Having the day of the Great Vigil for my thoughts on this passage gives me pause. At the Vigil we are on the brink of Christianity’s great triumphal moment, and yet this passage depicts the perfect storm of events that led to Jesus’s humiliation and death. Thing is, I’ve always felt a little bad for Pilate. He was just a Roman bureaucrat, charged with the difficult task of keeping the Jews of Judea placated and compliant. He tried to point out to the Jewish population that Jesus was no criminal, and yet it was they, the Jews, who insisted on Jesus’s condemnation.
Pilate “washing his hands” of Jesus and handing him over to his own people for crucifixion has always been presented as the ultimate cowardice. And yet, Pilate was simply giving the occupied people of Judea what he thought they wanted. Poor Pilate. Poor Jesus. I should note that, in order to bring about Jesus’s prophetic fate, Pilate had to do what he did. Jesus had to become the scapegoat (in the ancient Hebrew tradition) in order to absolve the world of its sins. If Pilate had told the people that they were stupid and wrong and set Jesus free, which was his personal instinct, what would have happened then? At worst, in my heart of hearts, Pilate is simply a weak-willed politician who caved to popular prejudice. Hardly a monster. Indeed, rather too familiar.
This passage always comes to mind when the phrase “the will of the people” is bandied about in politics; and, of course, this year in this country it has already become a phrase to be waved like a battle flag. The line between democracy and mob rule is a very fragile one at times. All marginalized people throughout history (starting with the Jews, and continuing right through Black people, gay people and Syrian refugees) have suffered horribly because of the will of the people, exacerbated by the weakness of supposed leaders who are unwilling to take responsibility for doing what is right, rather than what the people, in their anger and ignorance, seem to want.
One of the great tragic ironies of human civilization is that we continually anoint monarchs and elect rulers under the assumption that they will both do what’s best for us and be wiser than we are. Jesus knew better. He anticipated Pilate’s weakness, and knew that such weakness would pave the way to the fulfillment of his destiny.