The Gospels are not theater, as though we were in the audience and watching a story unfold, a story that took place 2000 years ago. No, we are in the story. We are not just to observe what Peter, or Pilate, of James, or Mary Magdalene do. They are us and we are them.
Now, one of the things that this means is that when Jesus asks them a question, we cannot merely wait and see how they will answer as though we were watching a movie. No, WE have to answer the question.
In today’s Gospel from the Feast of Christ the King the spotlight moves to Pontius Pilate. And the Lord asks a very important question of him. Now we cannot simply wait to see how Pilate answers that question, WE have to answer it. I will share the question with you in a moment. But first, permit an observation of Pontius Pilate, then the question, then the judgment.
1. John’s Gospel describes Pilate as a portrait of vacillation. He goes in and out of the Praetorium (Governor’s House) more than a bell-hop through the revolving door of a hotel:
29So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” …..33Pilate [re]entered the praetorium and called Jesus…..” 39After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again, and told them, “I find no crime in him…..1Then Pilate took Jesus [back into the praetorium] and scourged him…… 4Pilate went out again, and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know that I find no crime in him….8When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; 9he re-entered the praetorium and [spoke] to Jesus….12Upon this Pilate [went back out] and sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend…When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judgment seat…..(John 18-19 selected verses)
Did you count? Seven times Pilate goes in or out of the Praetorium! He’s trying to please the crowds, he’s trying to please his wife (who warned him to have nothing to do with that innocent man (Mat 27:19)), he’s trying to help Jesus. But he can’t decide! In and out he goes. He is like us. We say we love God, but we also love the world. We want to please others, we want to please God. We cannot do both. We have to decide. But instead we vacillate, we go back and forth. We are Pilate.
2. And now the question. Pilate begins with his own question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33) But Jesus, who is on trial, turns the tables on Pilate and putting him on trail asks him the crucial question: “Are you saying this on your own or have others been telling you about me?” (John 18:34). A remarkable question! And guess what?! YOU have to answer it. Do not wait for Pilate, he has already made his answer and faced his judgment. But YOU, ME, how do WE answer it? Now notice what the Lord is getting at. He is asking you if you call him a King merely because you have heard others say this or because you personally know him to be King. Is he really your King or this just a slogan you’ve heard in church before? Do you believe he is King or do you merely parrot what you’ve heard others say?
There is an old Gospel song that says, “Yes I know Jesus for myself.” But is that really the case with us? Too many of us are satisfied with a kind of inferential faith. Inferential faith is based merely on what others have said: “Jesus is Lord because my mother said so, or my pastor said so.” This is a good beginning, after all, faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17). But there comes a moment when YOU have to say so. It is not enough that your pastor says so, or your mother says so. And thus Jesus is asking you and me right now: “Are you saying I am King on your own or merely because others have said so?” Answer him…..It’s a crucial question isn’t it? The faith of the Church is essential, normative and determinative, but at some point you have to step up and say, I personally affirm that the faith of the Church is true and is mine and I hereby declare: “Jesus is Lord and King.”
And what does it mean that he is King? A king has authority doesn’t he? Does Jesus have authority in my life? Do I have the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5) and base my life upon his will? A king also takes care of his people and protects them. Do I allow the Lord to feed me with the Holy Eucharist? Do I allow him to protect me from the poison of sin by the sacrament of confession and the medicine of his Holy Word? Am I willing to live within the protection of the walled city of his Church? Is the Lord really my King? Is it more than a slogan or is his Kingship real? Let the Lord ask one last time: “Are you saying I am a king on your own or have others been telling you about me?
3. You have to answer. To refuse to answer IS to answer. Jesus who was on trial has turned the tables and it is now Pilate who is really on trial. He has been asked a question he cannot ultimately avoid and now it is time to answer. Look carefully at this line from John’s Gospel and see if you notice anything strange:
Upon this [the shouting of Crucify him!]Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gabbatha. (John 19:12-13)
So what is strange here? Well notice that when Pilate has Jesus brought out, “he sat on the judgment seat.” Who exactly is sitting on the judgment seat? Well, you might say, Pilate of course!” But the text is ambiguous as to the exact identity of “he” and most Scripture scholars argue that it is supposed to be ambiguous. From the standpoint of historical facts it was likely Pilate who took that seat. But from the standpoint of Divine Justice it is Jesus who takes that seat. He has turned the tables on Pilate. Pilate is now on trial and the verdict is about to be announced. Pilate will seal his own fate when he hands Jesus over to be crucified. His vacillation is over. He has made his choice. he has answered the question. Jesus sits silently upon the judgment seat. The verdict is in. The question that we cannot fail to answer has now been answered by Pilate. What is your answer? What is mine?
21 Replies to “Answer the Question”
Pilate was a cruel man who hated the Jews; it is one reason why he called Jesus King, why he kept going in and out of his house, why he made the Jews pick between a revolutionary and the Messiah, and why – in the end – he had Jesus crucified. Certainly he knew Jesus was innocent and treated him as just another Jewish criminal, but he also hated the Jews, and this showed through his injustice at the trial of Jesus.
In the end I think you are right. However, the Gospels do present Pilate as “thoughtful” in all this. That is to say he does genuinely seem to think and struggle with the issue. In the end he opts for his own hide though he thinks of Jesus as innocent. Perhaps even more inexcusable than to be brutish and simplistic in the whole matter with Jesus.
I’ve wondered about what Pilate might have thought about all of this in the days following? And the Sanhedrin as well. Did they put the matter out of their mind and forget about this Jesus fellow? At least for a while? Or did Pilate and Caiaphas, et al. start obsessing over it, did the questions keep intruding on their thoughts?
We know that, some period of time after Pentecost, several weeks later at the earliest, Peter and the rest started “agitating” the people again to the point where they were arrested by the Jewish authorities, and Pilate no doubt would have taken notice. And by the time of Claudius, there were accusations of trouble involving Jews and followers of “Chrestus.” But did Pilate torture himself repeating the questions in his mind, “What is truth? Who was Jesus? Who was he really?” Did his conscience eat at him for “washing his hands” of the problem, did he find himself thereafter repeatedly washing his hands again and again and again to try to get the blood off, like Lady Macbeth?
Was Pilate like Peter, who repented, or was he like Judas, who even in his feelings of guilt could not find it in his heart to repent (at least insofar as the Gospels report his demise)? I know that some traditions have it that Pilate eventually was converted, but it is an interesting question as to what ultimate personal effect Jesus had on him.
In any event, it really is true — the Passion is one of those events where, at some point, we find ourselves playing each and every role. One day we are Pilate, the next day the women crying on the road, then the executioners pounding in the nails, then John standing with Mary at the foot of the Cross, then Herod making mocking and disrespectful requests and demands of Jesus, then Simon Peter denying Jesus, then the other Simon, pressed into the service of carrying the Cross, then the other strangers in town who have never heard of Jesus, then the good thief, then the bad thief, and on and on. In our better days, we should hope to be faithfully there with Him and Mary all along the way, but all too often we are the ones pounding the nails with the hammer of our sins. They are all us, we are all them. Which should not surprise us because the Passion is not something that happened 2000 years ago. Oh, in human time it was, but for the eternal and transcendent, it is happening even now, and we are there.
Speaking of the mystery of the nature of time, I can’t believe we’re at the end of the year and that next week is Advent already!
Pilate was not all that long for Palestine. He would be removed not long after this whole matter due to his inability to keep Roman order. Other than the request for the body, we hear nothing of Pilate again so any answer to the question would be speculation.
Bender says: the Passion is one of those events where, at some point, we find ourselves playing each and every role. …Which should not surprise us because the Passion is not something that happened 2000 years ago. Oh, in human time it was, but for the eternal and transcendent, it is happening even now, and we are there
Yes! I know what you are talking about. And the liturgy is truly a way to participate in the Life of Christ. Yesterday I was talking with a group of friends about the Liturgical year and the genius of God to have us celebrate important events / feasts throughout the year. And no year is supposed to be the same. Each year the question posed to Pilate read in the gospel at Mass is waiting for an answer. This is another excellent post Monsignor.
Long Live Christ the King, my Lord! Happy Feast day.
Dear Magdelena: We get our genius from God. The church patriarch is responsible in their diligence for presenting for us the feast days. I believe your name should be spelled Magdalene.
I am slipping into irony again. Will leave another posting if you wish to post same. Forgive me.
All of us owe our genius to God. We can be grateful to the Church authorities who in their diligence have made the presentation of the order of the liturgy available to us. I believe the Saints name is spelled Magdalene. Thank you.
It’s still not right. May I try again?
May the spirit of the Holy Ghost be with you. From God flows the human capacity for genius. The church Father are responsible in their diligence for the arrangement of church Liturgy. I believe the Saint’s name is spelled Magdalene. Peace be with you.
One more thing, and then I’ll shut up already.
I know you appreciate film, Monsignor, at least movies about Jesus. And I know that Pope Benedict just spoke to artists.
I think that many would agree that The Passion of the Christ is not merely a film, but a work of religious art. And religious art, at its best, inserts a little theology into the work as well. In the trial scene with Pilate, we see Pilate initially asking Jesus in Aramaic, and Jesus responding in Latin, to the astonishment of Pilate. Of course, there is a lot of artistic license going on in this scene. The real exchange between Pilate and Jesus might have been entirely in Aramaic. But I would think it highly unlikely that a typical Jew of the time would know enough to be able to converse in Latin. Maybe a couple of words here and there, but not a conversation.
All of this, Monsignor, is a long, roundabout way of asking what you thought of that scene, as well as, I suppose, the question of the limitations of the human nature of Jesus? Might that have been how it really happened? The way the movie presents it, Jesus probably did not know hardly any Latin until the moment Pilate questioned Him, and then, drawing on His divine nature, He suddenly did know it. What do you think?
I agree with you entirely. It is a masterful touch of Gibson to turn the discussion to Latin. Almost as if Jesus were saying, “Pilate, this is between you and me, I am talking directly to you now and am asking you a question.” I also think you are right that it is unlikely that such a discussion would have actually taken place in Latin. A First Century Jew would have shared Greek with the Romans as well as Aramaic and so Aramaic is the first likely language, Greek the second, Latin the Third. But Gibson also seems to be saying, artistically that Jesus is God and though a first century Jew would have known little Latin, God knows Latin quite well. Thus it is Jesus in his Divinity who speaks here. Any way I agree with you the “Latin” was a brilliant move by Gibson. I enjoyed too being able to listen to the conversation in Latin and test my Latin ear. I ahd thought to post the Passion of the Christ version of the dialogue with Pilate but it was not easily at hand for me to do so, so I posted the version from The Gospel of John.
Thank you! You often write very interesting articles. You improved my mood.
Thank you both Monsignor and Bender. You are right. I am going to be ‘just fine’. Got thru finally to text you sent. Thank you.
A Kingdom is defined by the boundaries within which people obey the commands of the King. So “Thy Kingdom come” relates to people voluntarily following the commands of our Lord, not a geographical place.
‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. Thank you for this. I would never have made the connection. So Kant is in the proper sphere of earthly kingdom when he posited the need for a United Nations. You have given me much insight here.
Now I’m troubled. Didn’t I read somewhere in scripture something about Jesus saying that there are many different -what- kinds? of people, and that they all had their place. (A paraphrase here- you see how much work I have to do) But this thing about Pilate and Judas, and everything. Jesus forgave, did he not, Judas, before he even betrayed him, when he said, “Do what you have to do, and do it quickly” or something. My understanding, again from personal memory, not quotation from scripture, is that Judas had the motivation of being displeased that the treasury was not being distributed to the poor. Did he not commit suicide. If so, he must have been terribly anguished. And Pilate, torn within the contradiction of the state, his wife, and the demands of the ‘temple’. For many ‘centuries’, the death of Christ, is said, to have been held ‘against’ the Jewish nation. We cannot go into the future century bearing ‘resentment’ against the state, for the crucifixion of Our Lord. “You have said that I am King”, said Jesus. Did he not in these words, acknowledge an ‘intent’ on the part of Pilate. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. It is important to my mind, to curb as much as we can our ‘speculation’ – (imagination?) I can only refer to the Lord’s commandment. Love Thy Neighbor AS THYSELF, for the Love of God. I think each one of us has to begin with developing greater love of ourselves. That is, the Internal. Is this where we shall hope to find heaven? As I become more and more acquainted with the limitations of language (Tower of Babel?) and the dualities that exist as in my interest in philosophy – we do not know what space and time – really are. Kant said they were intuitions? Some have posited that they are ‘human’. A bat for instance may not be aware of space and time. What then is the Divine? Let us let it work within us, and learn to love ourselves so that we can love better our neighbor. I’m going to leave for awhile. I’ve said enough. I have to get back to my discipline. I have many books, to try, (I’ve been having trouble with this recently) to read. Love.
Maybe that’s why Pilate washed his hands clean. He, or the state, he declared were not ‘ultimately’ responsible. “You do what you have to do”, I’ve heard people say! Who are we to judge? ‘We’ are not the ‘final judgment’!
Dear God. I have just connected with the purpose of Msgr Pope’s message for the day. It’s still happening as Bender and Magdalena say, isn’t it? I’m humbled, …troubled. There seems to be no boundaries to the guilt I need bear for my sin. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for Your Forgiveness. I shall seek Your Salvation.
Seven times Pilate is going in and out of his Praetorium!
Though I have read this passage several times, never has it struck me that Pilate makes so many moves.
You have made a good observation. Probably he was so anxious and nervous. he might have visited the toilet each time he went in. When we are anxious, we can’t stand still. When we are nervous, we start perspiring or want to ease ourselves. Poor Pilate. He was caught in between the Jews (crowd), the high priests and nobles on the one hand, Jesus on the other and his wife from inside sending message after message(mind you there were no mobiles in those days for instant SMSs. She had to write out a messge and send through a loyal servant. Pilate had to go in and read it in a hurry and may be even dictate a reply to his wife assuring her that all will be well.
Counting his movements as seven times – seven a Biblical number. I wonder why Jesus perform a miracle to convert him. Any one who came near to Jesus, should be rewarded. Pilate came near Jesus so many times, spoke to him in Aramaic and got a reply in Latin. May be also Pilate was making a mockery of the trial by speaking in Aramaic. Trials should be conducted in official languages only. For him Latin was the official language. By speaking in Aramaic, he has already come close to Jesus.
We go to Jesus, and speak to Him in our own language – not in Latin anymore. Our language is a language of ‘petitions’ – a list of things we need or want – not knowing that Jesus knows all our needs and wants even before we ask for. May be Jesus is waiting for us to make ‘seven’ such moves.
Just thought I’d throw this in – it’s only vaguely related, but hopefully interesting. I came across this in a secular book about language and got rather excited.
“Quid est veritas?” in Latin means “What is truth?”, but it is also an anagram for “Est vir qui adest”, or in English “It is the man who is here”.
Now go read John 18:38 and John 19:4
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