Sermon - Brad Brookins
John 18: 28-40
The story for today picks up right where we left off last week. Jesus has been arrested and hauled before Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest, then on to Caiaphas, the actual high priest, where he is deemed deserving of death, and then sent on to Pilate, the Roman governor.
Pilate, you see, is the only person in this story with the actual power to execute someone. That was Rome’s prerogative. No conquered people could carry out a death sentence.
So to get what they want, these men play a dangerous game. In the rest of their lives they project righteousness and fidelity to the law of Moses. They cozy up to Pilate; they flatter, cajole and manipulate him. They try to get just close enough…
…close enough to power to get what they want, but not too close. They can’t get so close that they themselves become tainted; sullied by contact with a gentile who, on every other day of the week, they would decry as a polluted, Roman pig.
They don’t do so well.
Ever tried arm-wrestling a pig on his home turf; in his own pig pen? You’re gonna’ get dirty.
John says that when the Jewish authorities got to the Praetorium—Pilate’s headquarters, they themselves did not go inside. He says, “They were anxious not to pollute themselves, so that they would still be able to eat the Passover.”
Contact with a gentile inside his home, you see, rendered a Jew too impure to eat the Passover meal. And the ritual for cleaning themselves up would take so long they would miss the feast.
Now John is, of course, being wildly ironic here. These religious leaders convened a kangaroo court and broke every rule in their own book to condemn an innocent man to death. And now they pony up to Pilate—to the man who is the polar opposite of everything Jewish, to get him to do their dirty work.
These guys are way beyond polluted.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, it has been said.
There is a cautionary tale for our day in this story. You can think about this on your own later, but the tale goes like this:
Be careful who you get in to bed with—politically speaking, of course. Don’t go cheap for power and give away your values. If you sacrifice what is true and right to get what you want, what you want is, most likely, neither true nor right.
And I’m going to repeat that, because it one of the best lines I’ve had in a while. If we sacrifice what is true and right to get what we want, what we want is neither true nor right.
Remember that the next time you go into a voting booth on election day.
The priests and pharisees in this story have gone whole hog for the pig pen. They’re all in. What they want, you see, is to preserve the religious/political system that rewards them. They want to stay as close to the top of the heap as they can.
Getting what they want, they believe, requires the death of this rabble-rousing rabbi who is upsetting the people. The common folk are starting to ask questions—uncomfortable questions.
Jesus is getting in their way, in other words.
Pilate can fix this.
Integrity, honesty, justice, faithfulness to their own faith, are all sacrificed. Pricey, perhaps; but to them, it’s worth it. Makes you wonder, though—how much is your soul worth?
So it’s off to Pilate’s hall—into the bedroom of the enemy.
“What’s the charge, then?” Pilate asks. “What have you got against this fellow?”
And to this question the Jewish authorities give a curious non-answer answer. “If he wasn’t doing wicked things,” they reply, “we wouldn’t have handed him over to you.” Just trust us, they say. You don’t want this guy around.
In more contemporary language they might have said, “He’s a real bad hombre! Believe me! You can’t trust people like him. There’s no telling what he might do when you’re back is turned. It’s best we just get rid of him. Believe me”
Somewhere in this part of the conversation, someone must have told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be a king, because Pilate goes back inside to where Jesus is being held and asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
This would have been a serious charge. To claim kingship—to challenge Rome on the only point that really mattered to them—their power, was to earn an immediate death sentence; a sentence Pilate would have easily and gladly handed down.
“Are you the king of the Jews?” he asks.
Jesus’ reply is almost taunting: “Are you making that up yourself”, he asks, “or is someone telling you what to say?”
In this deadly game of political ping pong, Pilate is the ball being swatted back and forth over the net. He’s a wuss who can’t get his footing.
This is because Pilate had long ago sacrificed what was good and right to get what he wanted—a place of power and wealth and prestige. And now he is being played like a cheap fiddle by the chief priests waiting outside.
They have brought in an obviously innocent man and they are demanding that Pilate have him killed. He doesn’t know why. He doesn’t care why. But Pilate hears in their demand a threat that if he doesn’t kill Jesus—kill this man who claims to be king, the boss will hear about it.
They know Pilate is desperate to hold on to power and position. For this, they know he will sacrifice anything.
“Are you the king of the Jews? Tell me what you have done!” He’s almost pleading with Jesus. He wants some reason—to hang him or let him go. “Your own people have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
But Jesus isn’t playing the game. He does not sell out what is true and right for what he wants. What he wants is to live, of course. Three times in the garden, just the evening before, he had prayed, “Father, don’t send me down this road. Find some other way!”
But there was no “other” way. There was only his Father’s way. Jesus said yes to that, and now he will not turn aside.
And he won’t make this easy either—for Pilate or for the Jewish authorities threatening to riot outside.
“My kingship”, Jesus says, “is not the sort that grows in this world; it’s not the sort that comes from here”.
Pilate doesn’t get this—because he doesn’t believe ruling ruling without power is even possible. He can’t conceive of anyone leading by love, rather than by force. It makes no sense to him; and so, of course, he misses the point.
“So you are a king?” he asks, almost hopeful.
“You’re the one calling me a king,” Jesus replies. “But I wasn't born for that. I was born for this: to come into this world—into your world, to bear witness to the truth.”
Then he turns the screw a little tighter. He says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth—(that is, anyone who has not traded truth for power, or truth for money, or security or fame or anything else those traders value) everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
And then Pilate asks the question—the question that has resounded through the last 2000 years. But there is a snort in his voice: “What is Truth?”, he says.
It isn’t really a question, you know. Not from Pilate, anyway. He doesn’t care what the answer might be. He’s already made his trade—as have the priests and pharisees waiting outside. He knows what he wants.
He’s about to discover what it’s going to cost.
He turns back to the mob.
But—what if he had waited for the answer? What if he had tried to listen? What might Jesus have said?
Be careful what you wish for, John is telling us in this story. Be careful what you want. Be careful what you give yourselves to, and be careful what you give away. Your choices matter. There is right and there is wrong. There is truth and there are lies. There is life and there is death.
Be careful. Choose wisely. Listen for the voice that speaks truth.
But Pilate doesn’t wait; or listen. He goes back outside to make his final move in this deadly chess match.
“I find this man not guilty!” he said to the mob, as if that’s going to make any difference. They already know he’s not guilty. Guilt has never been the issue. Innocence is not their end game.
“But look here”, Pilate says, “you’ve got this custom that I should let some prisoner free at Passover-time.”
Passover was the celebration of Israel being set free from slavery in Egypt. Every year Pilate set a prisoner free—his cynical “gift of freedom” to the Jews who were now virtually enslaved to Rome. It was a pointless gesture that seemed to please the crowds.
“So what about it? Would you like me to release ‘the king of the Jews’? Can I? Huh? Please? Can I?”
The priests, and the mob they have incited, shout in one voice, “No! We don’t want him! Give us Barabbas!”
Now Barabbas, John says, was a bandit—a genuine “bad hombre”. Someone you wouldn’t want on your side of the wall.
Barabbas is their choice.
When we sacrifice what is true and right to get what we want, what we want is neither true nor right.
And this is where the story pauses for this week. We’ll pick it up here next Sunday. Amen.
Text and Questions
The lectionary we are following gives us two weeks in the Lenten season to focus on the trial of Jesus before Pilate. I copied both readings below so you can read them together before splitting them up for our discussions. The version below is from a recent translation of the New Testament by the Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright called The Kingdom New Testament. These questions relate to the first of the two readings.
1. V. 28: “They were anxious not to pollute themselves…” For 1st century Jews, too close contact with Gentiles (entering their house would be close enough) would render them unclean, impure or polluted. Discuss this phenomenon. What do you think is going on in the mind of those who consider people unlike them to be a source of physical and spiritual pollution? What in this consideration makes sense to you? Where is it problematic?
2. Do the Jewish leaders remain “unpolluted”? Explain your answer.
3. Vs. 29-30 “What have you got against this fellow?” Consider the Jewish authorities non-answer answer to Pilate’s question. “Take our word for it…he’s bad!” Why do you think they don’t give a straight answer?
4. Notice how Pilate is bounced back and forth. He is resisted by Jesus and manipulated by the Jewish authorities. This is John’s way of drawing your attention to the illegitimacy of Roman power. Who is really on trial here? Is John saying something here about the relationship between the state (Rome in this case) and people of faith?
5. Here’s another Church/State question. The Jewish leaders want Jesus dead but can’t do it themselves; they have to cozy up to the power of the state to accomplish their goal. What moral and political compromises do they have to make in the process? When is it appropriate for religious people to cooperate with the state?
6. What examples do you see today, if any, of this church/state coziness? Are there moral or ethical concerns or compromises for us to consider in the relationship between church and state? Should the church ever resist the state? When?
7. V. 31 “We’re not allowed to put anyone to death…”. What problem were the Jewish authorities attempting to solve by putting Jesus to death? What were they most afraid of?
8. V. 33 Was Jesus the king of the Jews?
9. V. 38 “Truth!” said Pilate. “What’s that?” What is truth? Notice, the question is not “What is the truth?” Pilate has given up on getting a straight or honest answer from Jesus’ accusers. Is this a question or a statement in the form of a question? (Interesting detail: the word “truth” appears once in Matthew, 3 times each in Mark and Luke but 25 times in John. The word “true” appears once in Matthew, Mark and Luke but 23 times in John. What do you think John is up to?)
10. Why doesn’t Pilate stay around for an answer? What do you think Jesus would have told him?
John 18: 28-40 (for 3-11-18)
28 So they took Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, the governor’s residence. It was early in the morning. They didn’t themselves go inside the Praetorium. They were anxious not to pollute themselves, so that they would still be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went outside and spoke to them. “What’s the charge, then?” he asked. “What have you got against this fellow?”
30 “If he wasn’t doing wicked things,” they replied, “we wouldn’t have handed him over to you.”
31“ Take him yourselves,” said Pilate to them, “and judge him by your own law.”
“We’re not allowed to put anyone to death,” replied the Judaeans. 32 (This was so that the word of Jesus might come true, when he had indicated what sort of death he was going to die.) 33 So Pilate went back into the Praetorium and spoke to Jesus. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked.
34 “Was it your idea to ask that?” asked Jesus. “Or did other people tell you about me?”
35 “I’m not a Jew, am I?” retorted Pilate. “Your own people, and the chief priests, have handed you over to me! What have you done?”
36 “My kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world,” replied Jesus. “If my kingdom were from this world, my supporters would have fought to stop me being handed over to the Judaeans. So, then, my kingdom is not the sort that comes from here.”
37 “So!” said Pilate. “You are a king, are you?”
“You’re the one who’s calling me a king,” replied Jesus. “I was born for this; I’ve come into the world for this: to give evidence about the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
38 “Truth!” said Pilate. “What’s that?” With those words, he went back out to the Judaeans. “I find this man not guilty!” he said to them. 39 “But look here: you’ve got this custom that I should let someone free at Passover-time. So what about it? Would you like me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”
40 “No!” they shouted. “We don’t want him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit."
John 19: 1-16 (for 3-18-18)
1 So Pilate then took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 The soldiers wove a crown of thorns, put it on his head, and dressed him up in a purple robe. 3 Then they came up to him and said, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him.
4 Pilate went out again. “Look,” he said to them, “I’m bringing him out to you, so that you’ll know I find no guilt in him.” 5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak. “Look!” said Pilate. “Here’s the man!”
6 So when the chief priests and their attendants saw him, they gave a great shout. “Crucify him!” they yelled. “Crucify him!”
“Take him yourselves and crucify him!” said Pilate. “I find him not guilty!”
7 “We’ve got a law,” replied the Judaeans, “and according to that law he deserves to die! He made himself the son of God!” 8 When Pilate heard that, he was all the more afraid. 9 He went back into the Praetorium and spoke to Jesus. “Where do you come from?” he asked. But Jesus gave him no answer.
10 So Pilate addressed him again. “Aren’t you going to speak to me?” he said. “Don’t you know that I have the authority to let you go, and the authority to crucify you?”
11 “ You couldn’t have any authority at all over me,” replied Jesus, “unless it was given to you from above. That’s why the person who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
12 From that moment on, Pilate tried to let him go. But the Judaeans shouted at him. “If you let this fellow go,” they said, “you are no friend of Caesar! Everyone who sets himself up as a king is speaking against Caesar!”
13 So when Pilate heard them saying that, he brought Jesus out and sat down at the official judgment seat, called “the Pavement” (in Hebrew, “Gabbatha”). 14 It was the Preparation day of the Passover, and it was about midday. “Look,” said Pilate, “here is your king!”
15 “Take him away!” they shouted. “Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Do you want me to crucify your king?” asked Pilate.
“We have no king,” the chief priests replied, “except Caesar!”
16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified."