After he had said this, he went out to the people 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 people 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.’ From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the people cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’
When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the people, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
People often get anxious if the Church is seen as too political. When I studied for my degree we looked at the, then new, Faith in the City, report which the Church of England produced. The government of the day branded it as Marxist. Even now if the Church “strays” into politics, people can get uneasy. Yet in today’s passage we see brutal politics at play.
The people, egged on by their leaders, bay for blood fearful that Jesus’ claims to kingship would bring down the wrath of Rome. These fears weren’t unreasonable – the Romans did end Israel’s statehood – something not recovered until our own age. Pilate is worried, not so much by Jesus who, irritatingly, doesn’t give easy answers, but by the people who are being stirred up. Pilate knows if he puts a foot wrong the chief priests would be writing to Rome saying he’d ignored a rebel who set himself up as a king. So Pilate bows to the politics of the day and has Jesus killed – the people weren’t satisfied with a simple flogging.
Since its earliest days the Church has tried to explain Jesus’ death in ways which are decidedly unpolitical. We like to puzzle about what atonement might mean, and how Jesus’ life, death and new life relate to forgiveness for sin and our lives now. All this is interesting and good but, at the same time, I’m always a little worried that we miss the naked politics at play – the people’s, Pilate’s and Jesus’.
Jesus treats Pilate with some disdain and reminds Pilate that his power comes from God not the emperor. Both of these are deeply political things to do – to show disdain to the occupying power and to show that, even in all the might, power and pomp of Rome, God reigns was very brave. How do we tell our political masters now that they will, one day, have to give an account to the King of the Ages?
O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry, our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die; the walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide, take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen, from all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men, from sale and profanation of honour and the sword, from sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the Digital Minster for Worship and a member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Kirkwall, Orkney.