Daily Herald

Pontius Pilate couldn’t wash the guilt from his own hands. None of us can

Ecce Homo (c 1860 - c 1880), by Antonio Ciseri

How often do we use politics only to get what we want rather than what is just and right?

Millions breathed a collective sigh of relief to learn that the relic of the crown of thorns was saved from Notre Dame de Paris. Where did it come from?

“And the soldiers,” St John the Evangelist explains, “platted a crown of thorns, and put it on His head, and they clothed Him with a purple robe. And they came to Him and said, Hail, King of the Jews! And they smote Him with their hands.” The chief priests cried “Crucify, crucify him!” (John 19).

Such was Jesus before Pontius Pilate in the end. Surely Pilate was well-acquainted with brutality, but the image of a man “so marred beyond human semblance”, as Isaiah’s prophecy has it, must have startled him. “Because of him kings will stand speechless” (Isaiah 52).

Perhaps he was still thinking about the silent answer that Jesus had given to his wondrous question, “What is Truth?” How often do we ask the Lord hard questions only to find them answered in the most unexpected way?

We find in Pontius Pilate an intellect capable of discerning what is just and unjust. He believes him to be innocent. But for the sake of peace, rather than justice, the prefect looked for a politically expedient way out. He seemed to fear the danger of social unrest as much as making an unjust judgment. Pilate almost begs Jesus to help him find a way out — does the innocent rabbi not understand that Rome has the power to kill him and the power to free him?

St John began his whole Gospel with St John the Baptist beholding “the Lamb of God”, and never misses a chance to stress that Jesus is the lamb being led to slaughter. And so we find Jesus telling Pilate that he would not have the power to kill him were it not granted to him by God. Rather than plead his innocence, Jesus does not resist the evil which is to happen to him. It is Friday morning, and the cock has already crowed.

Pilate still looks for ways to release Jesus. The high priests taunt him that if he does not carry out their demands then he is no friend of Caesar. How often do we use politics only to get what we want rather than what is just and right?

Against the Roman prefect’s just reluctance, the Sanhedrin protest that they are more loyal to Caesar than Pilate if he refuses to execute Jesus. It is sometimes enough to question a man’s loyalties, but in this case, Pilate returns the mockery by insisting that Jesus be judged not according to Roman law, but only according to the accusations of the priests, namely that Jesus had blasphemously claimed to be “king of the Jews”. In the end, Pilate does not allow Jesus’s accusers to stand aloof — yet neither can he wash the guilt from his own hands. None of us can.

When the Roman prefect of Judaea finally gave the order to crucify Jesus, perhaps he looked in silence upon the sacred head crowned with thorns.

This is the Friday we call “good” not because we have seen the crown of thorns, or its relic, but because we have beheld the man who was without sin, “pierced for offenses, crushed for our sins”, sins which cannot be washed off in the basins of cultural conscience, but only by the blood of the Lamb.