phrase originates with Teddy Roosevelt; he said it of William Howard Taft –
calling him a man who “means well feebly.” We are all familiar with the person
who says all the right things, but cannot be counted on when things get tough.
He might as well have said it of Pontius Pilate, for that is the man’s
Holy Bible, New International Version
1Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the
elders, the teachers of
the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him
away and handed him over to Pilate.
2“Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.
3The chief priests accused him of many things. 4So again Pilate asked him,
“Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”
5But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.
6Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner
whom the people
requested. 7A man called Barabbas was in prison with
the insurrectionists who
had committed murder in the uprising. 8The crowd came up and asked Pilate to
do for them what he usually did.
9“Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?”
10knowing it was out of envy that the chief
priests had handed Jesus over to him.
11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd
to have Pilate release Barabbas
12“What shall I do, then, with the one you
call the king of the Jews?” Pilate
13“Crucify him!” they shouted.
14“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked
But they shouted all the
louder, “Crucify him!”
15Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate
released Barabbas to them. He had
Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
The Failure of Pontius Pilate
all contemporary accounts the man was an able administrator. No one could say
this was a soft assignment; the Jews were constantly harboring revolt against
the Romans. Rome was none too generous with troops for a provincial governor
(troops cost money). So Pilate was expected to thread his way through the maze
of Jewish politics, keeping a firm hand on the country, and seeing to it that
taxes were collected, order kept and Roman citizens treated with proper
respect. The best we can say of the man is this: he was an able
bureaucrat. How, then, did he fail?
not as if the man wasn’t warned.
he was warned by the Roman sense of justice. The Romans were great
builders but not great philosophers. They had, however, a keen sense of
justice. As Paul found out, a Roman citizen had every right to expect
honest judgment from a Roman court. It’s just that sometimes it’s not
very convenient. That squeezes men; plastic or steel will soon be shown.
if nothing else, he had his own conscience to warn him. Now it may be
that before becoming a bureaucrat you must have your conscience surgically
removed. Pilate, however, displays all the emotions of a man whose
conscience is telling him one thing and his political instinct another.
in the other Gospels, we find that Pilate’s wife had a dream about the
man. These things were taken most seriously in those days. Her advice
from the start was for him to have nothing to do with the situation.
Unfortunately for his reputation, Pilate got in too deep too quickly to
come out with honor.
man is an experienced politician. There being no babies to kiss, he came up
with three attempts to distance himself from Jesus.
he proposes a compromise. He will have the man flogged publicly (always
an edifying spectacle for the populace) and then released. But the
priests are clearly not satisfied. They’ve grasped the fact that Pilate
can be moved to get along and go along. Their commitment to their cause
is much greater than his commitment to justice – and they know it.
he adopts the “Poison Pill” defense. It’s customary at Passover for the
governor to release a prisoner (a demonstration of Rome’s sweet
reasonableness). Which would you rather have: the known villain
Barabbas, or this fellow Jesus?
when all else fails, he attempts to transfer the guilt (and particularly
the shame) of this kangaroo court to the Jews. He ceremonially washes his
hands of the matter. The Jews of the mob accept this – and bring
condemnation upon themselves.
curious. In the Old Testament, Aaron was to bring two goats to the Tabernacle
for a sin offering. He cast lots, and one goat became God’s goat – and was
sacrificed. The other became the scapegoat – and was released into the
Saw – but wouldn’t take the risk
is no amateur at this. His failure is not one of poor recognition but of a
complete lack of willingness to take the ultimate risk.
knew quite well that the accusations were false. He also knew the
motive: envy. He spots that immediately, and tries to use it. He hoped
to produce shame in the priests. It didn’t work.
– he believed in that. But only until it got risky. After all, the worst
man in office can do more than the best man out of office, right?
real problem is this: he is so accustomed to half measures, compromises
and sweet dealings that he is not willing to risk all on the innocence of
one man. He saw his duty, and failed it.
father put it this way: “If a man’s principles don’t cost him anything,
they’re not worth much.”
How does the Christian deal with such injustice?
Christians view all this as so much history. We’re convinced that persecution
is something that happens to Christians in Ethiopia. We are happy to pray for
them; might even chip in a buck or two for their relief – but it’s not our
Window on church and state
Our Lord gives us the model for dealing with state
persecution: innocent suffering. He does this despite the fact that Pilate’s
authority comes, ultimately, from God (a point he makes clear in the account in
John’s Gospel). Now, if the ultimate authority submits himself to such
persecution, upon what grounds do we refuse to suffer?
you will see it, our Lord here gives us the method for dealing with
persecution. We will acknowledge God and bring glory to him by suffering
The silence that screams “Shame!”
that there is only one question to which Jesus gives an answer: “Are you the
king of the Jews?” Why this particular item, rather than defending himself
against the charges of the Jews? I submit this: in no other question do we
see the glory of God revealed. But it is God’s purpose that Jesus go to the
cross. Only where the glory of God is involved does he speak. For the rest,
silence screams “Shame!” at his accusers.
effect, having proclaimed himself as the “I AM” of Scripture, he then lets his
silence convict his accusers. It’s as if he said to Pilate, “Just listen to
their accusations, and see if it makes sense to you.” Pilate gets the point –
that’s why he washes his hands.
All to God
look at this and tend to view it as being something we admire, but would never
do. Our first reaction is to hire the best lawyer we can afford. How is it
that, as Americans, our reaction is so different than that of Christ?
are “action people.” We view our Christianity as something we “do.” We
do not see it as something which “is.” But it is exactly that difference
which defines things temporal and things eternal. All the things of God
“are” – for his name is “I AM”. Doing is this world. Our view is too
short; we see this life only.
brings up a question: am I willing to endure suffering for the sake of
others? If my suffering (or even death) brought about someone else’s
salvation, that would be a grand imitation of Christ. But would I do it?
Only if I am fully committed to Christ. Partial commitment will find an
The question is not hypothetical.
Even now the forces of this world are gathering to make true Christianity
something to be hunted down and destroyed. As I write this, there are those
who cannot get a job unless they are willing to proclaim the righteousness of
homosexuality, and this is just the beginning.
How about us?
Do we see any echoes of our own
character here in this story?
Pilate, in a sense, transferred the
guilt and shame to the Jews when he washed his hands. It reminds me of the
probably apocryphal tour guide in Jerusalem. When asked what changed when the
Jews took the city in 1967, he said, “Before, I told people that this is the
spot where the Jews crucified Jesus. Now, I tell them it’s the spot where the
Romans crucified Jesus.”
Why do we rationalize like that?
Because we want to go along with the crowd. We want to be esteemed, to be
appreciated, to feel that we fit in. We practice this a lot – and so we are
very good at it.
Like Pilate, however, there comes a
time of choice. We must select either the partial commitment to Christ which
this world tolerates (and even encourages), or the complete commitment to
Christ which is sure to be resented (and may be persecuted as well). We can
rationalize, or we can be devoted.
Feelings and Facts
One thing is clear in this episode:
Pilate cannot transfer the guilt. But he can transfer the shame. He can walk
away from this episode feeling good about himself. What’s the difference?
Feelings, such as
shame, are usually the right reaction to facts. But not always. When we
rationalize as Pilate did, we eliminate the shame. We feel good.
But we’re not
innocent. Guilt is not just a matter of emotions – but rather it is a fact.
It’s a fact that we must deal with, either in accepting Christ’s atonement, or
But beware of one
thing: long abuse dulls the conscience and quenches the Spirit. If you keep
on rationalizing, eventually all sense of shame disappears. The fact of guilt,
What God will do
writing this lesson, I have avoided one question: why do we rationalize? Why
do we seek the compromise? Why do we refuse to accept suffering?
will not suffer because we do not really believe God is able. If we saw
our suffering as a key unlocking salvation for others, we might be more
willing. If we saw in our suffering an offense which God would punish, we
might be more willing. But if we see our God as one who would not really
interfere in the affairs of church and state, we then must rely on our own
resources. If you’re on your own, why would you want to suffer?
don’t believe He is able to move in our affairs because we are not 100%
committed to him. We picture him as we know ourselves to be: partially
committed, and willing to drop the matter as soon as the going gets
rough. Our lack of commitment makes us see our Lord as powerless.
need to remember how this story turned out. The Jews handed Jesus over to
the Romans for crucifixion. In AD 70, God handed the Jews over to those
same Romans – to be crushed, their Temple burned and to be scattered all
over the face of the globe.
then, let us gather our courage together. Relying on our Lord, let us be
willing to suffer all things for the Lover of our souls.