In the Matthean Passion account, we come to the trial before Pilate. Pontius Pilate is a study in evasion and vacillation. Despite being a man of great political and worldly power, Pilate is indecisive, inwardly troubled, and quite incapable of doing what he knows is right. Despite the outward power he had, inwardly he was weak and morally compromised. And in his weakness, he does something very awful: he violates his own conscience and sentences an innocent man to death.
Let’s look at his story in five stages.
I. Attempted Avoidance – On a professional level, Pilate considered the whole matter brought before him to be a theological dispute among the Jews, and for this reason wanted nothing to do with it. Yet he could see a storm was brewing as the crowds grew larger and noisier. If there were a riot at Passover, his career as Governor of Palestine (not to mention future, even better posts) would be in jeopardy. Was there not some way out of this perilous matter of Jesus!?
On a personal level, Pilate is also troubled. His own wife, unnerved, tells him, Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (Matt 27:19). Yes, Pilate is anxious, unnerved, and seemingly quite avoidant of the whole matter. The last thing he wants to do is to have to make a decision one way or the other about Jesus.
But at the end of the day, every man, woman, and child on this planet is going to have to decide for or against Jesus. Pilate wants to avoid a decision, but ultimately, he cannot.
According to Luke’s Gospel, he seeks refuge in a jurisdictional solution:
On hearing [of Jesus’ actions in the north] Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. (Luke 26:6-7)
“Ah!” thinks Pilate. “Here is a way out. Herod can save me from having to take a stand on Jesus! Whatever the decision, I can evade responsibility.” But in the end, Herod merely sent him back to Pilate without rendering a guilty verdict. Surely this would satisfy the crowd! But it does not.
Pilate (this also means you) is going to have to decide about Jesus, one way or the other. No one else can make this decision for him. His attempt to avoid taking a stand on Jesus has failed.
II. Calls for Compromise – So it is now clear that a crucial moment is coming for Pilate. The text says,
Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”, “You have said so,” Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. (Matt 27: 11-14)
It is evident that Pilate wants Jesus to give him a way out. If only Jesus will speak in a manner that will reassure all present. If only Jesus will not so unsettle others with his divine claims. If only he would not stand out in such stark, black and white contrast; if only he would appreciate the need for a little more gray in this whole matter! Yes, if he will just compromise a little with his claims, all will be well!
But it will not be so for Pilate. Jesus remains silent to all the demands that he reassure others by diluting the truth or by compromising his message.
Many today are like Pilate, and seek to rework the true Jesus, to “tame” him, to paint a picture of him in soft focus and pastel colors. A “kinder, gentler” Jesus is trotted out by some, even by religious “leaders” in hopes of quieting the controversy and making it easier and more palatable for people to make a decision for Jesus.
But of course to decide for a fake Jesus is not the same as deciding for the real Jesus. A compromised, fake Jesus cannot save you; only the real one can. Watering Jesus down, diminishing his moral demands or his summons to absolute faith in him, setting aside his insistence on being the central priority of our life even to the point of martyrdom, modernizing him, or seeking to turn him into a harmless hippie – none of this will work. One day you are going to have to decide on the real Jesus. Compromise will not work.
III. Substitution Stunt – Avoiding and compromising hasn’t worked, so Pilate tries substitution. It’s the old bait and switch. Let’s find something or someone to replace the decision. So Pilate trots out Barabbas.
Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him…But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. (Matt 27:16-20)
Pilate thought that surely the crowd would not prefer the swindler and robber, Barabbas, to Jesus, who had been so popular earlier that very week. Pilate reasoned that it was only the leaders among the Jews who feared and hated Jesus, out of concern only for their own power. Yes, surely the crowds would favor Jesus from Galilee over Barabbas. Surely! This bait and switch, this substitution, would get Pilate off the hook so he wouldn’t have to decide about Jesus. Or so he thought.
But it will not work. The religious leaders have seeded the crowd. Barabbas is chosen. Pilate is still stuck with the Jesus question!
Here too, many of us try similar bait and switch tactics. Radically following Jesus is a bit too much for some. But how about buying off or deflecting the decision? Perhaps it amounts to writing a nice big check to charity, or engaging in some good work. Perhaps some religious ritual can buy some time or placate the Lord, who stands silently by waiting for an answer from me as to his Kingship in my life.
It is significant that the “substitute Jesus” that Pilate trots out for his bait and switch has the name “Jesus Barabbas” (a name that means “Jesus, Son of the Father”). Yes, the substitute that Pilate uses bears a name and title similar to the real Jesus. But he is NOT the real Jesus. And neither are our attempts at check writing or perfunctory religious observance (though having aspects of Christ) the real Jesus. Our substitution stunt, our bait and switch, cannot buy off the question, or avoid the decision we must make for or against the real Jesus. We too must ultimately face the “Jesus Question.”
IV. Refusing Responsibility – Exasperated, Pilate engages the crowd:
What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:23-25)
Pontius Pilate, the governor, the most powerful man in the region, the only one with the judicial faculty to hand a man over to death, stands before a crowd and claims that he is not responsible for what he does. He claims that, in violating his own conscience and handing over an innocent man to torture, he is innocent.
These are lies. Pilate cannot refuse to take responsibility for the decision he is making. He must be a man and own his choice. He has weighed the consequences. It will be either his career, or Jesus; it will be either his power and position, or Jesus; it will be either his eventual promotion, or Jesus. Having been weighed against career, power, and promotion, Jesus is dismissed by Pilate and handed over for torture and crucifixion.
But Pilate cannot avoid responsibility despite the theatrics of washing his hands. Jesus’ blood is on your hands too, Governor Pilate. Down through the centuries your responsibility resounds: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death, and was buried.”
Yes, Pilate had to decide about Jesus one way or the other. And so do you and I. No attempted avoidance, no calls for compromise, no substitution stunts, no refusal of responsibility will work. You must decide, I must decide, one way or another, for or against Jesus. There is no third way. And if you think you can sit on the fence, know this for sure: one day Satan will say, “Come with me,” for Satan owns the fence.
You are free to decide, but you are not free not to decide. Jesus stands before you and “compels” a choice. What is your answer?
Here is a movie account of the trial from The Passion of the Christ. Note that both Pilate and Jesus speak in Latin. I think this is the director’s way of saying that Jesus, as God, is speaking personally to Pilate, thus he uses Pilate’s mother tongue.