Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Pilate - Godís instrument of justice?"

Message preached March 13, 2005
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Matthew 27:11-26

Order of Worship

            On our last day in the Dominican Republic, Caitlin, Izzy, and I visited an Art museum in Santo Domingo, the capital city. Our gracious hosts were Cristobal and his wife, Carmen, who took us wherever we needed to go, especially places where Caitlin could study Dominican art for a college project.. Izzy had met this couple through the Cal Ripkin World Series in Aberdeen. "Mi casa es su casa," Cristobal said to us. "My house is your house."

            In that museum, we were looking at some paintings from the period when Rafael Trujillo. From the reading Iíd brought along, as well as from casual conversation during our stay, Iíd picked up a bit about this strong man who, as the actual Presidente or through his cronies, ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930-1961. He was not a nice guy. He maintained power through the military and his secret police. Those who opposed him (or even just raised questions) had a habit of disappearing. Perhaps the most famous of these were the three Mirabel sisters, referred to as "the butterflies" in the popular imagination. The anniversary of their murder on November 25, 1960 has been declared "International Day Against Violence Against Women" by the United Nations. Directly or indirectly, this murder led to Trujilloís downfall. He was assassinated the next year.

            One way this dictator kept everyone from hating him, though, was to become the "godfather" of many children. In so doing he became connected to families all over the country, helping them out financially. Well, in the museum, viewing some artwork from that period, I asked about Trujilloís nickname. In my reading, they often called him "el jefe." "What did that mean?" I asked. After correcting my pronunciation (in Spanish, a "j" is spoken like an "h"), Izzy informed me that "el jefe" was "the boss." Then, almost in passing, Cristobal said that "el jefe." was his godfather... The money his family received from "el jefe"enabled them to build a nice home and make a better life...

            Our view of persons in power depends a great deal upon where we stand in relation to them. While the memory of "el jefe" in the Dominican Republic, for instance, might be a dark stain on the history of a nation to many, for our new friend Cristobal, his "godfather" was someone who helped his family get ahead. By the way, lest I give a wrong impression, Cristobal and Carmen are not members of the Church of the Brethren there. They did, however, ask us a lot of good questions about this church. You never know...

            Letís turn in biblical history to another politician. Pontius Pilate was a man with power. In Palestine, around the time Jesus taught and walked the way with his disciples, Pilateís word was law. He spoke for the emperor of Rome, Tiberius Caesar, the most powerful man in the western world right then. One of Pilateís responsibilities was to keep order in Palestine, and one of the means he and other "procurators" (or governors) like him used for this purpose was the death sentence. Do something that threatens Rome, and you would not simply disappear. You would be nailed to a cross and left for dead for all to see. During times of unrest, the roads to Jerusalem were lined with crosses.

            Can you guess how Pilate might have been remembered by the people who lived in Israel back then? Maybe they were a bit biased, but his was a dark stain upon the land. The Jewish philosopher, Philo, who lived around the same time, ascribed to Pilate: rape, insult, murder, and inhumanity (see On the Embassy to Gaius #302-303). Another Jewish historian of that period, Josephus, likewise had little good to say about this man. That was pretty much the opinion of the people who had to live under Pilateís rule. Oh, there was King Herod, but he was little more than a Roman puppet. The leaders of the Temple in Jerusalem had power, but not anywhere near what Pilate did, backed up as it was by his legions of soldiers.

            The first followers of Jesus shared this not-so-nice opinion of Pilate. Did you notice, by the way, that the apostleís creed we affirmed earlier, when speaking of the suffering, crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus, only mentions Pilate? This initial creed of the church did not blame "the Jews" for the torture and execution of Jesus, something that has too often been forgotten by those who claimed to believe in him down through the years. Somehow, Pilate got taken off the hook, so to speak. Even today, our portrayals of this despot often show him to be less the cruel dictator that he probably was, and more a mixed character with some redeeming qualities. Why the change?

            Part of it comes from the scripture itself, as we have received it. There are multiple views of Pilate in the four gospels. Itís not just one picture. We just heard a bit of Matthewís take on the man. Here Pilate has at least one redeeming quality - his choice in women. His wife listens to her dreams, and these have troubled her. "Have nothing to do with that innocent man," she tells her husband. Matthewís is, perhaps, the kindest portrayal of Pilate. Here is a man caught between a rock and a hard place. In the end, he washes his hands of the whole affair, literally. The truth is, however, what happened was by his order. When it says that Pilate "handed (Jesus) over to be crucified," it was into the hands of his own soldiers, his own death squad, if you will.

            Our view of persons in power depends a great deal upon where we stand in relation to them. Tertullian, a church leader who lived over 100 years later, felt that Pilate was a Christian at heart. Later tradition gave Pilateís wife a name, Procula, whom the Eastern Orthodox church proclaimed a saint. The Coptic church made Pilate a saint, also. As Alice in Wonderland would say, "Curiouser and curiouser!" Three hundred or more years after the events recorded by the gospel stories weíve received in our New Testament, a passion narrative was written entitled, The Acts of Pilate (see also this). In it, this representative of Caesar is portrayed as anything but a despot. When Jesus (in this account) enters the Praetorium to stand before Pilate, he is shown great respect and the imperial standards miraculously bow before him (chapter 1). When news that Jesus died on the cross reaches Pilate later, he "grieves exceedingly" (thatís what it says), and does not eat or drink for the rest of the day (chapter 11).

            Why this change? Why make Pilate look much better than he, perhaps, was? Could it have been because at about the same time as these stories (such as The Acts of Pilate) came out Rome itself was changing? In the year 325, a fellow named Constantine became the undisputed Caesar. Thirteen years earlier he had a vision of the cross of Christ, and had his soldiers baptized on their way into battle (which they won, by the way). He himself was baptized 25 years later shortly before he died. This Caesar (and many others who followed) was at least nominally a believer. Christians, you see, had become a highly influential part of the Roman empire. As I said, our view of persons in power depends a great deal upon where we stand in relation to them. The further the church stood from Jerusalem, and the closer it stood to Rome, the more appealing Pilate (as representative of the power of Rome) became in the public imagination.

            Forgive me this history lesson. Who, after all, is to say that this portrayal of a man we really donít know all that much about is wrong? Itís just that we need to be aware of where we stand in relation to power, and how that may affect the way in which we see things. We turn to our faith, and to the Word of God as we have received it in the Bible, to try to see our world from a different angle. We approach scripture with a bit of caution, realizing that we canít help but read it from where we stand. Visiting the Brethren in our sister church helps us read the Bible from a different place. Thatís one reason why this new relationship can be so powerful.

            Sitting beside Maximo, for instance, an older fellow in that church who - ten years ago - made his way into our country through Guatemala, sneaking across the Mexican border like many wetbacks do, helps me read the Bible differently. He worked in Boston a year, didnít like it, and returned home, where now he is passionate about helping his desperately poor neighbors to start their own small businesses through micro-loans made possible by your offerings. The Pilates of his world have not always been as just or good as those in power in our world. Unlike our other new friend, Cristobal, Maximo was not fortunate enough to be the godson of el Presidente long time ago. I have a feeling these two men might see things a bit differently.

            We turn to this gospel story not for what it says about the justice of Pilate, or the lack thereof. Instead, no matter where we stand as we come to this scripture, we are seeking the justice of God. Whether from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, we hear in these texts that more was going on than what Pilate or any other person knew. The future did not really swing on the decisions of this man - whether he ruled like a dictator or a bureaucrat. Thatís the problem with holding power in your hands. You come to think that you are in control of what happens.

            The truth that scripture lifts up, however, is that itís the hand of God which ultimately holds all the cards. Yes, as the apostleís creed states, Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and buried." This Roman governor dispensed the justice of Caesar, the highest earthly authority at that time, the biggest cheese of that age. The cross was the means of Roman justice. How cruel, we think, as our enlightened minds look back upon this event. That wasnít justice. Jesus was clearly innocent. It can make you angry, just thinking about it - no matter where you are standing when you hear the story.

            Ah, but - according to scripture - it was justice - only this justice did not belong to Pilate, nor Caesar. God had something else in mind, bigger than these earthly powers and principalities. Through Jesus, this seemingly powerless Jewish rabbi, God was going to let there be peace on earth. "Let it begin with me," this representative (his very son, we say we believe) of the real power of all space and time said through his actions. He made things right, which is the purpose of true justice - to make things right.

            So, Pilate was an instrument of justice, only not the kind of justice he may have thought at the time. He may have been "el jefe." But the real "boss," who rules with a different kind of power (point to the cross), was really in charge. Yes, Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and buried; (and) he descended to the dead." Thatís what the apostleís creed says. But it goes on, as you have affirmed with your own voice this morning. "On the third day, he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father and he will come again to judge the living and the dead." Now tell me, where do you stand in relation to him?

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Matthew.


 

©2005 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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