Showdown!, Lent 4

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

March 11, 2018

Introduction

In the spring of 1989, the world was transfixed at the budding democracy protests that took root in Tianenemen Square in Beijing, China.  Most of the protesters were students that were asking for a more democratic society.  For those who remember the protests, we can remember the statute which was said to be patterned after the Statue of Liberty, the Goddess of Democracy.

Then came June 4.

The Chinese government finally decided to brutally crack down on the protests.  Scores were killed. The quest for democracy in China seemed over.

In the midst of the crackdown, there was an image that has become iconic.  A line of tanks is going down a main street in Beijing and they are stopped by one man. The man goes as far as climbing on the lead tank all the while protesting the crackdown.

It seemed rather foolish for one man to be challenging soldiers in tanks.  On the other hand, there is a sense of awe at this man’s bravery and boldness to face the might of the Chinese military.

We never know what happened to that man. We don’t know his name or where he came from.  What we do know is that he became a symbol of fighting against injustice.

As we continue our slow walk of the Passion, we are now to Jesus coming face to face with Pilate, the governor of Judea. This conversation between Jesus and Pilate will be the main text this week and next.  Jesus and Pilate represented two forms of power.  We are familiar with Pilate’s power; because it is the power of the world.  Jesus shows another kind of power, one that befuddles people like Pilate.

Today we look at part one of the showdown between two rulers: Jesus and Pilate.

Engaging the Text

 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

-John 18:33-34

In the previous lesson, we talked about two trials taking place at the same time: Jesus in front of the former high priest Annas and Peter in the courtyard among the guards and servants.  Peter ends up denying Jesus three times before a rooster crows.  Jesus calls out Annas on how this trial was extrajudicial and is punished by a guard for daring the question the high priest.  Who isn’t the high priest.

When Annas was done, Jesus was then taken to see Caiaphas who then passed him on to Pilate.  What we know about Pilate in the Bible is that he is the representative of Rome and is known for being the guy that literally washes his hands after sentencing Jesus to death even though he was sure Jesus was innocent.

But there is a more about Pilate that you should know to help frame today’s text.  So let’s briefly look at the rule of Pontious Pilate.

Pilate the Ruthless

Pilate is the fifth governor of Judea appointed by Emperor Tiberius and served in that capacity from 26-36 BCE. The Biblical texts tend to have a thin description of him, but other extrabiblical texts have a fuller picture and by modern standards it is not pretty. Jewish sources present him in a very negative light, insensitive to the Jewish faith and quick on the trigger to use force to punish dissent.

The historian Jospehus reports that when Pilate became governor, he allowed the military to place busts of emperor all around Jerusalem which went against Jewish faith. To add insult to injury, this was done in the dead of night. The Jews responded using non violent tactics that made Pilate back down.  On another occassion Pilate appropriated funds for the Temple to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem.  This brought about protests. This time he had soldiers dressed as Jewish protestors that attacked when a signal was given. Many Jews died in that sneak attack and Jerusalem was horrified. 

The final event that finally got Pilate recalled to Rome was when a Samaritan false prophet promised to show sacred documents of Moses on Mt. Gerazim, a place sacred to Samaritans.  Pilate sent a heavily armed contingent of soldiers that intercepted the pilgrims and slaughtered most of them.  For Rome, this was too much.  He was recalled and a man named Marcellus became the new governor.

Who’s on Trial Here?

Jesus is sent from Caiaphas to Pilate. The discussion between Jesus and Pilate is one that shows two different kinds of power. It is also one of belief, Pilate could not see Jesus as anything more than an annoyance.  As it was last week, Pilate doesn’t realize that he is the one that is on trial not Jesus.

The passage opens up with the Jewish religious leaders bringing Jesus to Pilate. However, they don’t enter the headquarters. Since in John, the Passover has not yet happened, the leaders were concerned with defilement. Under Jewish law, one could not enter a Gentile’s home because that would make them unclean and ineligibile to eat the Passover meal. So, because of this, the leaders did not go into Pilate’s residence. The writer of Jihn is showing the hypocrisy of the leaders.  They didn’t want to be defiled and they wanted to show difference from the Romans like Pilate.  But in their desire to get rid of Jesus, they were closer to Pilate than they wanted to be. In reality, they are guilty of the greatest defilement, killing the lamb of God.

Pilate is curious why the leaders sent Jesus to him.  The leaders give him a nonanswer. Pilate then asks them to consider judging them themselves, but they say that their law doesn’t permit them to put someone to death. The Jews know that the charge of blasphemy might make Pilate interested since someone that claims they are a king would threaten Pilate’s rule.

Pilate then starts a conversation with Jesus that exists on two different levels. For Pilate, the claim that Jesus is king is a political question, one that threatens his own leadership. When Pilate asks if he is the king of the Jews, Jesus responds by asking the same question at him. By doing this, Jesus is turning the tables on Pilate.  Pilate is now the one that is on trial. Is Pilate the king of the Jews?  Jesus answers in that question, no, he really isn’t. Pilate might be worrying that he will lose his power, but Jesus is saying he already has since it is God that holds power.

Now it’s Jesus time to respond. He tells Pilate that his kingdom is not found on earth. Jesus talks about his followers in verse 36, which is the same word used for police at the beginning of chapter 18.  But unlike the police that are at Pilate’s command, Jesus followers don’t use force. Jesus draws his powers from God, not from human institution. Jesus is saying his power comes from a different source, one that Pilate doesn’t understand.

Pilate then speaks again with the Jewish leaders and tells them he finds nothing that would make him want to sentence Jesus to death. Pilate isn’t interested injudging this case, but he does come up with an idea: the custom every year was to release a prisioner for Passover.  He asks if he could release Jesus, but instead they choose Barrabas.

Verse 40 informs us that Barabbas was a bandit.  To understand why this wording was used, you have to see how this passage relates to John 10 and the story of the Good Shepherd. Bandit is only used one other time before this usage and that’s in John 10 when Jesus talks about a bandit that comes to take the sheep.  In choosing a known law-breaker over Jesus, it shows the leaders would rather have a thief be released than one that is innocent.

Finally, Pilate responds in verse 38 with a bit of snark, by asking “What is Truth?”  This isn’t the question of someone that is seeking truth.  In fact, he doesn’t realize that the truth is as plain as the nose on his face because Jesus is the truth!

 

Conclusion

Pilate is a leader, the governor in Judea.  He is appointed by the emperor himself.  In front of him is the true King, but he doesn’t look like a normal king. He is not what Pilate expected.

Twenty years ago, I was in China with a group from my seminary. We went to visit churches in the mountains of southwestern China.  The Christians we met were ready to greet us and they were excited to worship with us.

But we were not alone on our visits.  Everywhere we went, we had people from the government with us.  One day, an elderly man who was from the government sat in the front of the church with his arms crossed as the villagers worshipped.  There were worried looks on their faces.  What would the government do to them?  They were worshipping God, claiming Jesus as Lord- with the watchful eye of the state looking on.

To claim that Jesus is our King, that Jesus is Lord, can get you into trouble. Lutheran pastor Barbara Lundblad reminds us that claiming that God is king can anger those who are in power:

 

One of my students is an Anglican priest from South Africa. Not long ago he shared a story about what it was like to believe Jesus was King during the days of apartheid. “Our whole congregation was arrested,” he said, “for refusing to obey the government.” I thought I misheard him, but he went on to say that all 240 members of the congregation were arrested and put in jail — from babies to a 90-year-old man. “At least babies and mothers were kept together,” he added. The pastor himself was imprisoned for a year. To claim that Jesus is King can be dangerous.

King Jesus is not like other kings and will always cause the rulers of this world to scratch their heads.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

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