Summary: Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ’Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ’Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ’I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief
Welcome to the last Sunday of the Christian year - a day traditionally referred to as the feast of ’Christ the King’.
I appreciate that there are probably not many here that manage their schedule according to the ecclesiastical calendar, yet I’m sure w are all familiar with the way in which different countries and cultures celebrate the New Year at a different times. Culturally we celebrate New Year on January 1st, whereas Chinese New Year is celebrated at a completely different time, and the church New Year is celebrated next Sunday, which means that this Sunday is the last Sunday of the old ecclesiastical year - a day when, traditionally, we remember the kingship of Christ.
Now, I say ’traditionally’, but it’s actually only a tradition that goes back some 80-odd years - to 1925, when the feast day was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX.
1925 was a very interesting time for our world. We had only just emerged from the war to end all wars, and the signs were everywhere that it was hurtling towards another. We were in the grip of a worldwide economic depression, and desperately looking for answers.
And of course there were some outspoken leaders who believed that they had answers to those questions. One was the Italian leader, Mussolini, who had just celebrated his third year in office. Another was a young rabble-rouser by the name of Adolf Hitler, who had been out of gaol for a year by that stage, and whose Nazi party was rapidly growing in popularity across Germany.
The world was watching, waiting for answers, and listening to these powerful men competing for the limelight, and so the then Pope felt that it was time to remind Christian people everywhere that our allegiance is to Christ and not to any of these worldly rulers.
And so we have ’Christ the King’ Sunday, and so we are presented with this Gospel reading too - an excerpt from the dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate which I guess is meant to tell us something about the way Christ interfaces with the power-players of this world.
"Are you a king?", Pilate asks of Jesus. "I’m not that sort of king", says Jesus. "I came to bear witness to the truth". "Hah!", says Pilate. "What is truth?"
That’s the heart of the dialogue, I would suggest, and it reflects the vast gulf that lay between Jesus and Pilate.
Pilate had an agenda, and you don’t need to have a doctorate in Ancient Near Eastern history to work out what Pilate’s agenda was. Pilate’s agenda (and indeed his whole life) was about getting hold of and maintaining power.
"Are you a threat?’ he asks Jesus, because he’s been told that Jesus is a player, a competitor, a political power-monger in his own right.. "I’m not that sort of king" says Jesus. My Kingdom has to do with truth and not power, He says. And Pilate immediately loses interest. He is out the door, saying to Jesus’ accusers, ’I’ve finished with your king. You can have Him back.’
The important thing to realise with this dialogue, I’d suggest, is that Jesus and Pilate really had absolutely nothing to say to each other.
Christians have often made the false assumption that the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate was somehow meaningful and that Pilate must have at least come out of it with a lot to think about. Indeed, there were stories circulating at one point in Christian history that Pilate and his wife became secret converts after this conversation, quietly won over by the words of truth that Jesus spoke to them. This is almost certainly complete rubbish.
Most likely is that Pilate learnt absolutely nothing from Jesus that day as Jesus had absolutely nothing to offer Pilate that was of any value to him.
Now, admittedly, we do see Pilate making an effort to release Jesus, and it may be tempting to assume that this was because Pilate was somehow touched by Jesus’ innocence, but when you look at Pilate’s broader history of dirty deeds and mass violence, it would have been out of character for him to have tried to free Jesus out of any pious concern for justice.
Far more likely is that any attempt Pilate made to free Jesus was more a by-product of either his sincere dislike of the Jewish leaders, such that he would have loved to have annoyed them by leaving Jesus as a thorn in their side, or that it was because of some superstitious fear that he held, such that harming Jesus might have caused him harm - a belief that could well have been based on a dream that we are told Pilate’s wife had.
Read the dialogue: Pilate asks very little of Jesus because Pilate has nothing to gain from Jesus, and conversely Jesus has little to say to Pilate because Pilate has nothing to offer Him that He values.