“What is truth?” This is question Pilate asks Jesus.
The good news for us is that this morning we’re going to get an answer. 2000 years of wondering about truth is all going to be solved today. Lucky us. <smile>
To better understand what’s all going in today’s Scripture, we’re going to take a quick dive into history. (I got most of this from the book The Upside Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill, which continues to be one of the most influential books on Jesus I’ve ever read)
At the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was busy sending their armies all over the world and conquering new territories. And one of those territories was what is now modern day Israel and Palestine. The homeland of the Jewish people.
But… the Jewish people, for some reason or another, didn’t like being ruled by a foreign power. I know, right? I can’t imagine why. And so, history tells us that they were notoriously difficult to rule.
When Jesus was born, the Roman Empire had set up a puppet king named Herod the Great. He’s the one we read about at Christmastime when the magi went and visited him. There were two important parts to Herod the Great’s job: Make sure the locals pay their taxes, and maintain the peace.
Unfortunately, King Herod was a homicidal maniac. So after the magi told him about Jesus being a new king, he was pretty sure a new king wasn’t ‘maintaining the peace’, so he ordered the murder of all the children 2 and under.
That one’s bad. And there are lots more. But to put an emphasis on what kind of king Herod was, here’s one more story. Near the end of his life, he knew he was dying. But he didn’t want people to celebrate his death. So on his death bed he ordered Jewish leaders be put in jail. And he gave the orders that when he died, they were all to be killed, so that the people of his kingdom would shed tears on the day that he died.
Homicidal maniac. (Lucky for everyone, after he died, his orders were not followed, and the captives were released.)
After he died, his puppet kingdom was split up and given to 3 of his kids – Herod Antipas, Philip, and Archelaus.
These puppet kings had two main responsibilities: Make sure the locals pay their taxes, and maintain the peace.
Philip did fairly well at managing his part of the kingdom, so the history books don’t have much to say about him.
Herod Antipas was a bit worse. We read about him cutting off the head of John the Baptist after John called him a fox. (Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Unless you call me a fox. Then I’m going to cut off your head.) After 42 years of ruling, the Romans put him into exile.
But Archelaus – What a disaster he was. He was in charge of the kingdom that included Jerusalem. At the start of his rule, he removed the high priest and installed his own. And then a riot broke out. And then soldiers were sent in to stop the riot. And then the soldiers were killed by the rioters. And then Archelaus had 3000 people killed in retaliation for that.
But, that kicked up some more revolutionaries. A former slave named Simon led a rebellion against all the palaces and estates of the wealthy. A former shepherd named Athronges led a rebellion for a few more years. And then there was another guy named Judas who became a flaming revolutionary and declared himself king and ruled for a few months.
But the Romans weren’t really okay with this, so they sent in a legion to stop all this nonsense. They burned down the hometown of Judas, sold its population into slavery, and killed 2000 more people just to make sure they got the point.
And this doesn’t include that time that people were chucking stones off the roof of the temple onto the heads of the Roman soldiers. Or the assasins called “Daggermen” who hid in caves. Or the Zealots who thought the only good Roman was a dead one.
After Rome came and “cleaned up the mess” of Archelaus, they installed a Roman governor to govern all of Judea. And that governor had two main jobs: Get the locals to pay their taxes, and maintain the peace.
And at the time of Jesus’ death, the guy in charge was name Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate ruled for a few years, but was eventually removed from his position for massacring some Samaritans. One Roman historian recorded Pilate’s rule as “marked by corruption, violence, degradation, ill treatment, offenses, numerous illegal executions and incessant, unbearable cruelty.”Are you noticing a pattern here?
If this all feels a bit like the TV show Game of Thrones, yes… That would be a very good comparison.
Another one of the dynamics here is that throughout all this violence, the religious leaders in Jerusalem were busy trying to lead their people. They were trying to faithful to God. They were trying to maintain some form of independence from the Roman Empire. And they were also trying to ensure that their people wouldn’t kill the Romans so that the Romans wouldn’t come and obliterate them off the face of the Earth. Let me tell you, when we have our staff meetings here at church, we do not have on our agenda “How to keep our church members from being massacred by a foreign army?” We talk about who’s preaching next week.
So that brings us to today’s story.
As part of being under Roman rule, the religious leaders weren’t allowed to kill people. That power laid with the Roman authorities.
But the religious leaders were probably afraid of a whole bunch of things… They were afraid that this Jesus character was going to mess up their gig. They were afraid about their own of sense of identity and purpose, because nobody really likes changing jobs that they’re good at. And… and this is key… They were afraid that the people are going to declare Jesus to be King. And if there’s a new king in town, that will bring the wrath of the Roman armies, and dang it, that’s a lot of extra funerals to do on the weekend.
So they want Jesus gone. Done away with. Killed. They had a meeting, and they said “If we let him (Jesus) go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” The head priest Caiaphas said “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” John 11:48, 50
So they bring Jesus to Pilate.
Now, Pilate doesn’t live in Jerusalem, as his palace was on the coast in Caesarea Maritima, about 120 km away. So why is he in Jerusalem?
Well, we don’t know for sure, but we can take a pretty good guess. What are Pilate’s two main responsibilities? Make sure the locals pay their taxes, and maintain the peace. And the weekend that Jesus died in Jerusalem was the Passover. It’s the Jewish festival where they remember the Israelite slaves leaving Egypt… Which can also be told as a story of the Jewish people being freed from the shackles of an oppressive foreign government…
A festival celebrating freedom from an foreign oppressive regime in a region known for violent uprising against foreign oppressive regimes might make Pontius Pilate’s responsibility of “keeping the peace” at little bit difficult. Jerusalem is like a tinderbox, ready to explode.
And so here we are. Jesus is before Pilate.
Now, based on this text alone, I don’t think Pilate cares much about Jesus. I think all he cares about are maintaining the peace and taxes.
So he asks Jesus if he is a king. Because, you know, having a rival king would be bad.
And pay attention to Jesus’ response: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
My kingdom is not of this world. My kingdom is different. It’s one you don’t understand. You clearly understand violence, as that’s how both the Roman Empire and Jewish revolutionaries work. But my kingdom is different. It doesn’t need violence and taxes to govern it. It’s about love… self-emptying love. For everyone. Even our enemies. It’s about peace and forgiveness and kindness and gentleness. And it doesn’t have borders. My kingdom is from a different place.
I don’t think Pilate really gets what Jesus is saying. All Pilate hears is Jesus admitting to being a king: “So you are a king, then! “
Okay, this is a big deal because this is the first time in the gospel of John that Jesus declares himself to be king. This is the first time that he owns the title.
And why is this a big deal?
Because the gospel writer of John spends the first 11 chapters of his book describing 7 miracles, or signs of Jesus. (We preached on some of them. But Easter is early this year, so we ran out of Sundays to preach on all of them.) These signs are:
Changing water into wine.
Healing the royal official’s son
Healing the paralytic at Bethesda
Feeding the 5000
Jesus walking on water
Healing the man blind from birth
The raising of Lazarus from the dead.
Now, if someone turns water in wine and feeds the hungry and raises people from the dead, they would surely be made king. I mean, who here in Canada wouldn’t vote for free healthcare, free food, and free alcohol?!?!
And Jesus knew this.
And he said…. No.
Here’s what we read after he feeds the 5000.
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”
When Jesus was the hero, he didn’t claim he was a king. Even after all the miracles.
But it’s here, in front of Pilate, where Jesus is arrested, vulnerable, a prisoner, alone, betrayed, at the mercy of others, facing death… It is here where Jesus declares himself to be king.
What kind of king is that? And what kind of kingdom is that?
We understand Roman armies and taxation. We understand modern day armies and the CRA. We understand aircraft carriers and strong borders and nuclear weapons.
But a kingdom of vulnerability and self-emptying love? That’s ridiculous.
Pilate thought so too. That’s why he didn’t order Jesus to be killed. He probably thought Jesus was delusional. Any of us here could declare ourselves to be Prime Minister, but without an army, a show of force, some rules of engagement, nobody would take us seriously. We’re not a threat to Ottawa. People would just say we’re delusional.
And so Pilate didn’t find any basis for charges, because Pilate was operating out of the the kingdom that he understood.
And Pilate gave the people a choice too. They can have their vulnerable king Jesus, or they can have the violent revolutionary named Barabbas.
What’s interesting about Barabbas is that in some translations, he’s referred to as a bandit.
And the other time that the word bandit is used in the Gospel of John is in John 10, where the bandit is contrasted with the good shepherd. The good shepherd loves his sheep, gives his live for his sheep, while the bandit steals and destroys.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The bandit comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:7-10
Do the people want the good shepherd? Or do they want the bandit?
They chose the bandit. “Give us Barabbas!” the crowds shouted. They too, chose the kingdom that they could understand. They chose to play the game of thrones, where you win or you die.
A quick aside – Like footwashing, self-emptying love like forgiveness, these are decisions that we make for ourselves, as individuals or communities. We can’t force people to choose the Good Shepherd while we choose to be bandits to them. A manifestation of this is the unholy alliance between church and state, especially related to the history of colonialism. The missionaries would show up, invite people to follow the good shepherd, and simultaneously the “Christian” state would show up and act like bandits.
If I am actively oppressing someone, I can’t tell them to choose the shepherd. They are free to make that choice, but it cannot be forced. Christianity is not about coercion.
Okay. Moving quick aside is done.
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
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?” retorted Pilate. (Pilate sounds like he’s in a first year sociology course learning about postmodernism).
Maybe Pilate asked the wrong question.
Maybe Pilate should have asked “Who is truth?” Because that’s how Jesus answered him.
Jesus says that he is the truth.
And that’s a bold claim, isn’t it? The arrested, vulnerable king facing death, is truth? That’s the way of God?!?
This is where we let the artists speak for us. A poet wrote in Isaiah 55:8-9,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are my ways higher than your ways
And my thoughts than your thoughts.
In my Lenten readings, Walter Brueggemann writes, “It is not your way. You would not have imagined this alternative way nor been able to predict it, and you surely cannot control it. There is a way into the future in your life, because God is at work doing strange, wondrous things for you and in spite of you. And your job is to get your mind off your ways of need and control, to give your life over to God’s large, hidden way in your life…”
“The poet holds out to the exiles (and to us) an alternative way, the waters of baptism, the bread of the Eucharist, the wine of new covenant, the capacity to risk and trust and obey, and then to find ourselves safe and joyous, close to God, and enlisted for a very different life in the world.”
God of becoming, be with us as journey through Lent. May we learn to relinquish our old ways to that we are ready to receive your newness. Amen.