On the feast of Christ the Universal King, we are privileged to being you the final part of Sister Johanna’s reflections on the dialogue between Pontius Pilate, representing the Power of this world and Jesus with his spiritual power.
Pilate’s final act in Jesus’ regard is as enigmatic and confusing as anything that has ever occurred in the gospels. He affixes a notice to Jesus’ cross reading ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.’ Why? Why can’t Pilate leave it alone now? Why doesn’t he retreat back into his palace after his sentencing of Jesus, away from all the turmoil? Why does Pilate watch Jesus’ final journey to Golgotha carrying his cross, and then turn up himself at Golgotha? The notice was nailed to the cross just before it was raised, or possibly afterwards – the text isn’t clear. Why was Pilate still there? Did he feel that he had unfinished business? Was he ambivalent about the sentence he had passed? Or did he simply want to have the last word, now that Jesus was nearly dead, and probably unable to say anything more?
In light of our reflections, it is not possible to interpret Pilate’s notice as a sincere gesture of sorrow, nor would it represent an awareness, coming too late, of Jesus’ true kingship in a religious sense. None of Pilate’s actions at any point in Jesus’ trial or crucifixion suggest that Pilate ever grasps the true meaning of Jesus’ words and person. Nor does it seem to me to be one last attempt by Pilate to make Jesus’ enemies see the incongruity between their vision of Jesus as a political usurper and the actual appearance of Jesus in all his brokenness on the cross, undergoing a criminal’s death. By now, Pilate is fed up with the Jewish chief priests (see John 19:21-22).
But I do think that the notice nailed to the cross represents a confession of sorts on Pilate’s part. Although Pilate sees that Jesus was no threat to his position as governor, Jesus was very much a threat to Pilate as a man and human being. Where Pilate was a shallow human being, Jesus in every word and action was a man of depth. Where Pilate would change his ideological position according to his assessment of its usefulness in gaining the right friends, Jesus was a man whose actions were always consistent with his public teaching and his deepest aspirations, his sense of identity and his mission. Where Pilate was confused, Jesus was clear-headed and calm. Where Pilate tried to win support from the crowd to bolster his position and reinforce his sense of self, Jesus was completely autonomous with reference to public opinion. Jesus was able to express who he was and what he stood for in brilliantly concise terms. Pilate had spent his entire life trying to play one side against the other, lying, flattering, bragging, unable to imagine his existence without the trappings of power. And yes, Pilate was power-hungry and insecure. He could never get enough power, never enough to feel whole and at peace. Jesus also had a kind of hunger. Pilate sensed it. But Jesus was not hungry for power. He was hungry for souls, he hungered to awaken our hunger for him. Pilate was out for all he could get. Jesus was there to give us everything he had, his very life, for our salvation. He longed for us to turn to him, but he never forced it.
I believe that some of this dawned on Pilate as Jesus was led away to be crucified. The sniffer-dog in Pilate began to find a kind of power in Jesus that Pilate had not imagined even existed. He realised that Jesus, because of the integrity of his being, did not have power as other men have it – because other men’s power was the kind of power that could be lost. Jesus would never lose his power because he was power. And he was power because he was truth. There was no disorder in Jesus, no ‘parts’ of Jesus that did not spontaneously cleave to and express truth. This was a human power that was much greater than any power Pilate himself had ever encountered in anyone, or would ever be able to possess himself, and he knew it.
In the end, Pilate was thoroughly frightened by this, but he recognized Jesus’ power for what it was, and knew that Jesus’ force in the world would transcend every power structure that had ever existed or ever would exist. Pilate found that this Jesus, this Nazarene, was indeed a king. He was king of the Jews, and king of much more. He was, in every sense, a threat to Pilate’s person and personality. Jesus was king as Pilate would never be. As no man would ever be. Pilate is clear now. Jesus must be crushed. This Nazarene, this king of the Jews, must die.