A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 21, 2018
University Baptist Church
My name is Pilate, Governor of Judea, occupied territory of Rome. I’m one of many occupying governors. The Emperor counts on people like me to keep the peace. That means I’m supposed to keep people in line and make the area good for commerce. Rome’s commerce is what I’m interested in, of course. Anyone who steps out of line had better watch out. I’m said to be ruthless. It’s true. I lead by fear. If someone rises up to me, I crucify them. It’s a bloody sight, and it’s effective. The streets leading up to Jerusalem are lined with the bony corpses of those who have dared defy me.
But they still come. On and on they come. We have to reuse the crosses. Once the birds and the dogs have had their way, there’s not much left but bone anyway. It’s cheaper to dispose of a pile of bones than flesh. See, I’m already helping the economy.
Recently, one of their insurrectionists came up for trial. His ideas, his truth were dangerous—even more dangerous than armed battle. He said the truth will set you free. The only truth I was interested in was the truth that kept me in power. So I sentenced him to death, like all the others.
Eventually, Jerusalem fell as does any nation-state that dares defy Rome. They rewrote the story of my life to say that I was a magnanimous leader who was carrying out God’s plan. I was doing what the crowds wanted, what the Jewish leader demanded, heck what God commanded. This Jesus person still died, but I was not responsible. Some people are so gullible. Write it down in a holy book and people will take it as fact.
The leader rose up again in his followers, but they didn’t defy Rome as much as they defied the Jews. That means I won.
Revisionist history. It’s my favorite kind.
The key is to keep them off the scent of the truth. Get them arguing about some irrelevant minutia. Like a moth to a flame, people are easily distracted. Keep them arguing with each other and you can get away with murder. How else did you think I stayed in power for so long?
The story David read is not a story of hope. At least it’s not on its surface. We have heard stories week after week of noble people who did extraordinary things. Pilate was not in their company.
The story of hope exists as we find and learn and discern truth from fiction. That’s where the real hope lies.
My daughter Amanda asked me where to find out good information about candidates. I mean, their web sites all say glowing things about them. They care about community. They are going to watch out for the little guy. They are going to put an end to corruption. They are going to get our fiscal house in order. All of that sounds good. Maybe we should just vote for the one who has the cleverest political ads. Or vote against the one who looks the worst in a political attack ad. Aren’t you gonna be glad when those ads are over?
I told Amanda to look at the voting records of the candidates, especially those who have held office before. This is where you get an idea of what they really stand for. But that takes digging. And sometimes it take slogging through the muck. Who has time and energy for that? Then there are the down-ticket races that we have never heard about. Judges, school board, city council members without the big budgets. So the attack ads become our shorthand, our own form of truth. Even if it’s made up of revisionist history. Remember what Mark Twain said, “A lie will travel halfway around the world before the truth has put on its britches.” Of course, that was before the internet. I’m sure it can travel many more times nowadays. Our president is a master at using conspiracy theories and outright lies so often that the truth remains buried. Or we get so distracted by the orange flames of the lies that we forget about the truth.
Back to Pontius Pilate. The Bible depicts him as an innocent victim of an inevitable process that led to the crucifixion of Jesus. He famously washes his hands of Jesus’ blood, blaming it on the crowds, the Jewish leadership, even God. But Jewish historian Josephus and Greek philosopher Philo had a different view of Pilate. Josephus describes him as a brutal tyrant that lined the streets with crucifixes for anyone who stepped out of line. Josephus says that Pilate presided over 1000 crucifixions. Do we believe the Jewish historian who had a bone to pick with Rome, or do we believe the gospel writers who had a bone to pick with the Jewish leadership?
Which is true? Pilate even asked Jesus, “What is truth?” As campaign ads flood our airwaves, candidates are vilified right and left. It’s hard to separate truth from spin.
Jesus had as many as six trials in the last couple of days of his life—each one trumping up charges and changing the rules in mid-stream. Spin was on full display. Each Gospel tells of the trials differently, but if we look at a composite of all the trials, this is what we see.
First Jesus had a private trial with the high priest Annas (John 18:12-24). He was interrogated and told to reveal his secret teachings. Jesus said that he did not have secret teachings and that everything had been done in the open. Jesus asked for testimony from witnesses, but was denied this right. An officer struck Jesus on the hand for insolence. When Jesus called him on his lack of due process and the first of many escalating beatings, his case when to an even higher priest Ciaphas. Jesus was tied up for good measure and imprisoned.
The next trial (Luke 22:66-71) was before the chief priests, the scribes and their council. Mark 14:55-57 said, “Now the chief priests and the whole council sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, and their witnesses did not agree.” Again, no witnesses for the defense. They asked Jesus if he was the Messiah. In Matthew and Luke’s version Jesus evaded the question and they took that as him admitting guilt. In Mark’s version, Jesus said, “I am”. They got really upset when he called himself the son of God. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” Inasmuch as we do the work of peacemaking, we could all call ourselves the sons and daughters of God. Blasphemy was the charge. The whole council condemned him to death with questionable evidence. Then they tortured him. But, it was unlawful for Jews to kill someone. They needed to have the secular courts do it for them.
The third trial was before Pilate (Luke 23:1-6). According to John’s Gospel, Pilate said, “settle this yourselves”. In Luke’s version, the religious elders changed their tune for Pilate’s sensibilities. Pilate was the brutal Roman governor who presided over 1000+ crucifixions. They said, “We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” Pilate asks him if he’s king of the Jews, and Jesus answers, “if you say so.” Pilate finds no crime. But the Chief Priests say that he stirs people up. You know we can’t have that.
Pilate realizes that he’s a Galilean, so he can slough him off to Herod, the so-called ruler of the area of Galilee. This is Herod Antipas, the one who imprisoned John the Baptist and eventually had him executed on a whim. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who ordered the killing of all male babies under two when Jesus was born so as to rid himself of any threat to his throne. By the way, Herod Antipas called himself the King of the Jews, even though he had not a drop of Jewish blood in him. Herod wanted Jesus to perform some kind of miracle for him—as entertainment? Herod interrogated him, while the chief priests and scribes accused him. Jesus remained silent. So Herod and his soldiers ridiculed him, dressed him up like a king and sent him back to Pilate. All of these trials supposedly happened sometime between Thursday night and Friday morning. The scripture says Pilate and Herod became friends after this.
The fifth trial is before Pilate again. (Luke 23:13-25) Maybe this was an appeal because Pilate said the charges didn’t hold up. They called for the release of the insurrectionist Barabbas. Pilate paraded Jesus in front of the people ridiculing him, and watching as people took pot shots at him. He beat him for good measure.
The sixth trial was Jesus’ last stand (John 19:6-16). Pilate tried one last time to set Jesus free but the mob rule was out of control. Fearing for his own life and the security of the town, Pilate decided that one death might hold off a riot and even though he found him innocent he finally acquiesced and sentenced Jesus to death.
Now, I’m not sure if it actually happened that way. The Gospel writers had a bone to pick with the Jewish authorities who look really brutal while brutal Pilate comes off smelling like a rose. But these are the stories we have and it certainly shows a systematic miscarriage of justice leading up to his crucifixion.
Reza Alsan, in his book Zealot, says that messianic figures were prolific during the time of Jesus. They all had a beef with Rome and tried to lead insurrectionist campaigns against Roman occupation. Many had followers and all were pretty much defeated by Rome’s military power and by Rome’s brutal practice of crucifixion of anyone who stepped out of line.
By the time the Gospels were written, a good 40-60 years after Jesus had died, a lot had changed. In particular, the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The last holdout for the restoration of the Jewish people had been razed and the people were in despair. They were looking for a way to survive as a people. Christianity may not have arisen the way it did had the temple not been destroyed. Christianity offered a reworking of the Jewish faith without a Temple or a tie to the Jewish homeland. It became a religion the foreigners could join by conviction instead of one where your bloodline determined your religion. This was a religion built for expansionism, just like the Roman empire.
Is it possible, then, that the Gospel writers made the crucial set of trials that led to Jesus’ crucifixion seem like a Jewish conspiracy more than a normalized Roman squashing of an insurrectionist?
What anti-Semitic wrath such a rewriting of history has wrought. No longer is empire the enemy. It’s the Jews that are the enemy. Empire ends up smelling like a rose and Jewish people deserve their fate as eternal sinners who were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.
When Jesus is brought before Pilate in John 18:37-38, (trial 5 I think it is) he asks him if he is a king. Pilate says:
“You are a king, then!”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” asked Pilate.
“What is truth? is the eternal question. It’s what we come here week after week to discern. The Bible itself is not the truth. It’s a tool to find the truth. And we must be on the quest for the truth. As Sportin’ Life sang in Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so, the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible it ain’t necessarily so.”
Hear this, even the Bible has its case of revisionist history. It’s not a rulebook or a secret code as much as it is a reflection of people searching for meaning, for truth. When we read the Bible with the Holy Spirit as the guide, and the community as the sounding board, we find the word of God, the truth for our lives.
So whether Pilate was a brutal tyrant or a good guy who was in an impossible situation is up to interpretation. What we can agree on is that Jesus was unjustly crucified, which set the stage for this religion of resistance and truth-seeking ever since.
Our task as people of faith is to seek the truth. It’s to look beyond the revisionist history and those who make money off of their version of the truth.
Our task is to be faithful to a vision of the world that looks out for the outcast and protects them from the brutality of people in religious or political domination. When we find that, we have found the Good News. That’s a party platform I can support.