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Sunday, March 26, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Jesus and Pilate
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
What is the deepest expression of the truth that is in Jesus?
Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Jesus gave no verbal response.
However, not long after in the story, Jesus is crucified.
The cross, God’s self-giving love for the world, is the answer.
“God so loved the world that God gave the Begotten One.”
Jesus’ reign is the reign of God’s love.
Truth finally is not words. It is the word made flesh in Jesus.
Paul Hammer, “The Background Word,” Word Among Us.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if God’s Spirit purposefully takes amusement at blatantly demonstrating just how close the biblical world and our world can be in God’s space and time, for I chose to preach on this passage last July, long before the elections took place, long before the terms “fake media” and “alternative facts” entered our communal discourse, certainly long before Time magazine put out their newest edition with “The Death of Truth” on its cover. Indeed, Pilate’s question feels as relevant to what is going on in our world as it did to Jesus and his opponents around the year 33 CE. “What is truth?”
I wish we knew how he asked the question—what the emotional subtext was. Some commentators like to portray Pilate as a more innocent figure in the drama of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. They like to blame everything on Jesus’ religious opponents, so they interpret Pilate’s movement of going from the inside room where Jesus stood at trial, to the outside courtyard where the religious opponents waited, back to the inside for more questions, back to the outside for more debate—these commentators like to use that movement as a symbol of Pilate’s internal struggle over what to do with the innocent one, Jesus of Nazareth. Those same commentators, then, assume that Pilate asked the “what is truth?” question with an honest sense of philosophical curiosity. They wonder if what Pilate really wanted was for Jesus to help him know Truth in the fullest sense, as if Pilate were someone who, like the Samaritan woman, could be converted into full trust in Jesus as Messiah.
Other biblical scholars, though, take a very different approach to Pilate and his question, one much more suspicious. And honestly, I align myself with them. First of all, it is well documented that Pilate was not a kind human being, nor was he an intellectually or spiritually curious leader. Ancient Jewish historians Philo and Josephus wrote that Pilate was a cruel, unscrupulous man who disdained Jesus and the Jewish people, who was politically ambitious and might have reviled the outpost to which he had been assigned. With that disdain and revulsion in mind, those scholars suggest Pilate asked his question with more irritation than curiosity, more contempt than openness.
“What is truth?” he asked, perhaps with a tone that suggested truth was really nothing more than what people in power said it was. No one else had any influence in the matter. Those who made the rules, who established the policies, who had the money and the seats around the board table—they were the ones who defined what the truth actually was. And typically what they labeled truth was the version of the story that best suited their interests, that solidified their power, that built up their control and made sure they benefited the most, regardless of anyone else. Again, the Spirit seems to be collapsing time these days.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked, answering his own question as he spoke it, for Pilate knew his version of the truth. His truth was that he was lord of that part of the Roman Empire. His truth was that Caesar alone was the one to worship and serve, unless you would rather die. His truth was that the Jewish people were, frankly, expendable and really only good for the taxes they paid and the extra money Pilate and others extorted from them. “What is truth?” Pilate sneered. His truth was that slavery worked as the primary economic system of the day. His truth was that the household codes that dictated women and children were property were good for the social order, because everyone knew her place. His truth was that one must jealously guard one’s honor and power at every turn and trust absolutely no one or risk losing it all. “What is truth?” Please. Pilate might have even rolled his eyes. His truth was that he might have actually preferred to release Jesus instead of that Barabbas, because Barabbas was an actual zealot, a real and honest threat to Pilate’s power and control. But Jesus?
Well, the truth about Jesus, according to Pilate, was that he refused to answer Pilate’s questions with appropriate fear and trembling, undoubtedly infuriating Pilate beyond belief. And yet, at the same time, Jesus also refused to lift a sword against a sword, confusing Pilate as to his motives. And that refusal to fight violence with violence also led Pilate to conclude that another truth about Jesus was that he was a pitifully powerless man who willingly gave in to his arrest after being betrayed by one of his own. How weak. When it got right down to it, regardless of what Jesus’ opponents said about this Jesus, the truth, according to Pilate, was that this Jesus looked nothing like, sounded nothing like, acted nothing like an actual king. So much so that when Pilate asked the question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” he felt absolutely ridiculous. What a sham, Jesus as king.
“What is truth?” Pilate mocked. It is whatever I say it is. So your truth now, Jesus of Nazareth, is that you are a dead man walking, because your opponents want you dead for stirring things up and challenging all of their systems and authority; they, and now I, want you dead for putting them on Rome’s radar again, with all your talk about the kingdom, the reign of God coming near, directly challenging my empire, the reign of Caesar and Rome, thereby placing their people, your own people, at additional risk. What is truth? That’s the truth, Jesus. The truth as Pilate saw it and lived it.
But we know the problem, don’t we? We know what Pilate was missing, what Jesus’ opponents were missing, what even perhaps the designer of Time magazine’s cover is missing. “What is truth?” might not be the most appropriate or useful question to ask, as least not for those of us in this faith tradition, for “What is truth?” was not what Jesus was even about. Jesus was not about truth as some kind of philosophical category or truth as an Enlightenment objective reality one can prove or disprove. Jesus was also not about truth as our postmodern subjective theory, where truths with a plural s rule the day. “What is truth?” is an important question for those on investigative commissions to ask, but it is not the only question those of us who try to be disciples need to be asking, not when it comes to how we live our lives.
Rather, the question to ask is “Who is Truth?” Imagine what might have happened if Pilate had asked that out loud: “Who is Truth?” His own transformation might have actually had a chance then, because those of us who follow God in the way of Jesus believe the Who was standing right there in front of him. The “Who is Truth?” was and is Jesus. And just what kind of truth is he? The truth that proclaims that since we trust Jesus is the full disclosure of God, the human face of God, then we know the truth that God is nothing less than love. The truth that in Jesus, God took, absorbed, into God all the ugliness and all the beauty of human life. The truth that, in the one we call Jesus, all things hold together, even us. “Who is Truth?” Pilate could have asked. And then they might have actually had a real, honest conversation. But even though he didn’t—proven by the fact that immediately after this exchange Pilate had Jesus beaten and sent on to his death—we can.
When we trust that Jesus is Truth, the fullest disclosure of who we believe God to be as well as how we trust God hopes we will live and love, then all of the sudden we have the Who against which we can measure all other truth claims. When we trust that Jesus is the Who of Truth, the entirety of our lives is affected. For example, it means we cannot measure the truth about the effect of governmental budgets—local, state, and national—without remembering what our Truth, Jesus, said in the Sermon on the Mount when he claimed that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. In other words, our budgets are moral documents and tell us what and whom we actually value.
When we trust Jesus is the Who of Truth, then we cannot measure the truth about how to interact with people of other faith traditions without remembering we believe that in the one who is our Truth, God was reconciling the whole world, the entire cosmos, to God’s self, making us responsible for and to each other regardless. We remember God is not a Christian; we are. When we trust Jesus is the Who of Truth, we cannot measure the truth about how we are to see each other and treat each other, even strangers, without paying attention to the One who is our Truth, the One about whom Paul wrote that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When we trust Jesus is the Who of Truth, we cannot measure the truth about how we are to be in relationship with immigrants and refugees and those in prison without remembering the One who is our Truth, who told his disciples to visit the prisoner and to always watch out for and provide for the refugee and the strangers in their midst. When we trust Jesus is the Who of Truth, then we cannot measure the truth about how we are to engage our public officials around the potential loss of free meals at school or funding for Meals on Wheels without measuring it against the one who is our Truth, who said let the children come to me and who commanded us to make sure we are loving and providing for the widow and the orphan, biblical shorthand for the most vulnerable amongst us.
Those are just a few examples of how remembering the Way of the one who is our Truth ought to challenge us, to shape us, as we live our lives, as we make our decisions, as we spend our money, as we cast our votes, as we choose how to use our energy and our time as well as our voice. “What is truth?” was an interesting question for Pilate to ask; it is an important question for Congress to ask. But the question of faith for us to ask is “Who is truth?” Flannery O’Connor wrote, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” Indeed. For when we measure the world’s truth against the one who is our Truth and let that Truth shape our lives accordingly, we end up being nothing less than odd.
The truth of our world is not all that different from the manufactured truth of Pilate’s world. It is a truth that says the one with the most toys wins. It is a truth that says look out for number one and get to the top no matter whom you hurt in the process. It is a truth that says protect what you have and what your family has and everyone else will have to figure it out for themselves. It is a truth that denies we are connected to each other and a truth that ignores that our well-being is wrapped up in the well-being of each other. It is a truth that pretends we are all born onto a level playing field so pull your own self up. It is a truth that makes peace with violence and hopelessness exploding in that other neighborhood as long as it is not in my neighborhood. It is a truth that seeks to separate and destroy.
The truth of our world, of Pilate’s world, is also what took the one who is our Truth and had him beaten for embodying the world as it should be, then put him on a cross and left him to die because the Truth of God’s love and justice was far too threatening to ignore. Frankly, seeing how the one who is our Truth was treated might tempt us to just take the easier way of living in the land of fake news and alternative facts and getting comfortable with the notion that truth is dead. That’s what they say.
And yet that is not who we are. As people who follow God in the way of Jesus, we are not a people who just give up or decide to play the game of the world’s truth. We are not a people who sneer along with Pilate and decide that truth can be auctioned off to the highest bidder. No. Rather, we choose to hold even more tightly onto the Who of our Truth, the one who calls us to be odd and gracious and a hard worker for justice and for hope, for we are called to follow the one who is our Truth, who is God’s Truth, and to constantly let that Truth shape us and reshape our lives, every single day, even when it’s hard or when we are running low on courage.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. If only he had known. But we do. And the one who is our Truth is not dead but alive and on the loose, calling for us to follow, calling us to be odd for the sake of God’s beloved world. Amen.