by Father Mike Stubbs
When I was studying in the seminary and preparing for the priesthood, we were required to take the finals for one third of our classes as oral exams. Since the final counted as the total grade for the course, the process could be fairly intimidating. Your fate could be decided in five minutes.
One professor in particular stood out for his approach in conducting an oral exam. He would begin with relatively easy questions, like an eagle lazily circling over a potential target. Then he could dive in for the kill with a question that struck at the heart of the matter. As I said, your fate could be decided in five minutes.
This Sunday we celebrate the solemnity of Christ the King. In the Gospel reading, Jn 18:33b-37, we overhear an interrogation with far more serious consequences than a university oral exam. Pontius Pilate is questioning Jesus. This is the trial that will lead to a sentence of death for Jesus.
On the surface, it may sound like a typical cross-examination of a prisoner. The pivotal question that Pilate asks Jesus — “Are you the king of the Jews?” — also appears in the other three Gospels: Mt 27:11; Mk 15:2; Lk 23:3. At the same time, John’s Gospel goes on to include a dialogue between Pilate and Jesus not found in the other Gospels. That dialogue constitutes our Gospel reading for Sunday.
The exchange between Pilate and Jesus explores the nature of the kingdom that belongs to Jesus. It goes deeper: “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” In that respect, this resembles other dialogues in John’s Gospel. We might remember the conversation that takes place between Jesus and Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-22), the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:7- 26), and the conversation between Jesus and Martha (Jn 11:21-27).
These dialogues are characteristic of John’s Gospel and are not found in the other Gospels. They are not occasions for casual chitchat. Instead, they provide the person speaking with Jesus an opportunity for spiritual growth and deeper understanding. It is a way to develop their relationship with God. After all, it is an encounter with the Son of God. And we who overhear the conversation can also benefit in the same way.
Unfortunately, Pilate does not take advantage of that opportunity. He wants to control the direction of their conversation, to take the lead. But he fails. The responses that Jesus supplies to Pilate’s questions set the tone for their conversation. Jesus remains in control. After all, he is the king. That is obvious throughout the passion account in John’s Gospel. This is also true here, in this dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. That is why we honor Christ as the king.