“What is Truth”
For those of you who have never been inside a courtroom, it can be rather intimidating. Forget what you have seen on TV; one person and one person alone is in charge. Engulfed in a black robe and protected by an imposing bulwark, the judge sits as the voice of authority. I remember as a twenty year old I was improperly charged with reckless driving. I am not saying that I have never driven recklessly, but this was not one of those times. There were two witnesses, including the arresting officer, who would testify on my behalf. Yet when I saw the massive figure of the Judge before me, I was ready to plead guilty to every other offence on the docket.
When Jesus stood before Pilate, the tables were uncharacteristically reversed. The accused, not the judge seemed to be in control of the whole conversation. Do not believe for a moment that Pilate was some weak indecisive puppet incapable of making a decision. According to the Roman historian Jerome, Pilate once ruthlessly crushed a revolt in Samaria, “sadistic ferocity and a plethora of executions.” This was no timid man who stood with Jesus. He held the power of life and death and had the reputation of being quite cruel. The Jewish Sanhedrin was counting on Pilate dismissing Jesus without a thought. And yet, the writer of the Gospel of John wants us to believe that this powerful Roman Governor, The Judge, stood before a lowly, unemployed Jew, accused of treason, and decided to engage in a conversation about the meaning of truth.
It is important to remind ourselves that the integrity of the Biblical message is first and foremost based on theology rather than historical accuracy. One might note that there is no mention in the other gospels of a private conversation between Pilate and Jesus. While it certainly could have happened, the skeptic in me wonders who was the third party recording this philosophical argument. While interesting we would use time more wisely by asking the question, “What was John’s theological reason for adding this discourse to his gospel?”
Let’s begin with the obvious. Pilate represented Rome. Rome was responsible for the persecution of the early church. Jesus was the “founder and spiritual head” of this religious movement. I could suggest that John’s courtroom scene alludes to future conflict between the early church and Rome. The readers of this story could be comforted that from the beginning Rome would never be a match for the truth to be found in the words of Jesus. Unfortunately, this logic breaks down when we remember it was the Jewish Sanhedrin and not the Roman Empire that insisted on Jesus being brought to death.
Perhaps we need to expand our understanding of the role of Pilate. If we perceive him to represent not just Rome but the whole concept of governmental corruption, then the conflict between Jesus and Pilate can be perceived as the struggle between self-interest and justice. Pilate, representing a repressive state, saw Jesus as radical revolutionary, determined to overthrow the existing order by any means necessary. Think of Jesus as the personification of Jeremiah or Amos, a prophet whose mantle was justice and whose rod was righteousness. I personally could easily buy into this interpretation. Certainly this is the Messiah that is often portrayed in the Gospel of Luke. But John’s representation of Jesus was quite different. In John’s gospel, Jesus was the “Good Shepherd”, not the disrupter of cultural systems.
To understand the Pilate portrayed by John, I believe we have to understand the author’s use of character development. The first three gospels depend on a progressive movement of events taking Jesus from the mystery of his birth, through the message of his ministry, to the radical significance of his death. The Synoptic Gospels draw a straight line from an insignificant little backwash town in Galilee to the center of the religious universe in Jerusalem. Not so in John’s Gospel. This book starts with a wedding in Cana. Jesus then immediately goes to Jerusalem. After a short stay he heads for Galilee by way of Samaria. The he goes back to Jerusalem. North to Tiberius, south to the Mount of Olives, across to Bethany and then finally Jesus arrives at Jerusalem a final time. His travel log seems absurd. It is sort of like following the hectic path of one of those children in “The Family Circle” going from the swing to the back door. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for the path Jesus took. I would suggest that John is not driven by location but rather by personal reactions to the identity of Jesus.
The gospel of John doesn’t begin in a manger, but at a wedding. The party is a bust until Jesus turns the water into wine. Next Jesus secretly meets with Nicodemus and discusses what it means to be reborn. Then Jesus sits with a social outcast, a Samaritan woman, and offers her living water. Finally he introduces Mary and Martha to the possibility of eternal life by raising their brother Lazarus from the dead. The One who turns water into wine, eventually turns wine into saving blood through this gospel of Rebirth, Restoration and Resurrection. These are foundations on which the Gospel of John stand. Each theological concept was developed within the context of individuals reacting to whom they perceived Jesus to be. Therefore it is quite natural that the final personality to be challenged by the presence of Jesus would be Pilate. This is not Pilate the Roman; it is not Pilate the Statesman; this is Pilate the Everyman. The Pilate that stood before Jesus represents every honest and well-meaning person who seeks the truth and yet desperately clings to the possibility that there must be something a bit more comfortable, safe, or middle ground.
Look at the incredible irony of this situation. Jesus was brought before the highest authority in the land. The doors were shut. Two men, stand alone, the Judge and the accused; only who was the judge and who will forever remained accused. Pilate looked at Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responded, “My kingdom is not of this world.” As if he missed the answer, Pilate continued, “But you are a king?” Jesus replied, “I testify to the truth. Those who understand the truth, listen to my voice.” The Pilate, with words that have echoed through the years asked, “What is truth?”
How often has the truth stood before us at point blank range and we have refused to embrace it. If Nicodemus sought truth, then Pilate sought to avoid it. If the woman at the well drank truth, then Pilate found truth too bitter to swallow. If Martha challenged the truth, then Pilate found the challenge too great to accept. By washing his hands, by refusing to make a decision, Pilate wrote the script for his own personal tragedy.
Once upon a time a man came into this life. He was offered the chance to love. But he realized love demanded personal sacrifice, it demanded time, it demanded energy, it demanded risking all his emotions and risked the possibility of being betrayed and rejected. So he chose not to love.
The man was offered the chance to commit himself to some great cause. But he realized this sort of energy would take a great deal of time and energy. It called for long thankless hours and possible heartache should his cause fail. And even should he succeed, few if any would thank him for his sacrifice. So he chose not to commit.
The man went through life. He never took a risk; he never got his hands soiled; He never committed to a cause. He was liked by everyone but loved by no one. He was the cheerleader who always seemed to be missing at the end of the game. He claimed he was saving his gifts and talents for that perfect moment. But he died before it came.
As the man was standing before the Almighty, he held out his hands and said, “Here is my life. I saved it especially for you. It is unblemished, untouched by the soil of human heart ache and misery. Use my life as you see fit.”
God looked at the man and said, “What Life?” (stop)
We are preparing to move into the most festive time of the year. Thursday we gave thanks for God’s blessings. Next Sunday we will step into a sanctuary transformed by the richness of the Advent and Christmas seasons. Once again the drama of God’s amazing grace will be played out before our eyes. Beyond the parties lies The Truth that calls us to be reborn; beyond the family traditions lies The Truth that begs us to be restored; beyond the manger lies The Truth that promises resurrection if we will simply step into life and not away from it.
Jesus said, “The truth is, if you want to live you must pick up my cross.” You see, that has always been the choice, the cross or the basin of water by which we wash our hands. Choose wisely. Choose boldly. Both lead to death, but only the cross promises the discovery of new life.