Every once in a while, we find ourselves in situations where we are clearly in over our heads.
Do you know what that’s like? Maybe you expected a bit of a challenge, but you thought you could handle it. You try your usual strategies to manage the initial pushback, but it’s not working. Your ability to control the situation is quickly slipping from your grasp. The social or political waters are much, much deeper than you thought at first, and you feel them closing in over you.
Pontius Pilate, I think, is drowning. He’s not used to it. And it frightens him.
He’s already had Jesus flogged, and the soldiers — well, let’s say they took a bit too much pleasure in their work. Pilate stands the battered Jesus before the crowd, hoping to silence them. But it doesn’t work; he badly underestimates the bloodthirsty animosity of the chief priests and their cronies. Here’s how John describes the scene:
When the chief priests and the police saw [Jesus], they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. (John 19:6-8, NRSV)
Matthew and Luke tell us that it’s not just the chief priests who are calling for Jesus’ death: the whole crowd is, because the chief priests have stirred them up. Pilate’s response here is curious: If you want to crucify him so badly, go do it yourself and leave me out of it. He knows full well that the Jews have neither the means nor the authority to crucify Jesus. Is Pilate being petulant? Is he mocking them with their impotence, when he’s feeling a bit impotent himself? Whatever. He reiterates that the charges are baseless. Jesus has done nothing to brand him an enemy of the state.
Then the Jewish leaders make their own curious move. Dropping the pretense of getting Jesus executed for being a revolutionary, a threat to the empire, they bring up the real charge against him: blasphemy. But why would a Roman governor care — especially Pilate, who disdains them?
Perhaps they’re trading cleverly on the title itself: “Son of God.” For a Jew, the title could refer both to the Davidic king and to the Messiah. But for a Roman, it meant the emperor.
Pilate, of course, had already decided that Jesus was not any kind of king that mattered. But…what if…? What if, despite all expectations to the contrary, this fellow Jesus were to be released and make trouble for the empire? What if the emperor found out that Pilate knew that Jesus had claimed a royal title and had done nothing about it? Whose head would be on the chopping block then? Pilate served at the emperor’s pleasure, and the emperor’s dis-pleasure was rightly to be feared.
That all makes sense, and fits with what the Jews will say later: “Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor” (vs. 12). But given John’s penchant for irony, I think something more is going on here.
Matthew 27:19 tells us that Pilate’s wife sent him an urgent message: Don’t have anything to do with that Jesus guy. He’s innocent. And I had a terrible nightmare about him. We don’t know if Pilate was a superstitious man, but it fits with how the Romans thought of their gods: capricious, unpredictable, sometimes appearing in human form to test you, and punishing you if you fail.
When Pilate hears that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he became “more afraid than ever.” He was already drowning in a highly charged political situation that was getting out of hand and his usual ways weren’t working. He always lived with the background threat of being punished by the emperor. And now this: could he also be punished by the gods?
Pilate stands at the edge of an existential cliff. What’s really going on here? Just what have I got myself into?
And Jesus will tell him. Sort of. More on that in Sunday’s post.