Sunday, November 22, 2009

He Stayed Not For An Answer

Today is Christ the King Sunday, with the lectionary text taken from John 18: 28-38.

The leaders of the Jewish Temple have arrested Jesus and brought him before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, for interrogation. The charge is treason, and they are angling for the death penalty. The Jews have a certain degree of autonomy over their own religious affairs, but only the Roman occupiers have the authority to put someone to death for political insurrection.

Pilate asks Jesus point-blank whether he is the King of the Jews, an assertion the Jewish authorities claim Jesus is making. When Jesus answers that his kingdom is not of this world, Pilate repeats the question. Again Jesus refuses to provide a "gotcha" answer; he came to testify to the truth, he says, and those who belong to the truth hear his voice.

"What is truth?" Pilate famously asks. The text does not say whether Jesus replied, and if so, what he said. All we know is that, in John's account, after posing the question, Pilate went out to tell the assembled crowd he could find no case against Jesus. My father, a philosophy major, had a nice way of summarizing the dialog. "What is truth," Pilate asked - and didn't stay for an answer.

Of course, that is only one reading of the text. Another could be that Jesus did respond, but that the text does not record his answer. It's not a modern-day trial transcript, of the type we've come to know in America.

Isn't it remarkable, however, how contemporary-sounding the account John presents is? The handover to the Romans seems almost akin to what today is called "extraordinary rendition" - turning a suspect over to another government, seeking to obtain a penalty one's own laws do not permit.

The Romans were relentless in adminstering their ruthless brand of justice. Choosing the cross as the means to carry out public executions to crush and deter dissent is only the most obvious example of this. Yet in John's account, even the Romans, as hardnosed as they were, did not flog Jesus until after he is interrogated by Pilate.

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