John 18: 28-40 3-11-18 ACCUCC Rev. Tony Clark
“What is the truth?”
This is a sermon about politics. It is a sermon about power and propaganda and their use in the political realm. This sermon may be impolite.
I know that some of you do not like politics to invade my preaching, so let me tell you what this sermon is not. It is not about the separation of church and state, because that wasn’t a thing back then. It is not a sermon about the balance of powers between an executive, legislative and judicial branch of government, because that wasn’t a thing. This is not a sermon about the lack of unity in a representative government, because that wasn’t a thing. In short, this is not a sermon about today.
Unless you hear it that way.
Pontius Pilate was neither good, nor empathetic, nor particularly wise. He was a powerful man. Pontius Pilate was a political appointee by the Emperor Tiberius to the office of Prefect of the region of Judea; he was appointed about 4 years before Jesus began his ministry; he served about 11 years, until some 4 years after Jesus died.
Pilate lived in and ruled from Caesarea Maritima, the coastal capital of Judea, about 70 miles away from Jerusalem. Caesarea was an engineering marvel, developed from an old fishing port by Herod the Great around the time of Jesus’ birth. It boasted a harbor rivaling Alexandria and Athens in an area with no natural harbor, constructed of cement made of quarried lava and lime. Soaring over the harbor was an enormous stadium, and an even more enormous palace, in which the Prefect, Pontius Pilate lived and ruled the region. Someone had to quarry the stone and the lime, build the forms for the cement under water, carry the stone, and someone had to pay for it. Actually many someones did the labor and paid the exorbitant taxes-- the people, the peasants, who lost limb, life, and livelihood to build the infrastructure that maintained a tariff free zone and a peace called Pax Romana.
Pilate was incredibly insensitive to the people he ruled. He bumbled his way through Jewish festivities and rituals, offended the Jews by bringing engraved images of the Emperor into the city of Jerusalem at night, and, ordered symbols of Roman power to be erected at the Jerusalem Temple. He said that anyone who did not worship the Emperor would be killed. When the Jews protested, saying they would rather die than desecrate the laws of Moses, Pilate barely averted a crisis by backing down on the death penalty.
Pilate was known as a harsh ruler, At the end of his reign, Pilate was recalled to Rome by the Emperor for violence against faithful Samarians. The story goes that Pilate and his people claimed that an archeological relic of Moses had been found at the holy site of Mt. Gerazim, and when the faithful flocked to the site for worship, he ordered his military to surround them and slaughter them. For this Emperor Tiberius recalled him to Rome, and he was exiled and ordered to kill himself after his own trial.
As Prefect, Pilate represented the Emperor with all power in the region. He oversaw the collection of taxes, was in charge of a military unit of about 3000 men, and had judiciary power in concerns of the Emperor. He oversaw the trials of traitors—those accused of treason against the Empire. He was the Internal Revenue Service, Governor, and Supreme Court of the land. Although the local Jerusalem court, called the Sanhedrin, was relatively independent of Pontius Pilate; the High Priest who oversaw the Sanhedrin was appointed by the prefect. The High Priest Caiaphus, who interrogated Jesus just after his arrest and turned him over to Pilate, was appointed by the Prefect who proceeded Pilate.
Pilate was prone to be persuaded by propaganda, and Caiaphus played on Pilate’s personality and hunger for power. Pilate was in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, the holy day in which Jews celebrated their ancestors overthrowing an oppressive ruler. Pilate recognized that Jews could compare the harsh treatment by the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh and the current Roman Emperor.
Pilate was primed for a fight--predictions of this Passover included violence. He left his tower in Caesarea Maritima, the financial and civic capital, and arrived in Jerusalem, the center of the faith of the people he ruled. He came with his own National Guard to “keep the peace” and squelch any violence aimed at the state, marching into the city in the glory of a military parade, with banners a horses and rows of high stepping saluting men carrying arms.
The next morning, when Pilate awoke, he received the news from his favorite source, a perpetrator of propaganda partial to Rome, a babbling morning news source that reported there were protestors outside his hotel. The riotous rabble was awaiting a decision about a heretical rabbi who had been arrested overnight. The propaganda continued that the rabbi, named Jesus, had been arrested for calling himself the King of the Jews; he had been questioned for his religious teachings, and he was brought to Pilate not only as a heretic but as a traitor.
Caiaphus, or one of his representatives, whispered the propaganda to the most powerful person in the land. He might just have reminded Pilate that tax evasion was treason, that Jesus had called tax collectors to leave their posts and follow Jesus.
Pilate questioned this rabbi, named Jesus, himself, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus, the smarter of the two, answered in true rabbinical form with another question, “Are you asking this on your own or did someone tell you this about me?” Pilate’s answer, that he was not a Jew, implied he did not know that much about Jewish customs and titles. Pilate told Jesus that Jesus was being accused by the High Priest, and then he asked him what he had done that was so bad that his trial was rushed and the case against him had to be heard before Passover festivities could even begin. Jesus said the most political thing he could, “My kingdom doesn’t belong to this world.”
In a world of Kings and Prefects, “My kingdom doesn’t belong to this world,” is a political statement. It is a statement of power of governance, of tax collection, of judicial activity. It is a statement delegitimizing the person in power and looking elsewhere for that leadership.
Pilate, at first, did not see anything wrong with this statement; it was a local problem not a national one. It was an internal problem within this bizarre faith that didn’t worship the emperor, had a silly spiritual law against graven images, and prayed to a God who blessed the poor, the weak, the elderly, the enslaved. Pilate knew that the only god of the realm, the Emperor Tiberius, blessed the wealthy, the powerful, the strong, and those who were loyal to him. Pilate wanted to be blessed by that god. There was one king, Tiberius, and Pilate was his local representative. This “King of the Jews” did not threaten him. The crime did not rise to the level of him.
It was when Jesus said, “I was born into this world to tell about the truth,” that Pilate began to wonder about the propaganda he had been fed. He wondered What was true? What was news? What was fake news? so he asked, “What is the truth?” Pilate began to wonder if trusted Caiaphus had an agenda. Perhaps Pilate pondered whether he had been played as a puppet to the propaganda machine. Who had the truth, this humble rabbi or Caiaphus?
Caiaphus and the other chief priests called for Jesus to be killed on the cross for claiming to be the King of the Jews. The crowd, stirred up by the propaganda of Caiaphus also joined in the cry to put Jesus to death and release Barabbas. Now Barabbas, barely a blip in this story, was a bauble, a pretty shiny thing dangled before the crowd to distract them; John wrote that he was a bandit, reminding us that bandits steel the attention of the sheep away from the calming voice of the Shepherd.
Pilate asked the people how he should decide. He sent out short statements, and small questions, and if he had had a Twitter account, these short bursts would have fit in the 140 characters. The crowd, in their mob mentality, took responsibility for Jesus’ death, and Pilate symbolically washed his hands of the affair. Pilate asked if they wanted him to nail their king to the cross, and the crowd cried, “There is only one king; the Emperor is our king.”
Jesus had said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” His kingdom, his political realm, is a place where life, not death, is truth. His kingdom was not focused on wealth and power and violence, but, rather, his political realm blessed the poor, the powerless, and the peacemakers. His kingdom did not rely on propaganda or fake news; it relied on relationships that built on the truth love. Jesus’ political statement was that this Kingdom from another realm built on love, not the kingdom of politics and propaganda and power, is the truth.
Claiming to be a citizen of that kingdom, rather than a party to the power and propaganda of this world, is a political action. May God protect all peoples who take the political stance of their faith, and may God protect peoples everywhere from propaganda, unexamined political power, and people like Pontius Pilate. Amen.