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Pilate Error

November 26, 2012

“Pilate Error” John 18:28-38a © 11.25.12 Christ the King B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Sometime in the middle of the last decade, the comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness.” According to one online dictionary, “it describes something that is felt in the gut or in the heart to be true, but not necessarily borne out by fact or logic” (note 1). Another Internet source defines Colbert’s term this way: “the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like.”  An example of usage is “the growing trend of truthiness as opposed to truth” (see note 2). The word caught on so well that it was named “word of the year” by two different linguistic organizations in 2005 and 2006 respectively, and in 2006 officially entered the dictionary.

“Truthiness” has so captured our imaginations because we encounter it every day. Something feels true, even if we can’t prove it. We keep believing, even when we are proven wrong by verifiable data. We maintain our conspiracy theories, because our gut is telling us everybody else is wrong and deluded. We talk about “my truth” which may be quite different from “your truth.”

Perhaps trusting perception, opinion, and intuition, believing against what is presented as fact, is the best we can do in a world where the truth is up for grabs. How do we know what we hear on the news or find on the Internet is factual and accurate or even real? We are awash in urban myths, computer-generated imagery, and spin, spin, spin. Statistics can be cherry picked and distorted to support whatever position the politician or the corporation wants to take.

Bill Easum, the church consultant, once observed: “Video and computer technology makes it hard to tell what is real, unless you already know. As the development of commercially viable virtual reality and holographic imagery provides an alternative version of what is real, concerns about this issue will escalate until they pervade the fabric of our society.” He wrote that in 1997. Generations of technology have come and gone since then. How much more is there to be concerned about today? How do we know what the truth is?

Maybe “the truth is what we say it is,” as a character, a government official, on the TV show Last Resort put it. Perhaps there are “good facts” that can be used in support of a particular agenda and “true facts,” which must be suppressed because they prove your opponent right. That distinction comes from the old sci-fi series Babylon 5. Or maybe we simply “can’t handle the truth,” as Col. Jessep said in the military courtroom drama A Few Good Men. We need to be protected from it because of our weakness of character or of stomach.

It’s hard not to be and/or become cynical. We’d like to think that we really can know “the truth,” and we consider ourselves seekers after it. So we perk up when we think we may have found an unlikely ally in a jaded government official named Pontius Pilate.

Unfortunately, no. Pilate is neither interested in truth as a general concept or the truth about the man who stood before him early one spring morning. What sounds like a sincere and wistful longing for enlightenment is actually a dismissal. It’s more accurately translated as “Truth? What is that?” or “Truth? You must be kidding!” or “Truth? How naïve!” “Truth? Must be nice there in Jesus-land!”

The governor had been in politics long enough to know that people who talked about truth were hopeless and useless idealists and dreamers. And those who sought the facts about a particular situation or case could be led astray and fooled. To him, to again quote Col. Jessep, noble words were not guides for living, “the backbone of a life spent defending something.” They were “a punch line.”

John’s portrait of Pilate matches pretty well what historians recorded about him. He was the governor, the procurator, of Judea from 26-36 AD. Pilate was a mean-spirited, hard man who hated the Jews. That attitude is reflected in his sneer at Jesus: “I’m not a Jew, am I?” He’s interested only in political expediency, quelling unrest on a holiday weekend, and being done with dealing with these despicable people in this backwater nation. What he does and will do is for his own self-interest, to avoid bad press. He doesn’t want to come to the attention of Caesar except for a job well-done. He will not let a peasant upstart like Jesus ruin his chances of career advancement.

But if Pilate protected his earthly position by his actions and words, he endangered his eternal destiny by three errors that revealed that he was on the wrong side. He despised the Jewish leaders, but in the end he ended up in league with them. They counted ritual purity more important than a man’s life. Pilate considered his peace and quiet more to be treasured than discovering and standing for the truth.

The governor’s first error was to trust appearances. Put another way, he suffered from a failure of imagination. He could not think outside the box. He knew what a king was supposed to look like. He had been in the presence of monarchs. They had a certain bearing, a way of intimidating everyone around. It wasn’t so much a matter of what the king said as how he held himself, style rather than substance. A king commanded attention; one dare not disobey without suffering dire consequences.

But this man Jesus, with his puffy, injured cheek and bound hands, how could he be a king? What was it about him that got those stupid Jewish religious bureaucrats so upset? Why would they want to kill him? Pilate let his incredulity come out in the tone of his question, as I hear it: “Are you the king of the Jews?”

I wonder if we make the same mistake. Do we sometimes judge a book by its cover, whether positively or negatively? Do we discount the possible contribution someone could make because of their age, whether old or young; or the way they are dressed; or their skin color or ethnic background; or any of many other reasons? There could not possibly be wise counsel coming from the lips of that tattooed college student with the funny hair. And that old-timer full of stories about the way it used to be can safely be ignored; what can he possibly know that might be of value? Our favorite news source is impartial and objective, while others are biased and distorted. The salesperson, politician or commentator with whom we identify in some way is telling us the truth, while the one who doesn’t look or sound like us must be lying. The atheist scientist who doubts the very existence of God cannot possibly be a moral person, but the priest or coach who prays and quotes the Bible is a paragon of virtue.

But if judging by appearances is Pilate’s error #1, his second mistake was believing he was in charge. Of course, the second is related to the first. This Jesus so devoid of regal bearing, who had never fought a battle or condemned a prisoner to death, this weak, vulnerable man, was a big zero. He didn’t have power over anything or anyone, while Pilate knew the score, held all the cards, whatever clichéd metaphor we choose to use.

The gospel writer knows better. Pilate doesn’t get it. Throughout all this, Jesus is in charge. He is the Judge. He is the Prosecutor. Our Lord asks questions of Pilate as if he is cross-examining him. And rather sarcastically, I imagine. “Did you figure this out for yourself, little man, or did somebody else tell you what’s going on?” Asked what he had done, Jesus makes a speech that sets the terms of the conversation. He redefines kingship in a way Pilate can’t understand. All the governor wants is a simple yes or no, but the prisoner prattles on. Great Jupiter, Pilate must have thought, where do these guys come from? What is it about this cursed country?

At least he heard the words “kingdom” and a term Pilate understood as “subjects” or “servants” in there somewhere. “So you are a king?” The maddening reply: “You say so.” In other words, yes and no. I can neither confirm nor deny that, governor. It depends on what you mean by king.

Again, we may make the same mistake, commit the same error. You and I think we are in charge of our lives. We make decisions and plans and talk about the future. We believe that our choices are our own, unaffected by anything other than what we want to do and consider to be best. But is that really true? Are we not the product of our upbringing, our environment, our interactions brief and extended with other people, the subjects of the changes and fortunes of the world and nation we live in? We are not really free agents, independent contractors. Our choices and possibilities are never infinite; we can’t be anything we want to be if we just work hard enough and try. All of us are in some sort of box or cage, living circumscribed, scripted lives. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and we know it. Left to our own devices, truly free, who knows what havoc we would cause? Other times we pull at our leashes, wanting to go places, do and see and be things that right now we can only dream of, and we chafe at our limitations.

Perhaps we have the same ambivalence about our affirmation that God is the One in charge, that Jesus Christ is Lord. We don’t much care for his so-called “governance” of the universe. We could and would certainly do a better job. If he’s so powerful, why is the world in such a mess? But we can’t stand the idea that no one is in charge, that the world is spinning down to disaster after disaster on its own, and in the end, there will be nothing but chaos, ending with a whimper. We need to believe that despite all appearances, Jesus Christ is indeed Lord, just as he was in that first century governor’s office. We need to know that in the end, things will turn out right, and in between, that the actions we take, the decisions we make actually do count for something within the bounds of possibilities open to us, that they contribute to the working out of everything for our good and the good of the world the sovereign God loves.

Finally, Pilate’s third error was his refusal to decide. John pictures him going back and forth between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. His constant movement is intended by the writer to indicate his indecision, his weakness, his letting others set the agenda. If we were to read on, we find him telling the leaders that there is no case against Jesus from Pilate’s standpoint. In other words, he has not committed any crime worthy of crucifixion. But then he lets the religious authorities tell him who should go free, instead of standing his ground on the evidence. Of course, as we know, Barabbas, a bandit and maybe a terrorist, was set free, while Jesus was put to death.

Sometimes our choices don’t really matter. They make no difference in the grand scheme of things. But on other occasions, we are presented with monumental decisions that must be made, sometimes between good options, other times between or among two or more bad ones. Maybe not between truth and falsehood, good and evil, but still value-laden and consequential. We want someone else to make the call, but others are looking to us, whether because of our position in the organization or the family or because we are known as the most level-headed.

When it comes to such big choices that really matter, we need the courage not to be a Pilate. We need to act out of our convictions, our sense of the facts, our commitment to the truth, our desire to do the best for all, to see the will of God accomplished, whatever it is that drives us. Sometimes we will have to choose between two extremes or as I said, two not so good options. Other times, we can stake out what’s known as the “intentional middle,” calling for reason and prudence against the screaming, badgering craziness of both ends of the spectrum.

Pilate revealed his true colors by his indecision. He showed that he was loyal only to his own interests. He did not and would not hear the voice of Jesus. That’s always the temptation, isn’t it: not to pay attention to our Lord?

So when we’re called on to see things differently, when we are reminded who’s in charge, when the big decisions confront us, when the truth is on the line, will we listen to Jesus, the King, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb upon his throne, and show to the world that we belong, heart and body and soul, to the Truth?


Note 1:’truthiness’

Note 2:


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