Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. (John 18:33-38)
When in the early morning hours Jesus is led before Pilate by a party of his accusers, the representative of imperial Rome does not appear eager to receive them. As John’s Gospel tells it, Pilate first tries to have Jesus sent back to the High Priest and the council. “Take him yourselves,” he says to those who have brought Jesus, “and judge him according to your own law.” For Pilate, Jesus’ case is a strictly religious matter and so not his concern. The reply, however, is immediate: “We are not allowed to put anyone to death.” All at once, Jesus stands there condemned in the starkest of terms, his fate cast into Pilate’s hands. What follows, as Jesus appears now alone before his reluctant judge, is a dialogue unique in the Gospels.
Pilate begins his interrogation with a direct question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answers with another question: “Is it you who are asking this, or have others told you about me?” While apparently evasive, Jesus’ response is in fact deeply probing. We might paraphrase it in this manner: in what way is Pilate going to engage with Jesus? Will he ask his own questions or else just repeat the questions of others?
Pilate replies objectively, but with a certain distance. “I am not a Jew, am I; it is your own people who have handed you over.” Then he poses a further question, “What have you done?” Here again Jesus’ reponse could seem evasive, confusing even: “My kingdom is not from this world,” he begins. Jesus’ words introduce into the scene a totally different way of seeing. If Pilate represents Ceasar and his empire, then Jesus too, even as he stands there alone before his judge, embodies a kingdom, one which is very different, however, from Pilate’s. Jesus points out something so obvious that it might not be noticed: no one is struggling to keep Jesus from being handed over, neither the disciples nor Jesus himself. Brute force, constraint, violence are all foreign to Jesus and his kingdom. They do not bring God’s presence to bear in the world. To put this in positive terms: the power of Jesus’ kingdom is defenseless love. In this way he is indeed King.
At this point, a new word—truth—is brought into the dialogue. “I have come,” Jesus says, “to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” No sooner has Pilate replied—“What is truth?”—then he steps outside to address the gathering crowd. What is going on in Pilate’s mind? His hurried exit after asking such a question would seem to betray exasperation more than anything else, but then he tells the crowd he has found nothing against Jesus. Will he be able to take up the dialogue from where they have left off? Events, however, quickly take a turn for the worse. When Pilate returns, apparently shaken by his exchange with the crowd, he orders that Jesus be flogged. The soldiers then ridicule Jesus by placing on his head a crown of thorns. A step has been taken. A door has been opened and the inexorable logic of torture and derision has entered.
What kind of a man do you think Pilate was? How would you describe the way he interacts with Jesus?
What does the passage tell us about Jesus? What does it tell us about truth and the way we engage with it?