Readers who are picking up these posts for the first time may wish to scroll back to Sunday 17th to catch up. We are looking at the dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate in John 18:1-19:22. Today we are reflecting on John 18:33-38.
If Pilate pleases the crowd he may gain their support, and that could be useful in the future, possibly. This is always in the back of Pilate’s mind. Jesus has just told Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, and Pilate has retorted, ‘So then! You are a king’? In answer, Jesus volleys the question right back to him: ‘It is you who say that I am a king,’ Or, the words of Jesus could be fairly rephrased as, “It is you who are so determined to misunderstand my words about kingship.” Jesus’ statement exposes Pilate’s power-obsession.
Pilate can’t quite believe Jesus when he implies that worldly kingship and power are not what define him. Again, the sniffer dog is alert in Pilate. If that is true, there must be some other power that Jesus has that has caused this furore. What would that be? Jesus answers this implied question. He now solemnly gives the reason for his very existence, and explains the nature of his power and kingship: ‘I was born for this,’ Jesus says. ‘I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth, and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.’
Truth is indeed powerful, but Pilate has never seen enough of it at work in a human being to realise just how powerful. We, the readers of the text, can see that Truth has frightened the religious authorities enough to turn them into murderers. But this is not something of which Pilate has any real understanding – or not yet. On the contrary, Pilate bursts out, ‘Truth?? What is that?’ Or, he might just as well have said, What use is that? Who really cares about truth? Almost no one! Certainly not this group of Jews, for whom Jesus seems to be challenging a religion that they think has been good enough for a very long time. But at least Pilate realises now that Jesus will never be a rival to any political power on those grounds. Yes, Pilate is smug now, thinking that he has at last sussed it. He is incredulous that such a fuss is being made over a man who is little more, in his estimation, than a harassed philosopher. This man Jesus does not deserve the death sentence.
Pilate is exasperated as he goes out to the dais and makes his pronouncement to the crowd, ‘I find no case against him.’ The accusations against Jesus seem unfounded to Pilate, and the mob-violence bizarre. Few authorities in charge of keeping order in their district would feel indifferent about such a situation. Nor is Pilate indifferent, but neither is he a moralist. He merely wants to regain control. Pilate probably wonders: does all this strange hate come from only a small but vocal minority? A few pushy crackpots? What about the rest of the people? So Pilate offers the saner majority (if such majority exists) a chance to swing this situation. Pilate says to the crowd, ‘According to a custom of yours, I should release one prisoner at the Passover; shall I release this king of the Jews?’
It would be easy to idealise Pilate here for this seeming reluctance to sentence Jesus, but let’s consider: does Pilate care about Jesus for any religious reasons? No. He has already made that clear. He is a political animal. He just wants to end this crazy religious feud and restore order. He sees that Jesus is a nobody: not rich, not influential, not ambitious; Jesus knows none of the right people. His only claim is that he knows truth and who cares about that? In Pilate’s mind, Jesus is rather a freak, but no more than that. The sniffer dog in Pilate has temporarily gone to lie down. But he will soon be alert again.