The Gospel for this upcoming Sunday is John 18:33b-37, part of the fascinating dialogue between Pilate and Jesus. During Wednesday’s Men’s Prayer Group, Fr. De Celles noted that there are two contradictory legends about what happened to Pilate: one story is that he converted and became a great saint; the other is that he threw himself off of a cliff in despair. It is, I suppose, the only two sane ways to reacting to the realization of the full implication of what sin means. And it is this reaction, repentance v. despair, which seems to really separate the saved from the damned (once, of course, there’s a recognition of sin). The first story of Pilate is the story of St. Peter; the second is the story of Judas. Whether either of these stories about Pilate is authentic or not, nobody can say for sure, but there’s a certain theological truth underlying both accounts.
It also exposes, I suspect, the two outcomes readers secretly desire. Even more than many of the Saints in the New Testament, Pilate seems to suspect that there’s more to Jesus than meets the eye, and he’s pretty obviously uncomfortable with sentencing Him to death. His wife gets it even more than he does, having “suffered greatly” in a dream because of the impending condemnation (Matthew 27:19). But he still does it, out of moral cowardice and fear of a revolt which would undermine his political power. In a dramatic show, Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ Blood (that expression is itself a reference to Matthew 27:24).
Both Matthew and John provide unique information about Pilate’s encounters with Christ, and it’s quite probably that Jesus Christ Himself informed these two Apostles after His Resurrection. Sunday’s Gospel begins with Pilate asking Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). Jesus responds, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?” rather than simply saying “yes.” St. Paul refers to this dialogue as Jesus’ “Good Confession” (1 Timothy 6:13), but it seems in many ways that Jesus is trying to extract a confession of faith from Pilate. When Pilate presses Him a bit later, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answers, “You say I am a king.” And indeed, in the end, Pilate does: John 19:19-22. Even this act is so terribly full of the contradictions wrapped up in Pilate himself: here he is, making a sign rightly proclaiming Jesus’ Kingship (and unlike his soldiers in John 19:2, Pilate seems to treat Jesus’ Kingship as authentic, rather than simply mocking it).
Pilate is in many ways the classic politician. He’s personally opposed to the Crucifixion, but is too much of a coward to stand up to popular opinion. Or, as Mario Cuomo put it in his notorious Religious Belief and Public Morality speech, “Our public morality, then — the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives — depends on a consensus view of right and wrong.” In other words, Pilate may have felt a religious tinge about this strange King Jesus, but that’s a private issue; the public demands he act in direct contradiction to the truths he believes. He’s also the first postmodernist: after Jesus answers him fully: “You are right in saying I am a King. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to Me” (John 18:37), Pilate stupidly responds, “What is truth?” (v. 38). It’s not even the right question; he should have been asking “Who is Truth?” (cf. John 14:6).
The early Christian response to this thoroughly human account of Pilate was, as I suggested above, split into two camps. One camp hoped for his redemption, one camp for his damnation. I suspect that these dueling forces remain within us to this day: when Senator Ted Kennedy died, I know that there were some who hoped and prayed that he had a conversion of the heart and made his peace with God, but I fear that there were some who were pleased at the thought of him suffering in a place where the last name Kennedy doesn’t hold any privileges. This second desire needs badly to be exorcised. Although it’s an overused phrase, “judge not, lest ye be judged” is a thoroughly Biblical axiom (Matthew 7:1, Luke 6:37), and it’s intended for precisely these sorts of contexts. Delight in Pilate or Kennedy suffering in hell if you wish, but beware that “the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2). How many of us can honestly say we haven’t acted like Pilate? That we haven’t gone along with the crowd, knowing it was wrong, or buckled due to cowardice or fear?
The desire for Pilate’s redemption is rooted in our common humanity. Any of us, if we’re honest, can identify with his sinful actions. We’ll never know, this side of eternity, which of those later accounts of Pilate’s life was correct: whether he profoundly converted or cast himself off a cliff, but I know which one I pray is true.