At the end of the Church’s year we celebrate Christ’s Kingship, and the Gospel reading is either of the last Judgement or the Passion: Luke’s account of the crucifixion or John’s report of the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, which Sister Johanna will be talking about this week. A challenging reading, as she states from the start.
Toward the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus undergoes a question and answer session with Pontius Pilate that ends with Pilate sentencing Jesus to death (see John 18:1 – 19:30). I must confess that I tend to read this dialogue too quickly because it is always painful. But, I recently read John’s account of the Pilate-Jesus dialogue again, this time more slowly and more prayerfully. I found that the text opened up and some new realisations occurred to me.
I would like to share my findings with you in this week’s posts.
In the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate in John’s gospel, an impasse is quickly reached around the central theme of power. Problems around the theme of power were nothing new to Jesus; they had been rumbling along beside nearly every experience of Jesus’ life and they were addressed in many of his teachings. Yet few – if any – of Jesus’ followers were able to grasp Jesus’ teaching on power and powerlessness. Perhaps we cannot blame them; Jesus asks us to absorb a profound paradox here. He would have us lose our life to find it, be great by being truly small, be powerful by being the most powerless servant of all. This seems to go against our instincts, which lead us to seek self-preservation through control and dominance, even if over only a few people. The apostles themselves were forever getting this wrong, arguing often about who was the greatest. To detail the way the theme of power is present in Jesus’ whole life and in his teachings goes far beyond the scope of these posts, but in looking closely at how the two personalities of Jesus and Pontius Pilate are revealed in their dialogue in John’s gospel, I found that one thread in this complex weave-structure can be examined. As we approach the Solemnity of Christ the King next Sunday, I hope these reflections will shed light on the true power of Jesus, our King.
Pontius Pilate is a well-known name to readers of the New Testament, but as a historical figure little is known about him. What is known is very telling, however. He was the Roman Procurator in Judea from about the year 26 to 36. The Procurator’s job combined several offices: governor, judge, tax collector, and commander of a band of soldiers that functioned a bit like a police force. A lot of power was concentrated in the Procurator. Yet, for this reason, the job was an awkward one.
The Procurator was caught in the middle. He needed to garner support from the Jews in order to please his own authorities in the Roman government. At the same time, he needed to be seen to stand for the official line in order to further his own career – a factor that made it more difficult to please the Jewish community in the area he governed. There is historical evidence that he clashed with both sides and pleased no one. Finally, around the year 36, he was deposed as Procurator of Judea and recalled to Rome.
It is tempting to feel a bit sorry for Pilate in the situation that developed with Jesus and the Jews, and to see him as the harassed middle-man caught in a strange and violent drama that he neither caused nor fully understood. There is certainly an element of that in the story. And perhaps Jesus, too, gave him the benefit of that doubt. But we are looking at something much more profound here. We will begin our exploration tomorrow.
Not the sort of King that Pilate expected: Shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury.