Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Last Temptation of Christ: Jesus before Pilate

[After having Jesus flogged] Pilate entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.
’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.’
...So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’
--John 19:9-12, 16-22
"Behold the man!"
A few years ago, my family spent my college fund and we all went to Europe together. While we were in Lucerne, Switzerland, my parents and I took a trolley up Mount Pilatus, which overlooked the small city and dozens of connected lakes spread out like honeycomb over the landscape. Local folklore says the snowy mountain is home to a dragon. And it's also--according to legend--the final resting place of the ghost of Pontius Pilate.

I feel sorry for Pilate. He was the kind of guy who just kept screwing up. He was, in effect, the Marvin the Martian of Roman governors, his delusions of power and grandeur constantly blowing up in his face. Some scholars believe that he was sent to Judea by Caesar as a kind of "last chance" gig. According to Josephus, Pilate had a hard time keeping the Judeans under his thumb, and eventually lost the prefecture. After that, according to folklore, Pilate spent several years in short prefectures across the Roman Empire, eventually landing at a Roman base in Switzerland. A political failure, he ultimately committed suicide during the reign of Caligula.

I want to be careful not to make him into too much of a comical or tragic character. In reality, he was a prefect for one of the most powerful empires the world has ever known, and in all likelihood was a force for the local Jewish insurrectionists to reckon with. 

Which leads me to why I think Pilate's conversation with Jesus from Martin Scorsese's controversial 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, is so fascinating. The movie itself is one of my favorite films of all time, and this scene is one of my favorite scenes (hello: David Bowie). After watching the clip, there are two things I want to point out:

"What is Truth?"
1) I love Jesus's interpretation of Daniel's prophecy. Rome is the statue, Jesus is the stone. Now, this particular retelling takes the story out of context, but the sentiment is the same. In the Old Testament text, the statue represents political powers of Daniel's time. The lesson that underlies this parable is a subversive one: as tall and impressive and strong as empire might appear, God is ultimately stronger. Even if God comes in the form of a tiny stone. Or a homeless rabbi peasant from the badlands of Galilee. All kingdoms crumble, eventually. To Pilate, Jesus is a threat to the established order, the institution of Rome. Pilate is only concerned with the Jews inasmuch as the fact that he doesn't want to have a riot on his hands. He even points out the fact that he doesn't really care about the accusations of blasphemy against him: "I am not a Jew, am I?" he taunts Jesus in the gospel of John. Pilate's primary concern is for Rome. And in early first century Palestine, violent, zealous messiahs were climbing out of the woodwork like cockroaches by the hundreds in various attempts to overthrow the local Roman rule. These messiahs wanted their nation back. 
...and yet, Jesus was somehow different.

2) Jesus: "All I'm saying is that change will happen with love, not with killing."

Pilate: "Either way, it's dangerous; It's against Rome. It's against the way the world is. Whether loving or killing, it's all the same. It simply doesn't matter how you want to change things--we don't want them changed."

This conversation highlights the very reason every prophet who has ever lived--at least, the good ones, anyway--has been a failure. All of them, with the exception of Jonah, and even he wasn't happy about it. Jeremiah. Amos. Hosea. Just look at their prophecies: "Change your hearts, turn to Yahweh, and you will be saved." But people don't want to change. They didn't then, and we don't want to now. No matter how passionately we plead, no matter how resolved we are in our convictions, people don't listen. Very astute of you, David Bowie. 

In the comments below, feel free to discuss the big changes that you believe need to be made within the Church as a whole in order to carry on the gospel of Jesus. Then, perhaps, reflect upon the notion that you will very likely fail to bring these changes within your own lifetime. How does that make you feel? Is it the actual change God desires of us, or simply the courage to face our own defeat?

God give us strength. 
For the times when we feel like we are screaming to deaf ears from the mountaintops,
give us courage.
For the times when we are alone and crippled with despair, 
give us peace.
O God, in these final days of Holy Week, we pray that you might show us the light of hope among darkness, 
whether the darkness of unrelenting, uncompromising politics,
the darkness of abuse--emotional, physical, mental--
or the darkness of hate or fear or pride or selfishness.
God, we ask your forgiveness, and your restoration.
We ask for truth.

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