As Passover approached—a feast commemorating Jewish deliverance from bondage in Egypt—Pontius Pilate felt compelled to make a show of imperial strength and resolve. Lest the religious ceremonies at Jerusalem stir up any thoughts of a new political liberation, Pilate came to flex imperial muscle. With a little shock and awe, he came to Jerusalem to remind the Jews that their primary identification was as Roman subjects. They could celebrate their religious ceremonies just so long as they did not derive any political implications from them.
Their religious fervor must not translate into political fever.
On the other side of town, a political rival unknown to Pilate made his dramatic and (as told by the evangelists), highly symbolic entrance. Indeed, according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus came as Zion’s King, fulfilling the political prophecy of Zechariah. As he entered Jerusalem, his followers overwhelmingly hailed him as a rival King—a reminder to the Roman authorities that their subjects in this imperial backwater were not to be a docile lot, throwing down a warning of insurrection and renewed liberation. As the Feast of Passover neared, according to St. John’s account, senior leaders in Jerusalem’s politico-religious establishment were telling Pilate that their religious feast was in support of political action.
Something had to give.
The synoptic evangelists force the narrative and heighten the tension in the pivotal scene in which Jesus was asked whether it is lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar. He responds: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Does this imply that Caesar’s realm is co-equal to God’s; that Jesus’ followers should have similar loyalty to the political regime as to God? Or does it mean that the realms are radically separate—some things belonging to the political realm and others to the religious?
Or, rather than to try to resolve the ambivalence of Jesus’ words, ought we not rather take the ambiguity as the message?
Jesus’ “trial” before Pilate might suggest that the answer is “probably.” When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews, the synoptics all agree that Jesus’ response was nothing more than, “You have said so,” which might be paraphrased, “I neither affirm nor deny.” St. John, however, adds the words, “My kingdom is not of this world,” suggesting affirmation to the question, but limitation as to jurisdiction. If Jesus’ kingdom is otherworldly, what does it matter to me, thinks Pilate? Whatever Jesus’ response meant, Pilate did not think it amounted to treason, as he declared, “I find no guilt in Him.” Perhaps Pilate was a bit shortsighted, thinking that Jesus’ reference to another world had no immanent purpose or meaning. “What is truth,” after all?
In this, Pilate was likely as mistaken as both Jesus’ local opponents and supporters.
His adversaries could not see that his eschatological reference has immediate implications, subordinating political identification to religious truth, and thus delimiting the role of politics in their lives. So, they wanted him killed, to be replaced by an authentic political revolutionary.
His supporters similarly thought that his mission was to overthrow political oppression, but they were chagrined when he was put to death after a show trial featuring false accusations and an indifferent judge, more concerned with expediency than truth. So, their hopes died with Jesus.
The resurrection deepened rather than resolved the ambiguous relationship between political identity and Christian faith. Jesus did not send down hosts of angels to destroy the earthly regime and replace it with a new one. But he did declare that no political regime is capable of defeating his reign. And thus, he told his followers that we can neither reduce salvation to political terms nor primarily identify with any earthly city.
Our identity is defined by and ordered toward an eschatological reality; but that reality is not limited to some future time beyond time. The time beyond time orders our time here and now. The resurrection tells us that we are called neither to immanentize the eschaton nor to treat any semblance of order this side of celestial Jerusalem as though it were itself eschatological reality.
Rather, we are to seek to live God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven,” with all the tension that that entails.
Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, in Cincinnati.
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