In Pilate’s Court

John 18:28-19:22

One of the memories of childhood is watching the Wizard of Oz many times over.  The adventures of Dorothy and her dog in the land of Oz and the journey down the yellow brick road are probably indelibly fixed in most of our memories.  The four main characters held a particular fascination.  Dorothy was looking for a home.  The tin man was looking for a heart.  The straw man was looking for a brain.  And the cowardly lion was looking for courage.  

My best memories of that movie rotate around the lion.  Perhaps that was due to the actor, Burt Lahr, who played the lion so well, that his performance lodged the lion in my memory.  I can still see this King of the beasts overcome with cowardice.  Pretending to be ferocious, but timid to the core.

And Pontius Pilate was a coward.  He ruled a nation but was ruled by everyone else.

1. The cowardice of Pilate

All four gospels paint Pilate as a coward at the trial of Jesus.  Faced with the possibilities of doing the right thing, he chickened out.  

During that trial Pilate knows that Jesus has done nothing worthy of the death sentence.  
He continually tries to get the case thrown out of court. (Read the Gospel of John)
He knows the motives of the accusers. He knows that they are motivated by envy.                        
He also knows that the accusations are all trumped up charges.  
In the course of that trial, his conscience warns him, 
During the trial his wife, who has had a dream, warns him.  

But Pilate is a man between a rock and a hard place.  Pilate was caught up in circumstances of his own making that had painted him into a corner.   In the 10 years of his governership, several times he had made foolish decisions that had caused him to be reported to his superiors.  Those events had made him super-cautious.

Some years earlier he had caused riots in Jerusalem when he tried to bring images of Caesar into Jerusalem.  Since Caesar was worshipped as a God it was seen as idolatry by the Jewish people, and they hit the streets in an angry mob.  Pilate had withdrawn the images but had lost a lot of face.

A short while later he wanted to decorate his court with decorative shields placed around the walls.  But on each shield was the name of a Roman God.  Once more the riots started, and Pilate backed down.

A short while later he decided to bring fresh water into the city of Jerusalem.  Good idea!  He built a water conduit.  But when it came time to pay for the project, he demanded that the money from the temple treasury be used.  Once more there were riots.  His soldiers went out of control and people were slaughtered in the streets. 

And on each of these sad events, he was reported to the Emperor of Rome by delegations from Judea.  He was building up a very poor track record and Rome did not take that lightly, and Pilate knew it.

Some years after the crucifixion he would take extreme measures against Samaria, precipitating another massacre, and this time he was removed to Rome to stand trial.

So when the crowds yell, “You are no friend of Caesar’s“, Pilate knows that truth must be sacrificed to job security, and so calls for a basin in which to wash his hands, has his soldiers flog Jesus, and sends him off to be crucified.

But Pilate is not a wicked man.  He is a weak man.  Look at him during this trial.  He wants to do what’s right.

When Jesus is accused by the chief priests, Pilate turns to Jesus and asks him to defend himself. He wants to hear the other side of this debate that might lead to death.  Jesus will not defend himself. And the Governor is stunned.  How can he make a decision, when he only hears one side?  Guilt must be the verdict if there is no defence. 

Then Pilate hears that Jesus is from Galilee, and he sees his way out of the problem.  Galilee is Herod’s jurisdiction.  He sends him off to Herod and presumes that he has solved his problem.  But a few hours later Jesus is back.  Herod has refused to deal with the matter. Pilate is back where he started.  He must do something.

Then Pilate has a brain wave.   It has been his practice to release a prisoner at festival occasions.   He has a man already incarcerated for crimes of violence.  His name, interestingly enough, may have been Jesus too.  The New Revised Standard Version, calls him Jesus Bar Abbas – Jesus son of the Father or Jesus son of the Rabbi.  Some of the early manuscripts of the book of Matthew record his name that way.  

Having Jesus called the Messiah before him and Jesus called Barabbas in his cells, may have triggered Pilate’s brain wave.  So in an act of apparent generosity, he offers the people a choice.   Do you want the villain or do you want the Jesus whom some call the Messiah?  Of course, the offer is a bit unfair.   Jesus has not yet been found guilty, but Pilate hopes not to have to come to such a decision and so escape the horns of this dilemma. 

Barabbas is called in the other gospels a notorious prisoner, a robber and one of the rebels who committed murder in a recent insurrection.  He is a rather sordid character.  Perhaps Pilate hopes that there will be no contest between Jesus the good man and this criminal.  He hopes to escape handing down a verdict by using this escape mechanism.  

But his ploy fails, and the people call for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus the Son of the Heavenly Father.

While he was seated at the bench, a note was handed to him.  It was from his wife, Procula.  She has had a dream about Jesus. She writes, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man.”   Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent.  But now he is under pressure from his wife on one side of the issue, and under pressure from the crowd on the other side.  A tough place for a coward to be in.

But when the crowd is called to vote on the fate of the two men called Jesus, Barabbas is freed.  And Pilate is still impaled on the horns of this dilemma.  What will he do with Jesus?

John’s Gospel tells us that he had Jesus severely beaten, and then he brings him before the crowd, and hopes that the sight of this beaten man will be enough to satisfy the blood thirsty mob, but it isn’t. 

Then Pontius Pilate called for the most famous bowl of water in history.  And before that crowd he says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood, you can take care of this matter your own way.”  He washes his hands of the whole thing and abdicates his responsibility to do justice.  


Pilate was not a wicked man, who intended to perpetrate a great evil on the world.  He is even sympathetic towards Jesus.  The sin of Pilate was the sin of weakness, not wickedness.  It was cowardice, not malice.  It was the act of a man trapped between conscience and the crowd. And because he was a coward, he went along with the majority voice.

The story of Pilate is not only history, it is a parable.  

The story of the lion in the Wizard of Oz is not merely fiction. It is a photograph of humanity.  Cowardice is not the actions only of governors and lions, but it is one of the basic human predicaments.

It is interesting to note that the very first time we hear any human speaking to God, begins with the words, “I heard your voice and I was afraid.”  Fear has been a motivator of human behaviour from the very start of our existence.

In our own culture:
Fear of ridicule makes us mute on social and moral issues.  
Fear makes us silent when the cause of Christ is needing a witness.  
Fear causes us to do what conscience says we shouldn’t, because the group thinks it’s OK.  
Fear of financial loss causes some of us to surrender to greed
Fear of our past catching up with us, causes some of us to trust no one with our real selves.

The antidote to cowardice is courage. 

Joshua was facing the formidable task of succeeding Moses,  God says to him at several junctures,  “Be strong and of good courage.”

The Psalmist is heard to say, “Wait on the Lord, Be strong and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.”

For the great Philosopher Plato, courage is the first of all virtues. 

But where does courage come from?  

It comes from faith in God that says, “I will do the right thing, and trust God with the consequences.”