Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ They replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ (This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ After he had said this, he went out again and told them, ‘I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas was a bandit. Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’ When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’ Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’
Pilate is the weak civil servant that needs to uphold the status quo at all costs. He knows the pesky Jews were excitable and looking for the One who would overthrow the hated Roman overlords. It is clear, however, that he doesn’t think that Jesus is the revolutionary that the religious leaders of the people made him out to be. He clearly tells the crowd that he finds no fault in Jesus – and his encounter with Jesus leaves him rather bemused about Jewish theology. However, the crowd worries him and so he agrees to have Jesus flogged and then handed over to be crucified – after all what’s one other death in the greater scheme of things? Pilate is a judge without the courage of his convictions. The one who worries what others may say and do – maybe the religious leaders would report him to Rome, maybe the crowd will riot and that will reflect badly upon him.
Against Pilate the writer of John portrays Jesus as being resolute, hardly dignifying Pilate with much of an answer and certainly refusing to plead his case. In the face of the authority of Rome, Jesus reminds Pilate of where true power comes from. The Americans have an expression: “telling truth to power;” this is personified in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate here. Maybe Jesus doesn’t see he has anything to say to this representation of brutal earthly imperial power; maybe he realises that nothing he can say will make a difference. Either way he says little.
Sometimes we have little to say; sometimes our words have no effect. Sometimes it is our actions which need to speak. The powers of this world are not easily influenced by words but by action. Our politics have been transformed, for good or ill, by actions more than words over the last year. Maybe the way we have to speak “truth to power” is based on our actions, our random acts of kindness, our subversive ways of welcoming the stranger, seeing God in the outsider and listening to those the world sees as being of no account.
God of silence,
help us to live your truth.
God of the weak,
help us to be strong in the face of injustice.
God of justice,
help us to transform the systems of our world,
that your kingdom may come.
Andy Braunston is an ordinand at the Scottish Congregational and United Reformed Church College and co-ordinator of the URC Daily Devotions project.