There seems to have been a lot of confusion the day Jesus died on a cross. The religious authorities appear to have invested a lot of time and energy, not to mention the thirty pieces of coin in Judas’ pocket, in having Jesus arrested. But once they had done so, they weren’t sure what to do with him. Perhaps that is because they had no real authority to do anything with him, and were uncertain how to go about it.
It’s kind of like the dog who finally catches the car. Now that he’s done so, what is he going to do with it?
There’s a bit of confusion in the gospel accounts of what happened that day, especially if you try to put the story together from all four gospels. They tell the same story, just in different ways. To be honest, if you try to piece it together from all four accounts, it doesn’t work very well. There are discrepancies, conflicts… well, there is confusion anyway, because the gospel narratives don’t appear to agree, at least not about everything.
Critics of the Bible have a hay-day with this. Muhammad Ali noticed it.
I know a fellow in Pensacola, Florida named Mike Killam. A former lineman for Auburn University’s football team, he’s now the head of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in that area. He was traveling overseas one time – it was Europe, I think – with a small group of colleagues when they found themselves late at night sitting in an almost empty airport waiting for a flight. As they waited, Muhammad Ali and his entourage came in.
It is the nature of things that when Muhammad Ali shows up, people notice. Mike certainly did, so he went up to Ali and introduced himself, identifying himself as a Christian minister.
“I have a question for you,” Ali said. “There are four gospels in the New Testament, right?” He should know. He grew up as Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, and went to his local Baptist church every week with his mother until he was converted to Islam. “Why do they disagree with one another? They all tell the story differently. Doesn’t that discredit the Bible?” That’s what Ali wanted to know.
What would you say in a situation like that? Well, I’ll tell you what my friend Mike told Muhammad Ali. He said, “Look at it this way, if you will. When we get home, everybody in our group will be telling their friends and family that they met Muhammad Ali. My guess is that the way we all tell the story will be different. Not all of us will recount what is happening here tonight in exactly the same way. But it doesn’t take away one bit that each of us met the great Muhammad Ali.”
Ali looked at Mike with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Good answer.”
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Pontius Pilate is confused, especially as he is depicted in the Gospel of John. In fact, John has Pilate scurrying round like a nervous cat, going from the religious authorities to Jesus, back to the religious leaders, and back to Jesus. Back and forth he goes. It makes you nervous just trying to keep up with him.
Pilate’s peripatetic movements are somewhat understandable. First of all, they wake him up banging on the door early in the morning. Nobody likes to be confronted with a problem, especially when tensions run deep and everybody is on high alert. But to be awakened from sleep… well, that doesn’t exactly get things started very well, does it? It’s better than having it happen late at night, I suppose, but truth be told it’s not fun any time of the day. Just ask Caiaphas, the high priest. He’s been dealing with the Nazarene all night long.
One of Pilate’s guards informs him the religious authorities have taken custody of a seditionist. Very well, have them bring him in. Uh, there’s a problem. What? Well, it’s the Jewish religious custom. It’s their holy season and to enter Pilate’s headquarters would render them… well, what they consider to be defiled, unclean. According to their religious law, they can’t come inside. Pilate will have to go outside to meet them.
Let me ask you something… do you think that helps put Pilate in a better mood? He hasn’t even gotten the sleep out of his eyes and already he’s confronted with having to make a decision. Pilate never likes dilemmas, especially that early in the morning. But to cater to the Jews in such a way… that’s just asking too much.
It puts him in a tough spot. If he refuses to see the Jews, he’ll have to put up with their complaints for the remainder of the week… that he’s not responsive to the people… that he has no respect for them or their religious convictions. Yada, yada, yada. It’s not an easy time in Jerusalem anyway. Frankly, he’d rather be anywhere than in this wretched city, but his duty is to keep the peace, and to keep the peace means he has to do some things he’d rather not do… like be in Jerusalem during their religious festivals… like deal with their petty political disputes.
Pilate has been stationed in Judea long enough to know that what they call Passover is the biggest week of the year for them. That means a lot of people coming to town from all over. A lot of people means possible trouble. In fact, trouble is practically guaranteed. It is his job to keep trouble from happening, or at least keep it to a minimum. So, he is going to be in Jerusalem for awhile, whether he likes it or not. And since he’s going to be stuck here, he’s got to get along with the local authorities.
He despises them, but he also knows how important it is to try and keep them happy. No, happy isn’t the right word. Satisfied is better, but even if satisfied won’t do, he ought to at least try and keep them somewhat pacified. So, he does what they ask. And that’s when the confusion, the going back-and-forth begins.
The accusing Jews tell the governor about their charges against the Nazarene. Say what you will about Pilate, but he appears to be try to be fair. In what agreement there is among the New Testament gospels, they all show Pilate as at least having an inclination in Jesus’ favor. Of course, when push comes to shove and he realizes he can do little else than give the Galilean over to them, he gives in to their wishes. But that doesn’t mean he thinks Jesus is a threat. It could be he gives Jesus up to them because he thinks they are the greater threat.
But before this happens, Pilate takes Jesus into his headquarters to question him one-on-one. Wait a minute… won’t that defile Jesus? After all, he’s a Jew.
Well, for one thing, Jesus couldn’t have cared less about such things. He didn’t think a thing about touching lepers or keeping company with known sinners. He ate grain without washing his hands, and spit on them and made mud with dirt so blind eyes could see again. He healed on the sabbath and did all manner of things that weren’t kosher. Jesus was defiled a long time ago.
Secondly, if he is a criminal, as the accusing Jews have said, why would he, of all persons – why would any of them – worry about his ritual defilement?
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
Sometimes, the way a word is emphasized has everything to do with the meaning of what is being said. Language has as much to do with context as it does with the words that compose it. I have a feeling that is true with Pilate’s question. Listen carefully as I quote the governor again, and you will see what I mean…
“Are you the King of the Jews?” With the emphasis on the word “are,” Pilate sounds as if he is interested in knowing the answer himself. It almost gives his question a sympathetic tone, doesn’t it? “I really want to know. Are you the King of the Jews?”
But let’s put the emphasis on another word in his question and see how it completely changes the tone and meaning…
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Now Pilate sounds accusing in tone. He can’t ask the question this way without something of a sneer on his lips as he appears to be looking down at Jesus from a position of haughty authority. It completely changes the meaning of what Pilate is asking. “Are you, a simple, unlearned, peasant Galilean standing before me posing as the King of the Jews?”
But, what is true of Pilate is just as true of Jesus. The way Jesus emphasizes his words also conveys different forms of meaning. His response to Pilate’s question is, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Quote Jesus flatly and what you have is a simple question. Jesus wants to know if Pilate really wants to know, or is he is merely parroting what he has heard? But what if Jesus emphasizes the word you. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Suddenly, it is Pilate who is on the defensive – who is on trial – here. Just by the intonation of Jesus’ voice.
Mark, in his gospel, says that Jesus responded to the question by saying, “You say so.” Whether you look at Mark or John, notice how Jesus responds to Pilate’s questions either with questions of his own or so indirectly as to never really answer the question.
“I am not a Jew, am I?” Pilate says. “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” And after talking about the nature of his kingdom, Jesus is finally asked by Pilate, “So you are a king?”
“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.” And that is when Pilate asks his infamous question, “What is truth?”
You see, to Pilate, truth is relative. Truth is whatever gets the job done. He found no fault with Jesus, but experience – and expedience – tells him Jesus will die. That, for Pilate, is truth. Whatever it takes to keep peace. If a man has to die, so be it. His hands are clean. Pilate will make his own truth.
Eventually, as we well know, Pilate finally handed Jesus over to the Jews for execution. The expression in the Greek for “handed over” is the same word for betrayal. I nteresting, isn’t it? Judas, Simon Peter, Pilate, you, me. We all seek the truth, but tend to look for it in all the wrong places.
On this Good Friday, as you seek the truth – and your very presence here today speaks of that searching – look into the faces of those who couldn’t bring themselves to believe in Jesus’ truth… at least in that fateful moment. And know, that even when we hand Jesus over to that which is less than what he wants us to be and do, his grace is still made real to us. Even in our betrayal there is his grace and forgiveness. And that, my friends, is indeed the truth.
Find the truth in us, O Lord, and help us to see on this Good Friday that we will find the truth on a lonely, rugged cross. Through Jesus who died there that day, we offer this prayer, Amen.
Copyright 2006, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.