Read the Procession of Palms text here: Matthew 21:1-11
Read the Passion text here: Matthew 26:14-27:66
Who Is This and What Is Going On Here?
Pontius Pilate, Roman Prefect of Judea
This weekend we enter into the Passion of our Lord. This is the most important week of the year for those who are disciples of Jesus. For the love and commitment of God to the creation and to us, who are God’s beloved children, is put on display in ways that are both profound and overwhelming. But at the same time it is a bit baffling because throughout his ministry and especially during the story of the passion what emerges as important, and essential for Jesus (and for God) is in direct conflict with those things that we humans have determined are essential and important for us. This is starkly obvious when the events of the Passion and Jesus’ actions are compared and contrasted with those of various other characters in the story.
So beginning on this weekend when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and we begin to make the shift to the Passion, and then continuing through our remembrances of the events of the Passion on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday we are going to focus on comparing Jesus’ attitudes, teachings and actions with the assumptions and actions of three primary characters in the story: Pontius Pilate (Palm Sunday) – the disciple Simon Peter (Maundy Thursday) – and the disciple Judas Iscariot (Good Friday).
Pontius Pilate – the Prefect or Governor of Judea. Not a whole lot is known about who Pilate was before and after his term as Prefect for Judea. But there are a few things that can be said. It appears that Pilate was from the north of Italy, a descendent of a tribe that held out against Rome for sometime early in the period of Roman expansion. Eventually however, they were conquered and integrated into Roman life. In order to have had a successful aristocratic life (and Pilate was a Roman aristocrat, even if he was a 2nd level aristocrat) he would have needed two things: 1. A Classical education – which he undoubtedly received; and 2. A Patron – and there is every indication that he had the patronage of a notoriously powerful and important official who was close to Emperor Tiberius. With these two things Pilate was able to secure an appointment as an officer in the army and certainly spent several years on various campaigns as he moved up the ranks. Just from his actions in Judea it is obvious that Pilate was always more of a military officer than a diplomat. He must have done well because then the Emperor himself appointed him to the post of Prefect of Judea.
The job of the Prefect was like being a sub-governor, he was under the authority of the Governor of Syria, but for the first 5 years of his appointment the Governor of Syria engaged in a conflict with the Emperor and was detained in Rome until that was resolved. So Pilate was on his own and he wasted no time letting people know who was in charge. Now as Prefect, Pilate’s job was NOT to Romanize the population, it was really more pedestrian than that. His job was three-fold: he was to collect taxes, to secure trades routes and to keep the peace. And the last one there was probably the most challenging part of the job. For no matter what he did the people of Judea hated him, and it appears that the feeling was mutual. But as brutal as he could be he still was a remarkably calculating man, who carefully nurtured his relationship with the High Priest Joseph Caiaphas and allowed the Temple officials a fair amount of autonomy. And Pilate had another challenge – he had to keep a tight reign on his own troops, the Roman Legions under his command. These troops would have all been from outside of Judea and they way too often got out of control and did things that sparked trouble. Pilate at times had to harshly punish his own troops to maintain order. You might say that being the Prefect of Judea was like learning to walk a tight rope.
Which brings us to this day, the beginning of the week of Passover. And on this day the Governor would be making one of his few trips to Jerusalem. Normally he lived in the coastal seaside resort city of Caesarea where he had a beautiful seaside residence. Kind of like living on a beautiful resort on the Florida coast. No wonder he hated coming to Jerusalem, not to mention that the city was also the center of anti-Roman hate and trouble. Everything came together in Jerusalem. And, no surprise, when he came he brought all of his legions. He dare not travel alone or with only a small guard. He would have entered into the city on that Sunday with the full strength of the Roman garrison from Caesarea. All of the troops would have been mounted on horseback; with banners waving and standards held high; they would have put on a show of force. For his part it is well known that Pilate preferred to dress in his military uniform, with full battle armor. This tall and strong Roman official in the prime of his life would have been a formidable sight as he entered into Jerusalem mounted on his steed surrounded by his troops. The armor of these troops would have glistened in the sunlight, the sound of the horses hoofs would have been deafening. I suspect there was little cheering, but people probably lined the streets, and looked out of the windows in silence and fear as they watched this show of force For this entrance would have left no question about where the power lay and who was in charge: Pax Romana = The Peace of Rome = might makes right = Peace established by violence or the threat of violence. Do not cross us!
On the other side of the city another entrance was taking place at roughly the same time as the Governor’s entrance. A Rabbi, a teacher from the Galilee had arrived and his followers and disciples had cut off some palm branches and were spreading their garments on the road encouraging the bewildered locals to join in the cheering and celebration. Hosanna in the Highest they cried – Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. The contrast with the other procession could not be greater – Jesus is mounted on a donkey, there is no armor or weapons, there is cheering and celebration at least from the group of Jesus’ disciples and followers in contrast to the fearful silence of the other. But Jesus also brings the promise of peace: Shalom – perfect well-being – unity with God and within God’s human family brought together in love. Peace, not through force or threat or violence – but through love and grace.
From there the events escalate and eventually these two world collide as Jesus is eventually early Friday morning brought before this Roman Governor. Jesus – who’s name means God’s saves face to face with a man named Pilate, a name which mean one who is master of the lethal weapon the javelin; The power and strength of the Empire facing off against the powerlessness and weakness of the Kingdom of Heaven. Despite the efforts of many in the early centuries of the church to exonerate Pilate and make him into someone who has his hands tied and essentially is tricked into condemning Jesus, make no mistake Pilate was the power and he would not have balked at condemning yet another peasant rabble-rouser to crucifixion. No matter how much the situation is set up by the Sanhedrin or how much Pilate might have been intrigued by this Rabbi Jesus (and the Gospels differ in their accounts of all of this) – make no mistake - the final word is with Pilate and he would not have waffled – this was after all, his job. Indeed he had been there, done that many times before.
See these two men standing in that judgment hall eye to eye. Pilate in his military uniform and Jesus who is almost stripped naked. Pilate is the opposite of everything Jesus stands for: power, wealth, prestige and position were attained and maintained by Roman violence, and by the subjugation and humiliation of others. Power was the primary value. But not for Jesus – Jesus stood for love and grace – forgiveness – acceptance of all – peace – non-violence. Pilate represented strength – power through strength; Jesus embodied weakness – perfect strength comes through weakness. Jesus’s teachings would have been impossible for Pilate to comprehend, no wonder his famous question is remembered today: “What is truth?”
The truth as embodied by Jesus is no less perplexing to us today – for the truth of Jesus is found in the weakness of the cross. For in the cross we see perfect and overwhelming love; in the cross we see complete unconditional forgiveness; in the cross we see Jesus’ arms stretched wide open to receive us – all of us - in love and grace; in the cross we are restored to unity with God and with each other; in the cross we have peace/shalom; in the cross is our calling to live lives which reflect this love and grace; to embrace weakness and non-violence; to give up the pursuit of power and status and wealth; to open our hearts and lives to all people!
In the cross is abundant life!
In the name of the Father, the Son+ and the Holy Spirit.