In the beginning

Column: Pilate’s wife’s dream underlines Jesus’ innocence

by Father Mike Stubbs

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion Mt 26:14 – 27:66

“Calpurnia here, my wife, stays me at home: She dreamt tonight she saw my statue, which like a fountain with an hundred spouts did run pure blood, and many lusty Romans came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.”

Thus reports Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play by the same name, Act 2, Scene 2. But Caesar ignores the warning and is assassinated.

Calpurnia’s warning bears an eerie resemblance to the warning that Pilate receives from his wife in Sunday’s Passion reading, Mt 26:14 – 27:66: “While he (Pilate) was still seated on the bench, his wife sent him a message, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.’” But once again, the person in authority ignores the warning, and Jesus is put to death.

Did Shakespeare imitate Matthew’s Gospel? Obviously, Shakespeare wrote at a later date. On the other hand, Shakespeare drew upon an ancient account of Caesar’s assassination by Dio Cassius, History 44.17.1. (I am indebted to Raymond Brown, author of “The Death of the Messiah,” for this information.) Dio Cassius wrote in the second century after Christ, after Matthew’s Gospel. Nonetheless, that does not necessarily mean that Matthew’s Gospel influenced Dio Cassius to write about a dream warning a woman of danger.

Worry can easily disrupt a person’s sleep. After an evening meeting of the parish council, I sometimes have trouble falling asleep, because of the issues turning over in my mind. Something similar could have happened both to Julius Caesar’s wife and to Pilate’s wife.

It is entirely plausible that Pilate’s wife knew about the decisions that her husband faced and was concerned about them. That concern could have led to interference with her sleep, and eventually to the report in Matthew’s Gospel, of her dream warning Pilate about a judgment of Jesus: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man.”

At the same time, the dream of Pilate’s wife continues a theme in Matthew’s Gospel: Dreams bear a divine message. Joseph learns in a dream that Mary’s pregnancy results from God’s will and not from a youthful indiscretion (Mt 1:20). The Magi receive a warning in a dream about Herod’s evil intentions toward the child Jesus (Mt 2:12). Joseph also receives a similar warning in a dream (Mt 2:13). Significantly, these dreams appear in Matthew’s Gospel only, and not in the other three Gospels.

In Matthew’s Gospel, dreams serve as an instrument for bringing a message from God to an individual. That appears to also be true in the case of Pilate’s wife.

What then, is the message?

“Have nothing to do with that righteous man.” The word “righteous” here means “innocent.” The dream’s message is ultimately intended for us, not for Pilate, who ignores it in any case. The dream emphasizes the innocence of Jesus, which Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, had already affirmed: “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”

Matthew’s Gospel draws our attention to Jesus’ innocence, because he dies on behalf of those who are guilty. According to Matthew, the Eucharist itself proclaims that belief about Jesus’ death: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we continue to proclaim that mystery.

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Fr. Mike Stubbs

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