by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
“What is truth?” (Jn 18: 38) One of the most famous questions in history was uttered by an exasperated Pontius Pilate during his interrogation of Jesus.
This whole affair of the Jewish leaders hauling Jesus before Pilate for a judgment
must have, at first, seemed to him to be just a colossal nuisance. Pilate recognizes that the Jewish leaders have whipped up some trumped-up charges against Jesus.
On several occasions during the “trial,” Pilate tells the Jewish authorities that he does not find Jesus to be guilty of anything that would warrant crucifixion. He does not want to participate in the condemnation of an innocent man, especially after his wife has warned him: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him” (Mt 27: 19).
Pilate is looking for a way out, a way to satisfy the crowd and not condemn an innocent man. He is delighted when he finds out that Jesus is a Galilean and therefore under the jurisdiction of Herod. Pilate happily sends Jesus and the mob over to Herod, hoping that he will settle the matter.
Herod is interested in Jesus because he has heard of his reputation and wants to see him work some wonder. When Jesus only responds with silence to Herod’s questions and requests for a miracle, Herod promptly sends Jesus back to Pilate (Lk 23: 6-12).
Having failed in his effort to pawn off on Herod the responsibility for judging Jesus, Pilate still seems confident that through his own cleverness he will be able to finesse the situation. Pilate thinks that he has discovered the perfect face-saving solution in the custom of the Roman governor releasing a prisoner in honor of the great Jewish feast of Passover.
Yet, the Jewish leaders incite the crowd to call for amnesty for Barabbas, an insurrectionist and murderer, rather than the release of Jesus.
The trial scenes describe an amazing spectacle. The Jewish leaders are depicted as manufacturing false evidence to condemn Jesus. When Pilate recognizes their treachery and tries to free Jesus, they incite the mob to intimidate Pilate by screaming for the execution of Jesus.
Next, Pilate has Jesus flogged and publicly humiliated, anxiously hoping that this will satisfy the angry mob. Finally, the Jewish leaders find Pilate’s vulnerability. They threaten to accuse Pilate of failing to uphold Caesar by not executing one who claims to be a rival king. Pilate realizes now that he is impotent to alter the desire of the crowd for the crucifixion of Jesus.
He acquiesces to the mob’s desires and authorizes the crucifixion of Jesus, while still trying to disassociate himself from what he knows to be a grave injustice. Pilate makes one of the most famous and pathetic gestures in history — publicly washing his hands — in an effort to absolve himself of any responsibility for the death of Jesus.
Pilate has all the authority of the Roman Empire behind him, yet he appears weak and vacillating. Pilate is described as feverishly seeking a way out from crucifying an innocent man, while Jesus remains serene in the midst of all the false accusations and cruel insults hurled against him.
It is noteworthy that the one released by Pilate, instead of Jesus, is a revolutionary who committed murder in his efforts to overthrow the Roman oppressors. In a sense, Barabbas represents what so many were looking for in a messiah — a political and military leader who would restore Jewish independence and dominance in the region.
This is particularly apt for us during this election year. While we have a responsibility as Christians to be active participants in our democratic society by being knowledgeable voters whose choices in the voting booth are shaped by the principles of the Gospel, we are foolish if we place our ultimate hope for our nation and world in any political leader or political party.
In some ways, the trial scenes repeat the temptations the devil posed to Jesus at the very beginning of his earthly ministry. If Jesus had consented to entertain Herod with a couple of cheap miracles misusing his power, he probably could have gained his freedom. Or if he simply denied his identity as the Son of God and deferentially paid homage to the Jewish or Roman authorities, Jesus could have saved his own life.
However, the mission that the Father had given Jesus was not about saving his own life in this world. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, our Lord replies: “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (Jn 18: 36). Jesus rejects the notion of being an earthly king and then goes on to describe his actual mission: “For this I was born and for this I came into this world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (Jn 18: 37).
The trial of Jesus before Pilate invites us to ponder to what and to whom have we given our allegiance.
Do we believe our happiness is dependent upon material things, financial security, being well thought of by others, and/or the strength, independence and prosperity of our nation?
Or do we know our happiness to be in the truth of who we are through Jesus — beloved sons and daughters of our heavenly Father?
Do we belong to the truth and make our first priority listening to the voice of the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life? Or are we confused, like Pilate, asking: What is truth?