Pilate took a sip from his goblet and looked out over the early morning skyline.
“Nerves on edge, sir?” his aide asked.
“I’m always on edge when these Jews have a holy day of some kind and all flock into Jerusalem. And the captain was saying there was some affair last night, a small mob headed to and from the Garden of Gethsemane. You never know when trouble’s brewing when they put their heads together. They’re such a troublesome lot at best, next to impossible to govern.”
“It’s that combination of nationalistic pride and religion, I believe,” said the aide. “They think they’re right next to God and the rest of us have no right to set foot on their holy ground.”
Pilate took another drink and looked into his goblet, frowning. “Grapes were sour that year. Must not have had enough rain.”
“Just toss it. I have a servant bring you something better.”
“No. Maybe the tartness will keep me on my toes.”
He swirled the wine in his goblet. “Anyway, I’ll say a definite yes, to that religious part. They have that long history of how their God fought for them and made them a powerful nation. Now every Jew carries this burning fire in his breast, a seething resentment of any outside authority coupled with a hope that at any moment their God will again send a conquering hero to deliver them. This nation is a tinderbox just waiting for the right match.”
He paused, listening. “Are you hearing some rumblings from the city?”
The aide listened a moment, then nodded.
The two men stood in silence as a far-off murmuring grew louder by the minute. Pilate frowned, banging his goblet down on the table. “Now what?”
His aide glanced out a window. “Looks like the mob is coming this way now.”
“Help us, Caesar! Yes, it does. Take a message to the captain: I want all soldiers on alert.” He looked out the window at what was very definitely a mob approaching the palace. What an uproar, but he saw no evidence of weapons.
Now they were calling for him to come out and talk to them. Of course they wouldn’t set foot in his palace because they’d be defiled. A Gentile, they called him; he was a swine in their eyes in spite of all his authority – which they resented fiercely. Oh, those Jews!
What a racket. This better not be some trivial tiff again. He sighed and stepped outside. “What’s the problem?”
A man was pushed forward as they shouted this and that about this rebel, destroying the temple, deserving of death. Pilate held up both his hands and the voices died down.
Several of the Jewish leaders stepped forward from the crowd. “Most excellent Pilate, this man is worthy of death. We only need you to okay the sentence.”
“Oh, that’s all?” Pilate laced his reply with heavy sarcasm.
He examined the man standing before him; the fellow had the appearance of a sailor tossed on a stormy sea all night, weary in body and soul. Yet there was a commendable calmness about him. None of the desperate plea for mercy, the grovelling he’d seen in others as they stood before him, nor the anger and uplifted-chin defiance of a rebel.
“Who is he and what has he done?” Pilate looked sternly at the man, hoping to see him squirm, but the eyes that looked back at him were confident. He made Pilate think of some generals as they faced a battle, knowing what Rome required of them and resolved to perform their duty, come what may.
“This is Jesus of Nazareth and he’s carrying on in defiance of all our laws.”
Now the light went on. Pilate had heard of this man. He’d heard that this Jesus was a thorn in the flesh of the Jewish leaders and he could well see the truth of that as he looked into their enraged faces. All the while this Jesus just stood there calmly; he denied nothing; he didn’t show any of the defiance toward his accusers that most men would.
“So why have you brought him to me? If this is a matter of your religious laws, can’t you see to it yourselves?”
There followed such a cacophony, such an eruption of indignant accusations, that he couldn’t make heads or tails of the actual problem. “Quit your blabbering,” he shouted to the mob. “One at a time.”
“This Jesus is teaching sedition. He’s threatening to overthrow Rome. His followers want to set him up as king.”
“How many followers does he have?”
“Thousands. The whole city has gone after him!”
“But how many armed men?” Pilate demanded. He’d heard this Jesus had a small following, but nothing that alarmed his captains. In fact some of them had even gone to hear Jesus speak and reported that he was quite harmless.
“Well… He has twelve men ready to carry out his every order.”
“Twelve men?” Pilate scoffed. “Don’t you think Rome can defend itself against twelve men?”
Another shouted, “He’s threatened to tear down our magnificent temple. Says he can raise it up in three days. We can’t have someone like this running around; he causes trouble everywhere he goes.”
Yea, right. Pilate thought.
“The people all think he’s a prophet. If you allow him to live, sooner or later he’ll stir them up against Roman rule and you’ll have a rebellion on your hands. He’s worthy of death according to our laws and a constant threat to Rome.”
“But of course we didn’t want to go ahead and stone him without your consent as representative of Roman authority, most noble Pilate,” another priest added.
Nice of you to care about me, Pilate thought to himself. When did this wonderful change come about?
The longer he listened the more of a dilemma he faced, especially after he talked with the teacher Himself. In spite of these accusations of treason, Pilate had enough sense – and saw enough sign of sense in Jesus – to realize he was innocent and sane. He realized the Jews were acting more out of spite than right. Some were yelling this, some that, but they had no solid evidence to prove Jesus merited the death penalty. He doubted Jesus could – or even would– lead a revolt.
Pilate looked heavenward and wished for deliverance himself. If he gave the crucifixion order, he’d be pandering to the Jewish leaders. He hated that thought. And it went against his own sense of justice to put an innocent man to death.
The purity he saw in Jesus’ face and the serenity of his responses indicated this man was just a religious teacher who grated on these priests. What he’d already heard of Jesus was obviously true: reproving the Jewish religious leaders for their corruption and hypocrisy was the only “treason” Pilate could see. How well he knew that if these leaders believed someone could lead a successful rebellion against Rome, they’d be right behind him.
But if he didn’t cede to their demand now, what kind of uproar might ensue. How many of his own soldiers would be wounded or even killed? What accusations would these leaders carry to Caesar about the way he handled this affair? What was one man’s life worth?
Pilate tried another tactic. He’d offer to release one prisoner as was his custom – like maybe this teacher. That should nudge their own sense of justice. Jesus wasn’t guilty of any crime; in their own hearts these Jews could see that as well as he did.
“Shall I release to you the prisoner of your choice as I usually do? I could pardon this man and let him go free.” He watched them hash the question over and he wondered, Can’t you just swallow your pride and get over this? Does he really have to die to satisfy you?
“No way,” they answered, poking at Pilate’s political position. “If you don’t do something about this rebel, you’re no friend of Caesar.” Pilate heard the threat.
Then, to top it all, they turned around and demanded the release of an insurrectionist – and a murderer to boot. So much they cared about Caesar and Roman law and order.
Pilate called for a basin of water and before the crowd assembled he washed his hands of the matter. “I find him innocent. If you want him put to death, okay, but this is your doing, not mine.” He nodded to the captain of the guard, who stepped forward and led Jesus away to be crucified.
Pilate’s decision – and Jesus’ subsequent death – reverberates all through history. Neither Pilate nor the Jews saw the bigger picture: the spiritual battle being fought, the victory being won over the forces of evil.
There have always been – and still are today – people standing in Pilate’s shoes, facing the decision of what to do with Jesus. They weigh the consequences and decide it’s too much of a gamble; they’d best wash their hands of the matter and go back into their comfortable palace.