Dear Pontius Pilate
Dear Pontius Pilate,
I have spent much of this week reviewing a single moment from your life, to be specific, your brief interrogation of Jesus of Nazareth. Surely you remember it.
One of the advantages I have, looking at this moment twenty one centuries after the fact, is that I know things you could not possibly have known. You could not have known, for instance, that this moment when Jesus stood before you was, in fact, a pivotal moment in the history of all humanity. I’m sure that to you he just looked like another troublemaker and the whole business seemed needlessly tiresome. As he stood in front of you awaiting judgment, with his overeager accusers prodding you from the wings and insisting on his execution, how could you possibly have known that your decision either way would have repercussions that would change the course of history? I wonder…if you had known how monstrously important your moment with Jesus really was, would it have changed your decision? Would you have taken more time to think about it? To make your choice?
After your exchange with him about whether or not he was a king or had made any claim to be a king—an issue which, it seems, was left somewhat unresolved—Jesus said something that was both intriguing and a bit enigmatic. He said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
That last part is a little tricky in translation—that’s one of the problems with reviewing things centuries after they happened. Details can become blurred. Languages don’t always translate precisely. Words and phrases seldom bring their cultural context with them when they plunge into a new language. Did Jesus say “everyone who belongs to the truth” or “everyone who is of the truth” or “out of the truth” or “from the truth”? All these are reasonable and acceptable translations of that potent little Greek word ek. The differences in meaning are subtle, but not unimportant. The choices we make in how we choose to hear it carry weight. Personally, I like belongs. It reminds me that truth, even as a philosophical concept, is bigger than I am. Truth is my master, I am truth’s servant. This means, of course, that I must be very careful that it’s not my own subjective version of truth or my wishful thinking version of truth that I am serving. I have to be careful that I haven’t bound myself in service to a propaganda version of truth. I belong to truth. It owns me. So I listen to the voice of Jesus.
You asked a simple question in response to Jesus. Well that’s not quite true. It’s not a simple question at all. It is, in point of fact, a question that has kept various philosophers, theologians, and even scientists awake at night for two millennia. Three small words in our language, also in your language, and also the ancient Greek that handed the question down to us:
Quid est veritas? What is truth?
Were you being cynical when you asked that, my dear Prefect? Or did you ask it, as Frederick Buechner suggests, with a lump in your throat? Is this a question that had kept you awake at night, also? Or had you dismissed the whole idea of objective truth after so many years on the judgment seat hearing people give competing versions of “the truth”?
Did it occur to you for even an instant, my dear Pontius Pilate, that the truth was standing right in front of you as you asked the question? Did it occur to you that the truth was not an idea or philosophical concept, but rather a person?
The truth was standing right in front of you, Prefect. I don’t say that out of piety. I don’t say it to be in conformity with the holy writings that arose from his followers in the years after your time with him. I don’t say it merely to resonate with his own words when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I say it, dear Pontius Pilate, because it is true. Objectively true. The answer to your question, the truth, was standing right in front of you.
Here is the truth that you were not seeing, my dear Pontius, as Jesus stood before you in silence with his hands tied and his fate all but sealed:
Heaven was confronting empire.
As you faced each other, it was more than Jesus of Nazareth fronting Pontius Pilate of Rome. In you, Prefect, was all the relentless and violent might of the empire spilled down through its systems of hierarchy and bureaucracy. In you was oppression and military organization used ruthlessly to maintain efficiency, protect investment, and continue the empire’s domination. All that might and power and agenda was condensed into your title, Prefect. And in that moment with Jesus, all the authority of that title was condensed into your word, your yes or your no.
Across from you was Jesus, unadorned humanity in the image and likeness of God. Challenging your word of imperial authority, your yes or no, was the yes of life, the yes of creation, the yes of generosity, the yes who spoke light into the shadowy hearts of all humanity. Creation, life, the light of understanding, love, which is the presence of the divine, grace and her twin sister mercy, equity and her twin sister justice—these things have always been opposed to empire, and Jesus of Nazareth embodied all this as he stood facing you in silence. Standing before you was one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
All the natural flow and goodness of earth and heaven was standing before the empire’s paranoid, overzealous, and slightly incompetent middle management, waiting for a decision.
But so was everyday life.
The truth came before you, Pontius, in plain clothes. Truth came to you as one of the invisible people you passed without seeing as you rode your chariot through the city. Truth came before you already roughed up and mistreated by those with less authority but more fear, anger, and frustration. Truth stood before you as one of the little people.
Truth came as a workman turned rabbi, a teacher who was trying to open the eyes and widen the embrace of his people—of all people—a teacher who was trying to give us a larger vision of how life could be with real justice and real fairness and real concern for persons. He was trying to show us how life could be in a kin-dom of God where we love our neighbors as ourselves.
The truth stood before you armed only with words and a vision, the most powerful tools humanity has ever known. But words and vision have always found themselves contesting swords and spears because empire knows that words and vision are inevitably its undoing.
Heaven confronted empire, Prefect, and heaven came armed with nothing but truth, words, and vision.
“What is truth?” you asked. Can you see now, my dear Marcus Pontius Pilatus, that truth is not an idea, nor merely empirically proven facts? Can you see yet that truth is a person? All of us stand in that truth one way or another. And empire will always have trouble seeing that. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has never understood it.
Truth was staring you in the face, Prefect.
Know that truth, Pontius, and the truth will make you free.