Sermon for Good Friday 2018
Poor, poor Pilate! I almost feel sorry for him. Pilate is stuck in a situation that he doesn’t want to be in. Here he is in the midst of a religious dispute, and it isn’t even his religion. I am sure that when Pilate accepted this position as governor or procurator of Judea that he had grander things in mind. No doubt he wanted to make a name for himself by skillfully ruling this quarrelsome province. Judea has always been a thorn in the side of every empire that ever possessed it. If he can bring it into line and create peace here, then surely the emperor would take greater notice of him; promote him to a better position, perhaps relocate him to a more hospitable part of the world. All he has to do is keep these Judeans in line. He could care less if this man Jesus said something that offended the temple authorities; it’s not his religion, it’s not his God. He doesn’t care about that. He just wants to make sure that this man isn’t plotting some rebellion. If he is a threat to Rome, dispose of him quickly. If not, then stop disturbing his Friday morning. He just wants to keep the peace until he can move on to greener pastures.
He questions this man that is brought before him and doesn’t find any signs of someone about to lead an insurrection. He talks about a kingdom not of this world, but that doesn’t concern Pilate. The kingdom of the emperor is his only concern. Pilate finds no fault in him; he says so. But some rabble-rousers in the crowd are unrelenting. They keep demanding that this Jesus be crucified. If the religious argument doesn’t work with Pilate, then perhaps the political argument will. “If you release this man then you are no friend of the emperor.” Ah…there’s the key. They threaten to disturb the peace that Pilate is trying to maintain. That he can’t have.
So Pilate decides to have the man crucified, and during all this I am almost persuaded to feel sorry for Pilate until he utters the biggest lie in the entire Gospel.
In Matthew’s account of the passion, Pilate stands before the crowd, washes his hands and says: “See I am innocent of this man’s blood!” As Pilate is condemning Jesus to be crucified he has the audacity to say that “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” Pilate would become the first in what would be a very long line of gentiles that would try to shift the blame for Jesus’s death onto the Jews, but he is the one who actually has the power to set Jesus free, he says so. And yet, he doesn’t do it. Make no mistake, he has Jesus’s blood on his hands.
It is there in that moment that Pilate turns from being an almost sympathetic character into a despicable one. Pilate is the most despicable character in this entire scene, because he actually knows the truth, and doesn’t care. He famously asked Jesus: “What is truth?” But we know that he knows the truth, or at least some of it. Pilate knows the Jesus is innocent of the charges against him, and still has him crucified anyways. He knows the truth and it has no affect on his actions; he knows the truth and doesn’t care.
Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. The scribes and Pharisees and temple priests? Well, they may have lied about what Jesus said about the temple, they may have misunderstood him and many of his teachings, but they do think he is guilty. They do see him as a threat and I think they honestly believe that they are doing the right thing. Even Judas, Jesus’s friend that betrayed him probably thought that he was doing the right thing. We can look back now and see that they were misguided or mistaken, but at least they were sincere. And Judas certainly felt sincere remorse when he realized that he was wrong. But not Pilate.
In Pilate’s greatest moment in the spotlight on history’s stage he knows what is true and has the power to act on it, and chooses not to. He crucifies the truth and because of that his name is forever recorded in history and is spoken daily throughout the world, but not in the way he wanted.
In the creeds of our church, there are only two names mentioned after that of our Lord: one who is honored by bringing him into this world, and one who is condemned for sending him out of it. The Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate. When we recite the creed we say that our Lord suffered…not by the hands of Annas, not by the hands of Caiaphas, not by the hands of Herod or Judas, and not by the hands of the Jews…no, we say that Our Lord suffered under Pontius Pilate. His name is the one name that we must forever associate with the death of Jesus.
Pilate thought that the truth didn’t matter. What difference does it make really if this guy is guilty or innocent? As long as I can maintain the peace…who will care really? Oh, but Pilate was wrong. The truth does matter. We may occasionally mistake a falsehood for a truth, that is only human. There are truths that we do not yet know, that is understandable. But it is something we should always be in pursuit of, even if we so do imperfectly.
Pilate isn’t condemned because he didn’t know the truth. He isn’t condemned because he made a mistake. He is condemned because he did know the truth and didn’t care. Pilate’s knowledge of the truth and indifference to it is a greater insult to our Lord, than those that called him a blasphemer and genuinely believed it. We may not always know the truth, but we must always care about it.
It is one thing for Pilate to get the truth wrong, but to not care what it is, well that is a different matter. Our creed forever reminds us that it is by Pilate that Jesus suffered.