Readings for “Christ the King:” Dn. 7:13-14; Ps. 93:1-5; Rv. 1:5-8; Jn. 18:33b-37 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/112512.cfm
This is the feast of Christ the King. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus declares his kingship during his interrogation before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Standard interpretations of the scene (such as in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) present Pilate as a spiritually sensitive seeker. It seems that Pilate had some appreciation of Jesus’ innocence and was trying desperately to free him from the rabid hatred of his Jewish adversaries.
So Pilate’s questioning of Jesus takes on a theological tone. His questions though arrogant are intellectual almost gentle and respectful. They seem sparked by genuine curiosity. Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” In the end Pilate ponders the imponderable, “What is truth?”
The standard account goes on to say that only his personal weakness causes the Roman procurator to have Jesus scourged – to appease the fanatical Jewish leaders demanding Jesus’ blood. Yes, he was weak, but in the end the Jews were the ones principally responsible for Jesus’ death.
That’s the familiar picture: Pilate the intellectual, spiritually sensitive, looking for a way to set Jesus free, but too weak to assert his authority in the face of powerful and hateful Jewish leaders.
Problem is, the picture is profoundly at odds with the historical record. It also ignores the real reason representatives of empire engage in interrogation. As for the procurator’s personal character, Philo, Flavius Josephus, and Tacitus, tell us that Pontius Pilate was an absolutely brutal man. He had no fear of Jewish leaders. He despised them. In fact he took pains to provoke them. For instance, he knew the Jewish prohibition against idolatry and the making images, and yet he routinely paraded through the streets of Jerusalem statues of the Roman emperor who claimed to be a God. On several occasions, Pilate had his soldiers enter the Jerusalem Temple itself provocatively profaning it by their very presence.
No, Pilate was brutal. And his questioning of Jesus in today’s gospel had nothing to do with theological interest. He cared not at all for Jesus or establishing innocence. Quite the opposite. Pilate was just doing his job. If the questioning actually took place at all (and it’s doubtful that it did), it was at the hands of an imperial administrator doing what administrators do in all such circumstances from first century Jerusalem to twenty-first century Kabul. They arrest, interrogate, torture, and execute.
After all, Pilate had in his presence a man identified by local informants as a terrorist. In fact, this one (like innumerable others Pilate had questioned) claimed to be King of the Jews – obviously an insane “rival” to Caesar. What a laugh – an uneducated laborer from Nazareth! So Pilate would have been all about arresting this “militant,” interrogating him for information about accomplices, torturing him when the initial interrogation failed, and then butchering the fool.
Moreover Jesus’ silence before Pilate had nothing to do with humility. It was instead about Jesus’ refusal to name his accomplices. So the torture began. To humiliate him, the soldiers stripped him naked – again, standard operating procedure then and now. For the soldiers this was fun. No doubt they made crude jokes about Jews and circumcision. (Do you hear echoes of Abu Ghraib here?)
Still Jesus said nothing. So they beat him nearly to death. Thirty-nine lashes (almost no one survived that). And yet Jesus refused to name names. So they gave him the “crown of thorns” treatment. It was like water-boarding today. Still nothing – no names. It was entirely heroic on Jesus’ part.
Then they applied the final torture – the “third degree” following the first two: the scourging and “crown of thorns.” This was the ultimate torment reserved for insurrectionists – crucifixion. They’d send a detachment of soldiers to copy down any final disclosures. But Jesus said nothing to help them. His silence and acceptance of suffering and death literally saved his friends. They had been disloyal to him, explicitly denied him; they had been cowardly and weak. They had sinned against Jesus. Yet he gave his life for them. His friends would never forget that. Jesus’ heroic death saved them from their sins. It saved them from Pilate.
However, the truth is that Pilate was probably not aware of any of this. He was used to applying the third degree. The record shows he had crucified literally thousands in his time. A lot of them had claimed to be messiahs sent from God. For him executing such delusionaries was no big deal. In fact, scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan suggests that Pilate took no notice at all of Jesus. The whole world was not watching, Crossan says. Jesus wasn’t even a blip on Pilate’s screen. The “trial before Pilate” was probably pro forma at best – possibly even a fabrication of the early church to shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. After all, by the time John wrote his gospel in the final decade of the first century, Christians were anxious to court favor with Rome. In the meantime, they had been excommunicated from Judaism, and had nothing to lose by alienating Jews.
Strange then that we should be celebrating Jesus as a king today who became a victim of torture and extra-judicial capital punishment. But that’s really the point. I mean our faith tells us that Jesus was the kind of king who reigns in the Kingdom of God where everything is turned upside-down. Jesus’ kingdom, God’s Kingdom, is truly not of this world. For instance, Jesus says, its citizens don’t respond to violence the way empire or the kingdoms of this world do. Its ethic is not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Or as Jesus put it, “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over . . . .“ No, in the Kingdom of God non-violence reigns. And in his behavior before Pilate, Jesus himself shows the way.
As for the personal character of Jesus’ kingship . . . God’s head of state is not what at all what the world expected. In the eyes of Roman imperialists, Jesus represented the dregs of humanity. He was a Jew – a people the Romans despised. He was poor and probably illiterate. He was unemployed and traveled about with slackers who had given up gainful employment. At least one of his companions (Simon the Zealot) was a self-declared insurrectionist. Jesus was known as a glutton, drunkard and companion of sex workers. And he was irreligious. The holy men of his own people had excommunicated him and accused him of being possessed by the devil. Some king indeed!
And yet, according to today’s first reading from the Book of Daniel, this king as “Son of Man” will stand in judgment over all the world’s empires from the Egyptians to the Romans and beyond. According to today’s reading from Hebrews, Jesus’ blood is his “Red Badge of Courage.” It will be his ID card when he returns to judge and destroy the empires that routinely kill people like him. Paradoxically however, what destroys the empires in question is Jesus’ non-violence, his refusal to name names, his followers’ refusal to employ violence even to save their king, his own acceptance of death rather than retaliate.
What a mystery that is! And how difficult it is for us to accept and live by Jesus’ radical non-violence. We so believe in violence, force, guns, and bombs. However until we accept non-violence, we will, like everyone else, continue making this world a version of hell rather than of God’s kingdom.
How can we reverse our belief in violence and embrace Jesus’ alternative? What does non-violence look like in our families, in the workplace, in politics and economics?