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Pontius Pilate - "Means Well, Feebly"

Mark 15:1 -- 15

The 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 character.

The Holy Bible, New International Version

Mark 15

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?” asked Pilate,
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
asked them.

13“Crucify him!” they shouted.

14“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

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

By 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?


It’s not as if the man wasn’t warned.

  • First, 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.
  • Next, 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.
  • Finally, 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.
Political maneuvers

The man is an experienced politician. There being no babies to kiss, he came up with three attempts to distance himself from Jesus.

  • First, 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.
  • So, 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?
  • Finally, 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.

It’s 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 wilderness, free.

Saw – but wouldn’t take the risk

Pilate 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.

  • He 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.
  • Justice – 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?
  • His 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.

My 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?

American 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 problem.


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?

If 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 silently.

The silence that screams “Shame!”

Note 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.

In 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

We 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?

  • Americans 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.
  • It 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 excuse.

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 rejecting it.

·         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, however, remains.

What God will do

In 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?

  • We 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?
  • We 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.
  • We 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.

So 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.

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