From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”
John 19:12 (NRSV)
Last night Wendy and I watched the end of the Presidential debate as we prepared for bed. It gave both of us a good laugh to watch seemingly intelligent people flip, flop, fib, and forestall. Amazing how so many people can evade so many direct questions. It does not matter what side of the political spectrum you lean. The truth is that both sides of the political spectrum will argue whatever is expedient to their momentary political need, even if it is 180 degrees from where they stood months or years ago when the political situation was reversed.
This is all fresh in my mind this morning as I read the chapter of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Make no mistake. The entire series of kangaroo court trials that Jesus went through were political in nature. Jesus threatened the power of the Jewish religious leaders and their economic cash cow in the Jerusalem temple. The trials started at the home of Annas who was the father-in-law of the current High Priest, Caiaphas. There were two reasons for this private questioning. First, Annas was the power behind the throne. He was the Godfather, and Caiaphas was his puppet. Second, Caiaphas was quickly and dutifully trying to assemble a quorum of their tribunal body, the Sanhedrin, to render verdict on Jesus. Of course, this was all done in the middle of the night which was against their laws, but in Watergate like fashion they found it politically expedient to fudge those laws because they wanted this to be done quickly and out of the public eye. Caiaphas was, no doubt, stacking the quorum with those who leaned against Jesus politically.
The leaders had another problem. They wanted Jesus put to death, but they had no authority to do it under Roman rule. The Roman Empire was the occupying force in Palestine. They were the ultimate authority and Pilate, as the Roman Governor, was the only man who could legally give the order to execute Jesus. So, the Jewish leaders had two choices. One was to have Jesus assassinated, which risked huge social and political backlash given Jesus’ popularity. The other was to convince Pilate to crucify Jesus under Roman law. The problem with that was there was nothing Jesus had done that really mattered to the Romans.
Now the Jews hated the Romans the way any people hate any occupying force. The French and Dutch hated the Nazis when they were the occupying force in World War II. The Ukrainians hate the Russians right now. So, what is fascinating in today’s chapter is to watch the political machination the Jewish leaders make to the Roman Governor.
First, make the appeal and hopefully Pilate’s in a good mood and will do what we ask. “If he weren’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have brought him to you.” You can trust us, Pilate. Jesus is a bad guy. Just give the order.
But, after questioning, Pilate finds no reason to execute Jesus.
Next tactic, apply social pressure. Whip up the mob to convince Pilate that executing Jesus is the expedient thing to do. It was still early, remember, and the leaders had already been working for hours to assemble a sympathetic crowd of Jesus’ enemies. Make a big public demonstration. Make it loud. Chant. Threaten social unrest. The crowd begins to chant and shout for Jesus’ execution.
Pilate is scratching his head. This makes no sense, but the pressure is enough to prompt further questioning. He questions Jesus and still finds no reason to have him crucified. Pilate tries to give Jesus back to the Jewish leaders and give them permission to crucify the Nazarene themselves.
The Jewish leaders, however, know that it would be political suicide to kill Jesus themselves. Their poll numbers would plummet. The ignorant masses would turn against them. They had to have their enemy, Pilate, give the order. Pilate questions Jesus again. The Roman Governor recognizes that he is caught in a political trap. Jesus does not deserve death, but the leaders of the opposition could make his life hell if he doesn’t do what they want. Once again he pleads for Jesus release.
The Jewish leaders sense Pilate’s hesitation and fear things are going against them, so they make the argument “Jesus claimed to be King, so that is treason to the Roman Emperor.” This is ridiculous. The Jewish leaders didn’t care what Caesar thought or about treason against Rome. They’ve suddenly become Roman patriots? This is pure political expediency and it’s cunning. By making this accusation they are telling Pilate that they could appeal to Caesar and tell the Emperor that Pilate ignored a threat to Rome. When Pilate still seems unconvinced, the Jewish leaders go all in and pledge loyalty to their enemy: “We have no king but the emperor.”
Pilate was politically trapped and he knew it. He needed to keep the peace in Palestine at all costs and, reluctantly, he is compelled to make Jesus the sacrificial lamb to keep that peace.
Today I’m thinking about politics and elections and appointments and history. Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world, and as a follower of Jesus I find myself constantly struggling with tension between two kingdoms. God both tells me to be mindful of, and obedient in, my citizenship in His kingdom and also my citizenship to the rulers and authorities I find myself under in this world. I look at the Presidential candidates across the entire ideological spectrum and perceive the entire lot are flippers, floppers, fibbers, and ego driven fakers.
God, give me wisdom, and please…have mercy on us.