since which suggested some value. Its possible that two things keep it around. One is that we believe that God’s alternative reign or kingdom of God is what Jesus was on about, that as human beings potential is always hope-filled and renewal possible and two, that it has a political edge to it that enables us to acknowledge that in human engagement with all of life there is always the political. The challenge of ROC is to see that the politics of the day are involved in the traditional story as they will be in its interpretation for us today. The Reign of God will be culturally, socially politically relevant or it will fail to engage. So perhaps the idea of the kingship of Christ may have meant something in the political climate 90 years ago and now might like the quote at the beginning of this service be about celebrating Christ the CEO or the Mayor, or the prophetic protester Sunday.

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘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.

Then Pilate entered into the Praetorium again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the king of the Judeans?”  Jesus answered, “From yourself do you say this, or did others speak about me to you?”  Pilate answered, “I am not a Judean, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you over to me.  What have you done?”  Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not out of this world.  If my kingdom were out of this world, my subordinates would be fighting so that I might not be delivered over to the Judeans.  But now is my kingdom not from hence.”  Then Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  Into this I have been born, and into this I came into the world, so that I might witness to the truth.”

Unlike the synoptics, the fourth gospel features longer stories with expanded dialog.  We have seen that with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, the man by the pool of Bethsaida, and others.  In chapter 18, it is Pilate’s turn.

Pilate is not identified by any particular title or rank.  Most likely, Pilate’s name was already well known among Christians and the author of the fourth gospel felt no particular need to go into specific identification.  (Pilate’s name appears in the Old Roman Creed, c. AD 200.) 

Pilate was lower nobility, of the equestrian rank.  Not long after Pilate, the title for someone of Pilate’s authority was procuratores Caesaris pro legato–a procurator of Caesar who operates pro legato, meaning that he has the power to command legionaires.  During the time of Pilate, however, his title appears to have been Prefect–praefectus Iudaeae

In verse 28, “they”–presumably representatives of the high priest–take Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters, the praetorion.  The word originally referred to the tent of the Roman praetor in a military camp.  Later, it was used to speak of the headquarters of Roman authority in subjugated territories. 

Pilate kept his permanent residence at Caeserea, not Jerusalem.  When he was present in Jerusalem, however, he most likely took over a former Herodian palace.  The exact location is not known.

When we begin to think about the differences Jesus is talking about or we look at Jesus’ kingdom compared with Rome’s:  Those who bring Jesus to Pilate can’t enter Pilate’s headquarters because of ritual defilement so Pilate goes outside to meet with them.  Pilate wants to know the accusation. 

“They” respond that they wouldn’t have bothered to bring Jesus to Pilate “if this man were not a criminal.”  Pilate suggests they go ahead and judge Jesus by Jewish law, but they reject this option because they are not allowed to impose the death penalty. The fear or what he is proposing seems to be very serious here. The Judean authorities want Jesus gone, and not without reason.  Jesus’ attacks on the Temple elite had been scathing.  One notes, however, that in all four gospels, Jesus was careful not to criticize the Romans directly.  His rare jibes at the Romans were oblique and indirect. 

This response is important in that it was politically deft. It recognises that throughout history most social reformers don’t get very far when they take on the most powerful aspect of the power structure, which, in this case, would be the Roman Army.  Astute reformers instead focus on the power structure’s weakest component, which, in this case, was the Temple elite, an elite already under suspicion and broadly held in low regard. 

My kingdom is not from this world,” says Jesus. And while that seems pretty obvious ir was at the same time, one of the most obscure statements from Jesus. Working for Jesus’ kingdom, praying for “thy kingdom come” is a rather difficult endeavour when it seems so far away from the reality that we know and in which we live. The kingdoms of our world could hardly be more opposite than the kingdom Jesus has in mind. So, what kind of kingdom does Jesus propose?

Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, kingdom language in John is rare, used only here (John 18:33-37) and in the conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:3-5). Interestingly, Jesus’ reference to kingdom in the Gospel of John comes up in dialogue with those who represent the kingdoms of Jesus’ present-day world. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus represents the kingdom of the Jews. As a Roman procurator, Pilate represents the Roman Empire. It seems that the kingdoms of the world as it was known back then are called into question by Jesus who is the Word made flesh loving the world (John 3:16).

One of the most significant issues for us today when approaching this text is to acknowledge that it is not sufficient when preaching on Christ the King Sunday simply to suggest that the negative aspects of today’s kingdoms are therefore made positive in Jesus’ kingdom. Or, to insist that we can name every bad feature in kingdoms of today and turn them around so as to describe adequately the goodness of God’s kingdom. The issue for us is that God’s kingdom is not opposite of our kingdoms, it rather has rather to be more than the opposite. It has to be politically, socially, and religiously more than the current.

Of course, part of the challenge in all of this is the penchant to limit kingdom to location. This is when the “reign of Christ” is a helpful corrective for this festival Sunday, not just for the sake how we talk about Jesus and the titles we give to Jesus, but for the sake of realizing that Jesus’ kingdom is a state of being, a way to live, a commitment to a particular way to view the world.

And in John, Jesus wants us to see that his kingdom is only about place if place indicates the profound and intimate “place” of relationship with God. Jesus’ kingdom is not about amassing additional amounts of control. Jesus’ kingdom is not about his ultimate rule over and above others. Jesus’ kingdom is about relationship. “My kingdom is not from this world” because it is from God. Pilate attempts to construe the boundaries of Jesus’ kingdom in terms of those perpetuated by the kingdom to which he is beholden. But Jesus’ kingdom is from God, just as Jesus is from God (John 1:1) and Jesus is God’s kingdom. The concept of kingdom is radically recalculated in the Gospel of John, from kingdoms that strain and sever relationships to a kingdom that puts relationship at its core. That’s a whole different perspective on kingdom. When kingdom is construed from the truth of relationship and not rule, from the truth of incarnation and not location, from the truth of love and not law, then Jesus as truth will ring true.

This is the truth that the kingdoms of this world cannot see. God’s truth. Jesus as truth. But it is the truth that we can see and that we are called to preach, that we have to preach, not only on Christ the King Sunday, but every Sunday. To love fiercely even in the face of fear (“In the face of fear I will love fiercely,” Jessica Ortner).

Pilate entered back into his headquarters and “called” Jesus inside.  For his part, Jesus expresses no worries about being ritually defiled by being in the praetorion. Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Judeans?”  (This question is the same in all four gospels–Mark 15:2, Matthew 27:11, and Luke 23:3–which would indicate a common tradition on at least this much of the passion account.)

“King” is a political title, and Pilate focuses on the political question.  Pilate had no interest in religion or theology.  He is a practical and matter-of-fact kind of person.  His objective is the maintenace of Roman law and Roman control.  It is clear from the entire conversation–18:33-19:16–that Pilate wants to free Jesus, or, at least, he would rather free Jesus than free the anti-Roman terrorist, Barabbas.

To Pilate’s question, Jesus responds with an impertinent retort that unmasks Pilate’s collusion with others:  “From yourself do you say this, or did others speak about me to you?”  Both of them well know that “others” have spoken to Pilate about him.

Pilate, thrown on the defensive, responds, “”I am not a Judean, am I?”  This, frankly, is not a particularly good riposte.  Just because he is not a Judean does not mean that he didn’t collude with Judeans. 

Yet, on another level, Pilate is a Judean.  In the fourth gospel, anyone aligned with the Temple establishment and its worldview is a Judean.  In doing the bidding of the Judean authorities, Pilate has become a Judean. 

Pilate continues:  “Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you over to me.  What have you done?”  Note that Pilate does not say Jesus’ own religion has delivered him over, but that his own nation has.  Again, Pilate uses political words.  Also, he specifically identifies those who have “delivered over” Jesus.  They are the “chief priests,” the highest level of Temple, and Judean, authority.

Pilate asks what Jesus has done, but Jesus ignores this question and returns to idea of kingship.  “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Indeed, it is not.  Jesus’ kingdom is not “of this world” of political calculation, accusation, and contending interests. 

This does not mean, however, that Jesus’ kingdom is only in heaven and has nothing to do with life on earth.  This new realm is incarnational, it is God’s on earth. The two kingdoms–“this world” and Jesus’–occupy the same temporal space.  One is not here while the other is off in the wild blue yonder.  They are both here.  The difference is one of attitude and worldview. 

Jesus makes this clear when he says, “If my kingdom were out of this world, my subordinates would be fighting so that I might not be delivered over to the Judeans.  But now is my kingdom not from hence.” 

“This world” kingdoms are about fighting and struggle (agonizomai).  Jesus’ kingdom is about the dignity and equality of all.

Jesus nuanced response is seemingly lost on Pilate.  Pilate retreats to what is, for him, the central question.  He asks, “Then you are a king?”  He reasons:  You speak of your kingdom, therefore you must be a king.  Jesus’ answer is the same as in all four gospels–su legeis, “you say.”  The fourth gospel adds:  “…that I am a king.”

Jesus continues:  “Into this I have been born, and into this I came into the world, so that I might witness to the truth.”  Note the distinction between being “born” and “coming into the world.”  The Greek gegennemai accents creation–to be brought into being.  In the theology of the fourth gospel, the Word became flesh, eternity entered time, the essential entered existence.  All that is subsumed in the meaning of “born.” 

Being born is one thing, but for what purpose?  Jesus “came into the world” so that he “might witness to the truth.”  That is his purpose and mission, a theme stated in John 1.  He will present light to darkness, identifying what really is, and comparing that truth with the way things appear to be in “this world.” Again, this kingdom or realm creation is incarnational, politically social and religiously transformational.

As a community of Jesus followers seeking to create, unfold and celebrate one’s faith, the boundaries of imagination can limit us more than anything. Thankfully, imagination also liberates us and carries us—by God’s grace—toward new realities.

This “prophetic imagination,” to use Hebrew Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s words, is critical to replacing the corporate media images of the way things supposedly are and will remain with visions of an emerging new world. The necessary “alternative consciousness,” writes Brueggemann in his book The Prophetic Imagination, is both “critical” and “energizing.”

So, while critiquing “wars and rumours of wars” (Mark 13:7) in a day when the minimum wage is as inadequate as it is, we are energized by the declarative statements of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi that “your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16), and of Jesus to the disciples that “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31, emphasis added).

The forms and styles introducing that alternative consciousness vary through these weeks, from the nurturing conversations of Naomi to the songs of Hannah and the psalmists. Jesus remains both critical (“beware of the scribes!”) and energizing (“the poor widow has put in more”). This is a time to consider our lineage; we are born of a people of faith, yet we are also birthing a world in God’s providential care. Every day. We are incarnational in intent and we are about to celebrate that as Christmas.


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