If he had lived in a different day and age Pontius Pilate might have been thought of as a “great American,” a wise statesman, a shrewd politician. He was neither.
When Jesus was brought before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea was interested only in the political ramifications that Jesus of Nazareth, the alleged “King of the Jews,” brought. Rome eyed Judea as a restive outpost in its thinly stretched empire. Rome wanted Judea quiet and that was Pilate’s primary charge. Thus, the possibility of another Jewish insurrection bothered him, and made him receptive to Pharisaical demands. The Pharisees, the scribes, and the elders were a bit worked up over this Jesus and the fact that they were screaming for crucifixion bothered him, but not too much. Although Pilate recognized how unlawful it would be to put Jesus to death, his fears about his own personal security overrode that sense of injustice. If he didn’t follow the Pharisee’s orders and kill Jesus, they might rebel, and if they rebelled, he might lose his job, or even, his own head. This applies to us today also. Why don’t we buck the system when it threatens to undermine Jesus Christ. Are we all so fearful of losing our jobs, our reputations, our money?
Again, Pilate would have made a real man of our times — a sense of justice but no clear convictions, an eye for public opinion, an ear for politics, and a certain kind of pliability when it came to matters of God. Pilate definitely seemed to be a man interested in heavenly matters, but likely would have believed in a whole pantheon of gods. His wife was getting a little bit “new agey” about this Jesus guy. She told him of her dreams about this prophetic figure but to Pilate, politics came firs.
In some ways, Pilate’s audience with Jesus could have happened today, right here, right now in the West. Imagine, Jesus is led in to him in chains, already marked from his initial interrogations with the high priest and his bruisers. Pilate cuts straight to the chase and asks Jesus, “Are you a k-k-k-king?” If the anti-Jesus cabal’s accusations were true and Jesus was indeed proclaiming himself to be a king, this would challenge Rome’s embrace of a Jewish puppet named Herod and trouble would be oozing out from the cracks in all directions. In fact, if Jesus claimed the throne in Jerusalem, then Rome’s authority was thus challenged and he would definitely have to be killed. The whole place suddenly stank of insurrection and Pilate wanted to get right down to the brass tacks. But Jesus didn’t tell him he was king.
In other words: “What do you think? Do you think I’d look like this – bloodied and bruised in the wee hours of the morning, running around Jerusalem telling people I was the real king of the Jews? Who do you really think I am, Pilate?” Jesus was speaking to Pilate’s soul and Pilate was trembling inside but he couldn’t put a finger on why. This should give us another view of Jesus – he was looking to redeem the man who was condemning him as well.
Jesus was not to be undone by Pilate’s politicking. As was his wont, he redirected the Roman governor’s question to a more important node:
The truth? What did this have to do with whether Jesus was a king? All Pilate wanted to do was find out if Jesus would be guilty of insurrection by Roman standards and now this guy who apparently did not claim to be king – at least of this kingdom (whatever that meant!) – was lecturing him on truth.
Pilate then gives us his famed editorial:
This line has a few modalities. One is worldly and cynical: “That’s great,” he’s saying. “Your life is on the line here and you’re prattling on about ‘truth.’ What’s ‘truth’ got to do with it? The only ‘truth’ that I can see here is that you’re about to get tortured to death if you don’t make some kind of concession right now. It’s all relative anyway, Jesus. Maybe this ‘truth’ as you speak about it doesn’t even exist at all.”
I could imagine Pilate then turning his head and motioning to his lieutenants. “Ok fellas, go get those ‘10 Commandments’ statues out of the courthouse right now and put ‘em out on the curb. They are too subjective, y’know. I mean, we’re a freedom of religion society after all. When you believe in everything, you believe in nothing, right? So truth, well, er, fugheddaboudit!!! There is no truth outside of the here and now, Mr. Christ. Hail Caesar!”
On the other hand, Pilate is saying something a bit more naïve as well. “What is truth?” could also be a subconscious admission that he, Pilate, is devoid of the real truth, which was actually the person standing right in front of him.
The encounter between Pilate and Jesus illustrates the distinction between cynical indifference and innocent ignorance of Jesus Christ in our own postmodern world. Many of Christ’s detractors are simply ignorant of his true identity, while many of the Faith’s enemies are willful collaborators with Satan and deliberately try to subvert Christianity because of their own sin. And many, Pilate included, I believe, are a mixture of both. While he was spiritually out to lunch when confronted with Jesus, he was still a slave to political expediency and dead to conscience. We Christians have to know when to knock and when to shake the dust off of our feet.