The power of imperial Rome must have been an awesome thing. In today’s gospel passage we see that power stand in the presence of a power so great that, even in its meekest expression, Rome appears as its subject.
An Imbalance of Power in the Praetorium
This Sunday marks the end of the liturgical year in the Catholic Church. The beginning of a New Year, heralded by Advent, is around the corner. This means, this Sunday, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Our passage for the day is taken from John 18:33-37. It’s the story of the pivotal encounter between Pilate, the governor of the Roman province of Judaea, and Jesus.
The previous night, Judas had come with soldiers and guards from the high priest’s retinue. They arrested Jesus. They brought him before the former high priest, Annas, then to the current high priest, Caiaphas. Each in turn sent Jesus on to a higher authority to be judged. Thus, Jesus is sent before Pontius Pilate, the governor of the region. Pilate is known to secular history. He served under Emperor Tiberius from the year 26 to 37 AD. He stands before Jesus, invested with all the power of the Roman state.
We see today, in John’s gospel account, the encounter between Jesus and Pilate. The text does not give us specific details as to the charge the high priests have levied against Jesus. It is only clear that he merits, in their view, the penalty of death. Only the Roman state had the power to put someone to death, thus it was that the high priests sent Jesus to be judged by, Pilate, the Roman governor.
This much we understand from the text.
Now Pilate enters the scene. We can imagine that he is puzzled. The high priests have brought before him, early on a Friday morning, a taciturn and peaceful looking man, who has clearly been beaten and roughed up by guards the night before. This man, they say, deserves death.
Pilate inquires. He attempts to understand. We don’t’ know just how earnest his inquiries are. Perhaps he was bored. Perhaps he was annoyed that he had to be dealing with a case like this early in the morning. Perhaps he had heard stories about Jesus and was intrigued.
We don’t know. We have only the brief dialogue that John reports, supported by the other Gospel accounts.
The scene takes place in the praetorium. The word praetorium comes from praetor (for leader); praetor was the title given to the ranking civil servant in the Roman Republic. Thus praetorium is a grand hall where a general or governor formally received those who were under his jurisdiction.
Pilate enters the grand room, probably with columns and soldiers stationed at the doors and outside. It is a setting of strength. Imperial might. He gathers himself, a man in command of himself, in command of his emotions and of others. He summons Jesus.
Jesus enters. He had been held in custody all night. He had been struck at least a few times by belligerent guards. Now he stands before Pilate: calm, collected, in full composure, serene.
Not the kind of wrongdoer Pilate expected to see.
Are You the King of the Jews?
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks, repeating a claim the high priests must have levied against Jesus.
Jesus stands calmly before the man who holds his human fate in his hands. He doesn’t give a direct answer.
“Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?” he asks.
Note that Jesus’ response seeks to engage Pilate – personally – in the matter at hand. Does Pilate want to know himself whether Jesus is King of the Jews, or is he just parroting a charge? Pilate deflects. He wants no personal engagement in this matter. He just wants to do his job and be done with it. He persists in an official line of questioning, keeping his personal feelings out of it.
“I am not a Jew, am I?” Pilate says. “Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Seeing that Pilate is unwilling to answer a direct question, Jesus returns to Pilate’s first question – Are you the King of the Jews? – and now he provides a layer of insight into this inquiry.
In so many words, He says: I am a King. But the Kingdom over which I reign is not of this world. If my Kingdom were of this world, those who follow me would fight to keep me from being handed over to my adversaries. But as it is, I am a King whose reign is not of this world.
Imagine the interior response of Pilate. It’s Friday morning. First thing. The high priests of the Jewish faith bring this man before him. They declare him worthy of death. The matter is urgent. Few details are given. Pilate is a man of power and authority. He could release this man at a word, or send him just as swiftly to his death.
If you were Pilate, you would expect the prisoner before you to know when he is in the presence of a superior, of a potential benefactor or liberator or executioner.
But this man Jesus is different. He stands there, calm and regal as though an Emperor. Humble and self-effacing as though a slave. Such a strange set of traits. He meets the gaze of Pilate with penetrating but soft eyes. He speaks as though it is He who is the ranking officer in the room. He speaks of a Kingdom, his Kingdom, but he asserts no need to exercise the authority He seems to possess. He says his Kingdom is not of this world.
Thus, one presumes, His Kingdom is of some other world, some other place.
Pilate takes the cue:
“So you are a King?”
Jesus resists the term, refusing to engage in a discussion that is premised on the kind of King Pilate is imagining.
You say I am a King, Jesus responds, in effect. But what you mean and understand by King I am not.
And now he delivers the full force of his argument to an uncomprehending Roman potentate:
A King In Truth Not Power
“For this I was born and for this I came into the world,” Jesus says, “to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37).
Consider this response. It is at once full of a magisterial tone and authority – a man with such confidence in his mission – and yet with a total absence of the need to assert power.
Have you ever met a person who could combine these two traits?
Let’s unpack Jesus’ response.
For this I was born. Jesus is a man who knows his mission; he knows why he was born. He stands at a moment which, to a lesser man, would have appeared as the nadir of his mission. The moment of its naked failure. Caught, trapped, bounded, shackled before a power he could not overcome. But to Jesus, this moment was His hour. Through the eye of this needle, he saw the dawning of a light he came to cast upon the earth.
For this I came into the world.
Pause. Repeat that.
For this I came into the world.
Jesus stands robed before Pilate, bruised in cheek, humiliated before the soldiers, unaccompanied by friends and supporters, and he declares that he entered of his own volition into this world to execute a purpose that even now seems to be unfolding. Even now – despite all the contrary surface impressions.
To martureo to the truth. To be a witness to the truth of things. The verb, in the original Greek, is μαρτυρέω, martureo, to bear witness. From which we get the term martyr.
Jesus is saying: I stepped of my own volition into human existence in order to bear witness to the truth of things. That witness requires that I pass through this captivity, vulnerability, betrayal and false condemnation. But pass through it I shall. Bear witness to the truth I will.
Somehow what looks to us like a total failure looks to Jesus like the stage upon which his masterclass will be unveiled.
Here Pilate shuts down the dialogue. “What is truth?” he mutters, then leaves the room.
What is truth is the kind of rhetorical question Pilate is comfortable dropping, as though truth is not a thing to be bothered with. Not a thing that can be known, delivered upon a platter, observed, dissected, mastered, made the source of profit. Hence not an object of concern.
What Is Truth?
“What is truth?” is precisely the question I want to ask. What does it mean that Jesus was born to bear witness to the truth? What does it mean that he came to earth to bear witness to the truth?
How can we ascend to an understanding of the truth?
When I asked this question in prayer, I confess I first felt myself before a kind of impasse. What do I know about the highest truth?
But then the question led me to another assertion of Jesus, uttered to his disciples in the discourse following the Last Supper. John Chapter 16.
“I have much more to tell you,” Jesus says to them (Jn 16:12). He says he is going away. That he will leave them. He is preparing them for the trouble they will encounter in the days, months and years ahead.
“But you cannot bear it now,” he continues. “But when he comes, the Spirit of Truth, he will lead you into the fullness of truth.” (Jn 16:13)
When he comes, the Spirit of Truth, he will lead you into the fullness of Truth.
This is something we either believe (and then confirm in our experience), and it is a source of joy; the promise of a guide; a continuation on earth of the kind of presence Jesus conveyed to his disciples. Or it occasions a shrug. We hear it. We say – a little like Pilate – “Hmm…not sure I buy that. Not sure I want to be bothered with that. Might disrupt my schedule.”
Well, I’m in the former camp. Because I’ve seen enough in my day to know it’s true. The Spirit of Truth has been sent by Jesus to lead us into the fullness of Truth. I have discovered, with the passing of time – my time, and my study of Scripture and history – that it’s true.
This word of Jesus says so much, says it so completely, so simply. Truth. Jesus identifies the truth of things with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Truth. He identifies Truth with the Holy Spirit in a way similar to what he has said of himself elsewhere – I am the Way, the Truth and the Life (Jn 14:6). But now Jesus envisions a day when he will no longer be on earth. And in his absence there will be another presence given to guide his disciples. The Spirit of Truth. The Holy Spirit.
That Spirit will continue on earth the role Jesus once played leading his disciples, teaching them, enlightening them, correcting them, directing them toward an ever-greater grasp of Truth.
Here we must depart from the text of John’s Gospel. For John merely gives the promise of the Holy Spirit. To see more on the realization of this promise, we need to turn to Acts 2. There we witness a dawning, a sunrise of sort. We see the first radical descent in power, of the Holy Spirit: transforming the disciples from a timid, reluctant, slow to recognize the risen Christ bunch; a bunch who regularly locked the door to the room where they gathered for fear of the authorities; into an organized, fearless, outspoken, authoritative group of inspiring communicators. Master marketers of a new and unfamiliar message.
We then need to read through the rest of the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of the New Testament. If we do so, we will sense that the guiding presence of Jesus did not leave the disciples after his death. Somehow his inspiration and his action continued among them. Made them bolder. Humbler. Fearless. Earnest in love. Willing to lay down their lives, which many of the leading members of the early Church did.
All of this is a story for another day. The point here is that the Holy Spirit is the answer to Pilate’s question. What is truth is answered when a heart seeks the living presence of the Holy Spirit, the 3rd person of the Trinity who proceeds from the Father, through the Son.
O Holy Spirit, you who proceed from the Father, I am only part of the way forth on my journey. Lead me into the fullness of Truth. The truth of my existence, which is a lived communion with the Father and the Son in you, the Spirit. Let me know this Truth with all my heart, that I might embrace it with all my mind, all my soul, all my strength. Amen.