“So You Are a King?” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, November 21, 2021

Something marvelous and inexplicable is happening in our gospel today.

Jesus Christ is a member of a subjugated and despised race, the Jews, and has himself been handed over by the Jewish leaders as a criminal to their Roman overlords for execution. Pontius Pilate is the Roman governor of Israel, a man who has the power of life or death over Jesus. He is the political and military representative of the mightiest nation the world has ever seen, he commands legions and legions of soldiers trained to kill. And Jesus faces him down. Without a single weapon, by the power and authority of his presence alone, Jesus faces him down. Such is the power of the truth. And Jesus is the Truth, as well as the Way and the Life, as he himself says, in John 14:6. 

To understand fully what is going on, we need to read the whole account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate It is contained in chapters 18 and 19 in the gospel of John. To begin with, Pilate can’t be bothered to deal with the case of Jesus. He tells the Jewish leaders to take Jesus away and deal with him themselves. But they pressure him, and he gives in and agrees to interrogate Christ himself. His first question to Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Not: ”Are you claiming to be the king of the Jews?” Is Jesus really king?

That is the question we all have to face.

Because if he is, we have to take note of him; we are not free to ignore him, as so many in today’s world mistakenly think they can. 

Jesus responds to Pilate’s question with one of his own: ”Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” This is amazing, truly amazing. As the interrogator and governor here, it is Pilate who should be asking all the questions. It is for Jesus, the prisoner, the accused, to give the answers. But straightaway Jesus forces Pilate on the defensive, reminds him that he is not really the one in charge here, that he is being manipulated by forces beyond his control. Jesus is the one in control of this interview, not Pilate. Later on, at another stage of his trial, when Pilate, exasperated by Jesus’ refusal to answer his questions, says: ”Do you not know I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”, Jesus replies: ”You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” Nothing happens to Jesus that he has not already predicted, and prepared for, and allowed to happen. Nothing happens to us, brothers and sisters, that Jesus is not already aware of, and has prepared for, as part of his plan for our life Not that he has deliberately caused that pain and suffering to happen, but he knew that it was going to happen to us, and he has already made plans to include it and help us be transformed for the better by it. As Romans 8: 28 affirms, “He turns everything to good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose”. As Psalm 31:15 says: ”My times are in your hands.“ I don’t know if that makes you glad or sad, brothers and sisters, to me it gives enormous comfort, to know that Jesus is not caught off guard by sudden trouble or disaster that may befall me, in the way that I am, so often, caught off guard. Jesus has already made his plans to take account of this terrible situation and help me come through it. I don’t need to fight it, I simply can surrender myself  and my life into his hands and have peace. 

So in this first stage of his interview with Pilate, Jesus forces the strong man back on his heels. He is not afraid, he is not at a loss for words, he is not taken off guard. He is in charge. In Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ”, four languages are spoken at different times in the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. Aramaic and Hebrew, the two common languages of Jesus and his followers, are the most frequently spoken. There is also Greek, the language of the common person throughout the Roman Empire, employed in conversations of Pilate with his soldiers and other non-Jews. In this conversation between Pilate and Christ, however, Pilate addresses Jesus in Latin, a language which at the time was spoken only by the elite of the Roman world, the educated and royal class. Jesus responds in perfect Latin, and Pilate recognizes that this criminal before him is no ordinary human being, he has true noble and kingly qualities, and respect for him and acknowledgement of those qualities begins to dawn on the Roman governor. 

Pilate now begins to withdraw, to push blame for what is happening to Jesus onto his own people: ”Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” It is the beginning of Pilate’s continuous attempts to withdraw from this case, several times telling Jesus’ accusers that he finds Jesus innocent of their charges, leading to the great scene when he publicly washes his hands before them all and says: ”I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (Matthew 27: 24). It is obvious that Pilate has come up against something way over his head and his pay grade. A king who has not need of military power or force to establish his kingdom. “My kingdom is not from this world,“ says Jesus, “if it were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews”. Look around you, Pilate, Jesus is saying, you don’t see any military threat to your power and authority, do you? I don’t need that. I can establish my kingdom,and maintain it, without all the weapons and threats that you and your kingdom, and all other kingdoms on this earth seem to need.

Pilate’s next words: ”So you are a king?” is really more a statement than a question. He is convinced. When he goes out to the Jewish authorities, he tells them: ”I find no case against him. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” Again, you notice, he doesn’t say: ”Release for you the man who claims to be King of the Jews” but clearly and unmistakably “The King of the Jews”. Pilate is convinced. Even though, true to Jesus’ statement that Pilate is being manipulated, he is forced to hand Jesus over to be crucified, nonetheless, Pilate has the last laugh on the Jewish leaders. Over the head of the one crucified a sign would be displayed, setting out the reason for the person’s execution. Over Jesus’ head on the cross, is put the sign that reads: ”Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. Again, not “Jesus, the man who claimed to be King”, No, Jesus of Nazareth, who is really and truly the King of the Jews. To make his meaning obvious, Pilate has the inscription written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek – all the major languages of civilized nations. When the chief priests read it, they are besides themselves with fury, and demand that Pilate change it: ”Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’, but ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews’”. 

In a magnificent, belated show of his authority, Pilate dismisses their protests with the words: ”What I have written, I have written” (John 19: 19-22).

Pontius Pilate has never faced anyone like Jesus before. At a stroke, he is forced to revise all his previous conceptions of king and kingship. Here is one before him who has none of the trappings of power, but who behaves, in the face of brutal repression and intimidation, with total serenity and authority, such as to win over his interrogator. Today we celebrate the feast of this man, Jesus Christ, as King and Lord of the entire universe, 2000 plus years on from his crucifixion. Pilate, and the entire Roman Empire, is now just a footnote of history. Pilate ,at least, got to meet and recognize Jesus and affirm him as King.

What would lead you and me, brothers and sisters, to recognize Jesus as King and to place ourselves under his authority and kingship?