Reflection: The Prefect and the King (John 18:28-40) March 11, 2018
“In the year 26 AD the Roman emperor Tiberius appointed Pilate the praefectus or governor over Judea. He ruled with an iron fist over every aspect of the province—the military, the courts, the economy, and even the Jewish Temple (pilfering its funds to build an aqueduct). The Jewish historian Philo (20 BC–40) paints a dark picture of a ruthless overlord: “by nature rigid and stubbornly harsh. . . of spiteful disposition and an exceeding wrathful man. . . the bribes, the acts of violence, the outrages, the cases of spiteful treatment, the constant murders without trial, the ceaseless and most grievous brutality.” Although some people doubted if Pilate even existed, in 1961 archaeologists discovered a block of granite at a theater in Caesarea containing four lines of Latin which read, “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.” The inscription was part of a building dedication that Pilate had made to Tiberius. About four years after he sentenced Jesus to death, according to the fourth-century church father Eusebius (EH 2.7.1) Pilate, “wearied with misfortunes,” committed suicide.” Pilate may be the most famous ancient Roman, whose name is mentioned every Sunday in thousands of churches around the world as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicence creed are recited. (Daniel Clendenin in 2006, www.journeywithjesus.net)
John’s Gospel clearly sets up Jesus’ death as both a political act and a theological one. We’ll focus on the theological aspect in a couple of weeks. For now let me say that Pilate is clear that Jesus is condemned, not because he is guilty, but because others may potentially see him as a king, a rival to Roman power. Jesus speaks for a kingdom which is an alternative to the rule of Rome, the rule of Herod, or even the rule of the hereditary Jewish monarchy that can be traced back to David. Though he is understood by some to be a king in the line of David, he is a king whose rule is the remaking of the world so that it is subject to God and to God alone. When he taught his disciples to pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God, he taught them to pray for it to come “On earth as it is in heaven”. So it is not an earthly kingdom in the sense that it will not look like the rule of any human political system or person – not Liberal or NDP or Conservative or Green, not Republican or Democrat, not communist or fascist or Marxist or capitalist. But it IS an earthly kingdom in that it is for a RENEWED world, a world that has been changed by God’s will being done everywhere and at all times. This is why some have coined the term “kin-dom”, as it suggests how radically different from any human system or rule and subjugation this dream of God actually is! Regardless of what term you use, praying the Lord’s Prayer is about as radical as you can get, then and now.
“In its simplest terms, the kingdom [or kin-dom] of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not (Borg, Crossan). Imagine if God ruled the nations, and not ,..[May, Merkle, Trudeau, Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-Un, Assad, Netenyahu or Ahmadinejad]. Every aspect of personal and communal life would experience a radical reversal. The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless—peace-making instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice rather than subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, humility rather than hubris, embrace rather than exclusion, etc. The ancient Hebrews had a marvelous word for this, shalom, or human well-being.” (Daniel Clendenin) That is what we are praying for when we pray that the kingdom come.
I know many of you remember the days when the Lord’s Prayer was said every day in school; many of you wish those days would come again, and speak of it frequently. I can sympathize with that wish – honestly, I do – for it seems sometimes that our children are lost without the grounding that we received in the faith. The reality, however, is that we live in a multi-faith country, and to demand that children whose families worship differently than us or who have no faith at all, pray a prayer that is specific to the Christian faith just doesn’t make sense – especially when even the generations who memorized it probably couldn’t tell you what it means to them! For me it would be far more effective if those of us who claimed the name of Christ, who say we are followers of Jesus, actually pray that prayer and mean it! That when we teach it to our children or grandchildren, we talk to them about what it means to us, so that it is not just rote memorization, but a prayer of the heart.
I also believe that instead of attaching Christ’s name to some specific political or economic agenda, in our minds and hearts we need to subvert all other agendas to Christ’s rule. We must remember that Christ refuses to be the kind of King many of us wish would come – who would impose a certain set of rules or values or morals we define as Christian on the whole world, by force if necessary. He refused to do that when he walked this earth, and I see no reason to believe he wants that to happen now. Christ said the kingdom of God is both here and not-here; it is like a small coin, or a single pearl, or a tiny seed. The seeds have been sown but they have yet to grow to fulfilment. Those seeds are sown in us – in the soil of faith and trust, not in the rocky ground of control or absolutism. It is only as we grow in the values of the kingdom – mutuality, compassion, self-sacrifice, generosity, peacefulness, prayerfulness – that the kingdom of God will grow right along with us.
This may be the Truth that was so baffling to Pilate – who had no sense that there is anything we can call Truth at all! (Doesn’t that just sound like today’s postmoderns to you?) Many things in this world are relative – but the need for love, peace, joy, prayer, sharing? These are not relative at all. Yet to some they appear completely incomprehensible – those who have been taught that might makes right, that some people count and some people don’t, who believe that they deserve all that they have and others do not, who know only power over others rather than the empowerment of others, who believe that life is about winning and the one who dies with the most toys, the most power, the most money, wins. The Pilates of this world will never understand Jesus – even if at times they find themselves strangely drawn to him, seeing something in him that they lack in themselves. If ancient Eusebius was right, Pilate found out at the end of his life that those things just didn’t have the power to save his life, and so he ended it.
What’s extra interesting to me is that the questions Pilate asks Jesus are questions many contemporary people ask.
• “What have you done? What brought you to this terrible situation and why did your own people serve you up on a platter? How can that be if you are who they say you are?”
• “Are you a king – do you really have any power or influence at all, or are you just a fake, a mirage, or even a myth?”
• “What is Truth – and how do I know it’s true? Is there really any such thing?”
We might even see our own wondering, our own questions, in the questions that Pilate asks. Jesus’ response is: “You have all kinds of ways to talk about me, but all I’m going to say about myself is, that I’m here to share God’s dream, God’s way of being human with the world. Those who have ears to hear it, will know the truth of what I speak. “
That’s it. That’s all Jesus says about the kingdom at the end. According to the other Gospels, he spent every day of his ministry talking about it, and living it, planting the seeds wherever he went. When faced with the destructive power of Rome and of the religious authorities, there was nothing more for him to say. They had a choice, to hear or not to hear. If their fear, their love of power, their agendas, their own beliefs or their own unbelief got in the way, Jesus wasn’t going to force them into anything. The choice was theirs, as the choice is ours, always.
Do we want to live in communities where God’s love is at the centre of everything? Then what started with Jesus has got to continue with us – through our prayers, our worship, our service, our action. We may find ourselves standing with Jesus, on trial from the powers-that-be, judged and condemned by those around us for seeking a way that is different from the prevailing ways and priorities of our culture. So be it, for we want to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only”. May God grant us the courage to be truth-bearers and kingdom-builders with Jesus. Amen.