Sunday, March 25, 2018

Pondering Pilate

I've been pondering Pontius Pilate lately. A couple reasons for this -- first, I'm portraying him in the Good Friday drama at our church, so I'm memorizing many of his lines (lifted pretty much verbatim from John's gospel) and trying to get inside his head as I portray him.

Second, there's the way I ended up with the role. I'd been avoiding eye contact with anyone involved with the drama for a few weeks, and then one Sunday I felt compelled to see if they needed any help. Cindy, the woman directing the play, took one look at me and exclaimed, "You look like Pontius Pilate!" I had a good laugh about that, accepted the role, and ever since then I've been wondering about this murky historical character and his intersection with Jesus.

Third, this isn't the first time I have portrayed Pilate. It must have been about 2 am on New Year's Day 1983 that I came home from being out with friends and discovered my mother sitting at the kitchen table, a sea of open Bibles, commentaries, and dozens of handwritten paragraphs in front of her on a half dozen legal pads. "What are you doing?" I asked. "I'm writing an Easter pageant," she responded. "Easter!" I exclaimed. "Mom, it's New Year's Day. Go to bed!" She shook her head. "If I put this away, I'll lose it." So she wrote the script, developed the costumes, and recruited all the young men she could from our church for "Voices of the Crucifixion." At Mom's request, I played Pilate. (By the way, a few years later she did another production that was all women's voices around the crucifixion. That drama was produced again in the same congregation not long ago.)

So I remember thinking in depth about Pilate many, many years ago. And I am back at it these days. The script for this current production does a good job of highlighting Pilate's predicament -- caught between his own convictions, his distaste for his assignment of governing the unruly province of Judea, pressure from the Jewish authorities, and the need to be more than a little loyal to Caesar. It must have been an uncomfortable place to try to find solid footing. No matter what Pilate believed to be true -- and from the gospel accounts he seemed to believe Jesus was innocent -- his choices were difficult. Maybe impossible. According to Matthew's gospel, even Pilate's wife weighed in, pleading with him to have nothing to do with this innocent man. But everything in Pilate's life militated against declaring Jesus innocent.

Probably worst of all, Pilate enjoyed the status of being a "friend of Caesar" -- a sort of quasi-official status as one in favor at the Roman court. So it was no idle threat when the Jewish leaders told Pilate, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar." A Roman official could lose far more than just career opportunities if he betrayed the trust of the emperor, and Pilate knew it, as did the temple leaders. Pilate had already been censured for not doing a better job of keeping the peace in Judea. One accusatory report sent to Rome could end Pilate's governorship and possibly his life.

It is enough to make you think, though, about decision making. How do we judge Pilate today? How was he judged in his own time? Some reports, hard to substantiate, indicate that he took his own life several years later, on assignment somewhere in the western Mediterranean. It's tempting for Christians two thousand years later to read back into the story, diagnosing Pilate's guilt over the crucifixion of an innocent Jewish prophet. Fact is, we have no way of knowing if he even remembered Jesus a week later. From our perspective, of course, the story reads better if he did -- if the ineffectual handwashing stayed with him, and (as the script had it back in 1983) he was ever after trying to get his hands to come clean.

More to the point, it's enough to make you think about the decisions you face these days. What weighs in the balance? Stability? Income? Career advancement? How does one include the less tangible elements like truth, beauty, love, or loyalty? Think too long about these things and we all might find ourselves looking for a washbasin, a towel, and really strong soap.

Fact is, Pilate, like each of us, was a sinner. He probably would not have described himself with that word, but it's still the truth. And the sentence Pilate handed down, that this young prophet, Messiah, Christ, should be crucified, in a mysterious way opens the door for God's love to have its way with this broken world, and our own broken humanity. Ironically enough, Pilate, like all of us, needed the death to which he sentenced Jesus.

Pilate's last mentioned act in the gospels is the one that intrigues me the most. When it came time to post a sign above Jesus' head enumerating his crimes, Pilate dictated that it should read "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudoream" and that it should be translated into Greek and Aramaic so that no literate person wandering by could miss its significance: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," placarded for all to see. The Bible says some objected, saying it should have read, "This man said, 'I am the king of the Jews,'" But Pilate stoically replied, "What I have written I have written."

It's a hopeful bit of stubbornness at the very least, that maybe deep down Pilate recognized an aura of kingship in the man he'd just sentenced to the most brutal torture and death possible, whatever came later.

Poring through an old photo album a few weeks ago, I found a grainy photo of a scrawny kid wearing a bit of old drapery, a bedsheet, and some brocade, wringing his hands like the bloodstains still won't come off -- a youthful Pontius Pilate in cool shades:

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