When Pilate came to sit in his seat of judgement that day, he cannot have known that the proceedings would immortalize his name, in the words of the creed spoken by generations of Christians: “he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Come with me as we imagine the scene from his perspective for a moment. He sees a prisoner, looking rather worse for wear, dragged in by those chief-priests he spends his life trying to wind up, who are accusing him of all manner of things, but especially of claiming to be the anointed king of the Jews. “Well, are you then?” asks Pilate. A non-committal answer: if you say so; maybe I am; maybe you, the foreign governor, don’t really know what that title means. Well, this man hardly seems worth the effort of killing; some wandering, navel-gazing teacher, not a dangerous rabble-rouser. Roman law gives a defendant three chances to make a defence, so Pilate tries asking him again: are all these accusations true?
And silence. Now this is more surprising; maybe this isn’t such a normal day after all. It takes some nerve to just ignore all these people shouting at him, not even bothering to deny the accusations, or even making pleading excuses. And here is another remarkable thing: here comes a message even in the middle of the trial, from his wife, telling him not to get involved, because of a warning she had in a dream! Well, that settles it; Pilate doesn’t particularly care for God or gods, but he won’t mess with them if he can help it. Well, maybe he can find a way out for this man.
As we know, he will not succeed. Pilate, supposedly the one with the power here, is in reality happy to subject himself to the whims of an excitable crowd. He takes the easy way out. This isn’t about balancing justice and mercy; political expedience is the name of the day. Pilate’s attempt to deflect the blame will convince no-one except himself.
As for the crowd, Jesus has already warned Jerusalem of the destruction that it is heading towards (21.33-44; 23.37-39). Now they confirm it, sending the Messiah to his death to save their hero, Barabbas (who then disappears from history; no-one takes a would-be revolutionary seriously once they have accepted a pardon from the authorities they were trying to overthrow). Verse 25 (“His blood be on us and on our children!”) has sadly been used to justify anti-semitism over many years. I need hardly say that this is not what Matthew, himself Jewish and writing for Jewish Christians, meant to achieve. He is using this event as the culmination of the rejection of Jesus and his warnings, which will be fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem a generation after these events. This is the blood that will come upon their heads.
Not that this lets Pilate off the hook. He tells the crowd to “see to it yourselves” (verse 24), but he’s the one who gives the order to have him beaten and crucified (verse 26). Little did he know that this was the most important day of his life, and he’s gone and bottled it. Jesus has already warned us in chapter 25 that these apparently small decisions we make, about what we do with our time and money, are decisions with eternal consequences. And the ordinary people who need our help are the most important people we know.
So before we move on to the climax of the story, let’s take this chance to reflect on our own relation to worldly power. Against Pilate’s cynicism and cowardice, the priests’ jealousy and protectiveness of their own privilege, and the crowd’s idealization of violent resistance, Jesus shows the path of meek submission. Because he empties himself, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, of all his rightful claims to power, and becomes obedient to injustice and death, he is exalted by God and achieves a greater freedom for us than all the violence of the powers and principalities of this world can show.
Heavenly Father, we ask that you will give us eyes to see injustice around us, and the courage to renounce it. Give us gentleness, to show your mercy to those in distress. Give us humility, to be servants to all. We ask these things in the name of your Son, who taught us all these things in his words and deeds, and laid down his life in mercy to us.