As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed
It is difficult to read this passage without thinking that Jesus is being incredibly rude to Pilate. He’s standing before the representative of the Roman Empire who has power over him and who could sentence him to death. Yet Jesus is rude – not giving a straightforward answer is impertinent.
Jesus refused to recognise the Governor’s authority – after all Pilate was the representative of the occupying power. Just as, for example, French resistance fighters contested the authority of the Germans during the Occupation, Jesus contested Pilate’s moral right to exercise authority. This was dangerous both for Jesus and the early Church – which needed to spread the Gospel throughout the Empire. Yet the Church, at first, didn’t shy away from this danger. To call Jesus “Lord” is, after all, to dispute the Emperor’s Lordship.
The Church soon developed rich theologies about the meaning of Jesus’ death – we still squabble about these theologies and the hymns that are based upon them. Yet these theologies, necessary and wonderful though they are, distract us from the resistance that Jesus showed to Empire. This distraction, however, makes it harder for us to contest Empire.
Last year our nations reached the denouement of the Brexit saga. For some it’s a national tragedy, for others it’s a restoration of sovereignty and cocking a snook at a European empire, for others still it’s the beginning of the end of the remains of the British Empire. Yet the larger empires that rule our world remain unchallenged – an economic system which allows companies to have larger net worth than entire nations, tax regimes which allow the rich to hide their wealth, the forces of globalization that both attract and repel those who flee their lands for safety and security all stand unnamed and unchallenged.
Jesus’ refusal to engage with Pilate shows the moral illegitimacy of the Roman Empire – how do we, as the followers of Jesus – stand up to the Empires that still seek to rule, exploit and divide?
Lord Jesus, with contempt you dealt with the forces of evil, from a legion of demons to a commander of legions, declining to recognise their authority; give us the grace to name the powers of oppression now, to stand against and undermine them, that your Kingdom may come, and you alone be recognised as Lord. Amen
The Rev’d Andy Braunston works with four churches in and around Glasgow