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Power and PassionSix Characters in Search of Resurrection
By Samuel Wells
ZondervanCopyright © 2007 Samuel Wells
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePONTIUS PILATE
Pontius Pilate is usually portrayed as an honest broker surrounded by fanatical hotheads. This portrayal is not based on what the gospel accounts tell us about Pilate. The roman governor had a strong, vested interest in the outcome of Jesus' trial. Although the gospel writers portray Pilate's character and interests differently, they each give us a vivid picture of the alliances that closed in on Jesus.
People with executive power often like to see themselves as honest brokers. But power is a gift and is principally given for setting people free. Most of us have a great deal more power than we realize. We too can try to hide behind the ambiguities of public responsibility or the pretense that we have no vested interests. This chapter considers the nature of political power and the possibilities of the power we each have.
ROME AND THE MANIPULATION OF POWER
Rome dominated the Mediterranean world and many territories far beyond. The key source of wealth was land, and the Roman aristocracy was largely made up of great landowners. These landowners controlled the rest of the population of the empire through military force, tax collection, and a patronage network that assumed theextortion of bribes. Judea was no different. To understand the political dynamics of the four gospel accounts, one needs to place the events of the story between these controlling forces: soldiers, tax gatherers, and quislings (those in the governor's "pocket"). Among the first category we find the centurion whose servant Jesus healed; among the second category we find Matthew the disciple and Zacchaeus; among the third category we find Herod Antipas, Caiaphas, and Nicodemus.
The gospel accounts of Jesus' birth and death can be somewhat confusing because of the number of different people who seem to be in charge. For example, when Pilate discovers Jesus is from Galilee, a region that was not directly ruled by Rome, he sends Jesus to Herod Antipas, the vassal ruler of that region (Luke 23.5-12). Later, the Jerusalem authorities (whom John's gospel confusingly and disturbingly calls "the Jews"), having condemned Jesus, need the Roman governor's authority to make this a death sentence. Pilate says to these so-called leaders, "Here is your king" - whereupon they respond, "We have no king but Caesar" (John 19.14-15).
This demeaning state of affairs is due to the manner in which the Roman emperor ran his empire. Rather than dominate and overrun his subject people, he creamed off perhaps 5 percent of the population to act as retainers. These people would get significant benefits in terms of the three most important things: wealth, prestige, and power. All that was required in return was loyalty to Rome. Thus at the time of Jesus' birth, Rome could afford not to rule Judea directly. Instead, it simply controlled the people and raised taxes through a vassal king, Herod the Great. But Herod died shortly after Jesus was born, and his sons had neither his authority nor his skill. So following Herod's death, Rome took to administering the province directly, by installing a governor.
Nonetheless, they kept on the various hierarchies of retainers to act as intermediaries between them and the largely Jewish population. And well they might, for as some who are used to being in charge are fond of saying, "Why keep dogs and bark yourself?" Pilate and his predecessors had found a formula that meant they could control the province and meanwhile acquire considerable wealth for themselves, not by suppressing the people with military force but by manipulating those among the population who sought the three things that really mattered in the Roman empire: wealth, prestige, and power. That is why in the Gospels there are only occasional encounters and confrontations with roman authorities and soldiers. Most of the disputes are with Rome's stooges - those whose obedience to Rome demonstrated they had lost all sight of being God's holy people.
The most interesting aspects in a society are those things that everyone takes for granted. Pontius Pilate is a significant figure, even before one considers his role in relation to Jesus' death, because he had achieved everything that his culture most valued. Pontius Pilate's parents would have been members of the Roman aristocracy among the equestrian class - in other words, rich and influential but not quite senator material. We could call them knights rather than lords. These knights used their class advantages to gain wealth, prestige, and power. The equestrian class generally served the empire in military office; if they succeeded, they could end up becoming a prefect of one of the more troublesome provinces. Judea was one of those provinces. In AD 26, Pontius Pilate became its fifth prefect, or governor. His parents would have been very proud.
So the stage is set in Jerusalem: on the one hand stand the Jerusalem authorities, apparently manipulating the institutions of power but in practice in the pocket of the governor; and on the other hand Pontius Pilate, doing very well out of keeping the status quo and happy to let the Jerusalem authorities have a visible role in running the show. Enter Jesus of Nazareth at Passover. His presence was an issue that the Jerusalem authorities could not handle by themselves. He was not just a threat to the system of patronage and the manipulation of the elite; he was a threat to the roman governor himself. Jesus not only emerged as a potential king, but he also undermined the dominant notions of wealth, prestige, and power and loosened their hold on the popular imagination. that was why it was inevitable that Jesus and Pilate would come face-to-face.
JESUS MEETS PILATE
Each of the Gospels offers a different slant on the meeting of Jesus and Pilate, and it is important to attend to the features of each narrative. (I shall not consider Mark's account explicitly, since it is almost entirely included in Matthew's account.)
Matthew's gospel as a whole offers an extended study in how Jesus' teaching and ministry threaten the domination of the Jerusalem elites. The Jerusalem authorities are at Herod's side when he decides to wipe out the babes of Bethlehem (2.3-18); they seem to have as much to lose from the birth of a new king as Herod does. Later, they decide to kill Jesus (12.14) after he has perceived that the crowds have no adequate leaders (9.36). And the antagonism is not just on the side of the authorities. Jesus gives them every reason to hate him. He unambiguously denies that they represent God and calls them "blind guides" (15.14) before attacking the heart of their power. He claims they have transformed worship into profiteering and have kept their grip on the people by manipulating the temple taxes (21.12-13). He compares them to tenants who have betrayed their master (21.33-46), criticizes them as hypocrites and oppressors of the people, and finally announces that the temple, the center of their power, will be destroyed (24.2). The Jerusalem authorities and Jesus are on a collision course from the word go.
So it comes as no surprise that the Jerusalem authorities arrest and quickly condemn Jesus (26.57-68; 27.1-2). It is telling that Matthew records Judas's suicide before Jesus has even reached Pilate. This suggests that Judas recognized the Jerusalem elite and Pilate as being hand in glove with one another: Jesus' death was now inevitable. This is a sobering introduction to the conversation between Pilate and Jesus. The outcome is not in the balance; it is already settled. There is no question of casting Jesus as good, the authorities as bad, and Pilate as a vacillating middle man. The popular view of Pilate as a man of reason manipulated by a bunch of fanatics is not Matthew's view. Pilate will do whatever it takes to maintain his stranglehold on Judea, and there is no reason whatsoever to alienate his chief allies. Judas is correct in realizing that Jesus is already doomed.
Pilate's interaction with Jesus comes in three overlapping scenes.
1. Pilate Questions Jesus
Meanwhile 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. (27.11-14)
Here is an explicit confrontation between two rulers. Matthew calls Pilate "the governor" at this point, to emphasize the contrast. The simple question is, "Are you the king of the Jews?" What the question means is, "Do you set yourself up as the leader of this people in defiance of the Roman Emperor, in defiance of me, and in defiance of the Jerusalem authorities?" A whole sequence of figures in the first century - Simon, Athronges, Menachem, and a second Simon - did exactly this, and each of them was rubbed out by emperor, governor, or local elite.
Jesus is not a conventional king. He subverts the Roman assumption that what matters is wealth, status, and power. He has no use for wealth. He says, "No one can serve two masters" (6.24). Instead, he points out how rich one is if one trusts in God; he points out how even Solomon in all his wealth was not clothed like the lilies of the field - yet God will clothe his people much more extravagantly than the grass of the field. Therefore, he says, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (6.33). He subverts conventional notions of status. He says, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, ... Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant ... just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (20.25-28). And he has no use for power, at least understood in the Roman sense as power backed by force. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey with palm branches rather than on a horse with weapons and booty (21.1-11). He says, "Do not resist an evil person" (5.39), and even at the moment of his arrest he warns, "All who draw the sword will die by the sword" (26.52).
But Jesus is still a king. He stays silent before Pilate, perhaps echoing the words of Isaiah 53.7, "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth." But there is no reason for Pilate to doubt that Jesus is a king and thus a threat to Rome.
2. Pilate Consults the Crowd
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 envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him." But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" asked the governor. "Barabbas," they answered. "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!" (27.15-23)
Here is a choice between two prisoners - Jesus Barabbas and Jesus called the Messiah. This scene undermines any reading of the story that paints Pilate as the evenhanded agent of justice. For justice is an early casualty of the whim of public opinion.
The choice, and the fact that both prisoners have the same name, Jesus ("Savior"), highlights the meaning of the title "Messiah". Messiah means "King of the Jews" - and King of the Jews means a challenge to Jerusalem and Rome. It is common today to regard politics and religion as largely separate spheres of influence, and certainly of authority. But such a distinction meant nothing to Caiaphas, who saw himself as leader of the people in his role as high priest, and it is not clear that it meant much to Jesus either. When Jesus says to Caiaphas, "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven" (26.64), it is pretty clear that the days of the cozy collusion between Caiaphas and Pilate are numbered.
Pilate sees that the Jerusalem authorities are jealous of Jesus, but his bread is buttered on the Jerusalem authorities' side, and he adeptly manipulates the crowd to ensure that Rome continues to appear as benefactor and is never revealed as oppressor.
3. Pilate Washes His Hands
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!" Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (27.24-26)
This concludes a masterful passage of political activity by Pilate. Not only does he dispose of a threat to his power system, but he also manages to get those most oppressed by the system ("all the people") to proclaim that the execution is their responsibility. His true motives are revealed when he has Jesus flogged before handing him over to be crucified - hardly the act of a reluctant fair-dealer.
The first scene brought together Pilate the governor and Jesus the king. In the second scene the contrast was between Barabbas the savior and Jesus the savior. Here now in the third scene is the most ironic contrast: Pilate, who presents his actions to the people as "innocent" and "for you", and Jesus, whose death points out Pilate's guilt, and who has already said at the Last Supper that his life is "poured out for many" (26.28).
Matthew presents Pilate as a hideous parody of the Messiah. It is the Messiah who comes to set people free, but here it is Pilate who teases the crowd by offering to set free one of their prisoners. It is the Messiah who, though politically committed, is innocent of all wrongdoing, but here it is Pilate who washes his hands, feigning innocence. It is the Messiah who should be attracting the unswerving loyalty of the Jerusalem authorities, but here it is Pilate who has the high priests and scribes at his beck and call. Pontius Pilate is no honest broker but a pale imitation of Jesus.
Luke mentions Pontius Pilate three times before the passion narrative, and each reference provides a helpful introduction to his role in the story. Pilate first appears tucked in between the emperor Tiberius and the local ruler Herod Antipas in a list of those in control of the region (and whose authority is implicitly questioned by John the Baptist, to whose ministry this list is an introduction) (3.1). He later appears as a governor who executed some Galileans and mixed their blood with their sacrifices (13.1). This portrays him as a ruthless man who doesn't hesitate to break taboos to execute punishment and who apparently fears no reprisal. Then he finally appears in the introduction to the question about paying taxes to Caesar. The scribes and chief priests plot to trap Jesus and hand him over to the governor (22.2). There seems no question that handing Jesus over to the governor means Jesus' fate can be relied upon.
The way Jesus challenges Rome is explicit in Luke's gospel from the very beginning. Gabriel tells Mary that her son will "be great and will be called the Son of the Most high. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (1.32-33). Mary announces that through her son, the lord God "has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble" (1.51-52). This is hardly encouraging reading for Rome and its allies. Meanwhile Zechariah also realized that God is giving Israel "salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us" (1.71). The angel tells the shepherds that the baby is Savior and lord - two titles closely associated with Roman emperors (2.11). And Jesus' reign is to be one of peace - the very state that the Pax Romana claimed to bring to all of Rome's subjugated peoples. Jesus' peace is more than the absence of conflict; it is the flourishing of all creation founded on the right worship of God. It is a peace Rome cannot comprehend.
Excerpted from Power and Passion by Samuel Wells Copyright © 2007 by Samuel Wells. Excerpted by permission.
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