What tone of voice did Pilate use, when he asked Jesus “What is truth?” (in John 19), I wonder.
He was certainly confused, judging from the way he dodged between Jesus and his accusers, in and out of the palace, looking for answers and finding only invective (on the one hand) and silence on the other. He may have even been half-convinced by his wife’s dream (“Have nothing to do with this innocent man“) and by the quiet dignity of the prisoner before him.
I wonder if there was an element of the sneering banter that you get from a TV commentator, the highly-polished man-of-the-world, dripping with fake sincerity. Pilate was highly educated, cultured, cosmopolitan. He was one of the movers and shakers, a key representative of the most powerful people in the world. Surely then, he would have been condescending, ready to ridicule the claims of some wild-looking preacher from the backwoods.
And yet he prevaricates. He dithers. He pronounces Jesus innocent and then allows his crucifixion. What is truth, Pilate?
There was a political truth, which was that the Roman province of Judaea was a disaster waiting to happen, and that the religious extremists must be conciliated whenever possible.
There was a moral truth, which was that Jesus was clearly innocent, and Pilate should set him free.
There was the truth of expedience, that Pilate’s career would suffer from adverse criticism (“This man is not Caesar’s friend“).
But the Truth itself was standing in front of him, and he didn’t recognize it! He was too worldly to recognize it. He was too indecisive to respond to it. He was too cowardly to follow through on the convictions of his own conscience. He was lost in a world of phony handshakes and media soundbites. It’s our world too.
Pilate was awash with uncertainty. He tried to free Jesus – he risked his reputation – and pron0unced him innocent. There was awe of the prisoner and fear of the situation. And a dash of mockery and self-contempt?
He listened to the people and priests and returned to Jesus. He witnesses the ferocity on the one hand and the beauty on the other, balancing between them…. how do I answer the question of truth?
He’s a man of the world with no religious education but he can recognise superficial charges, and superficial slanders.
And out of that mood, when he hears Jesus speak of a kingdom of the truth, he gives a sad, bitter, sarcastic sigh, “What is truth?” Who knows any thing about it? It wasn’t a joke, nor was it a question. He goes on to say, “I find no fault in Him.” Maybe there was a sarcasm there , but that bitter sarcasm that hides anxiety in a sneer.
And so for us he encapsulates one who encounters the truth, but can’t handle it.
He was too indecisive to know the truth. He blames the priests – and then says that all responsibility is his own: washes his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person. You see to it.” And then – “Do you not know that I have power to crucify you, and power to release you?” He pronounces Jesus innocent; and then, has him whipped: yields Him up to be crucified, and then tries to save Him.
Here is a man who knows the right and does the wrong – not willing to do an act of injustice if he can avoid it, but hesitating to prevent it, for fear of a charge against himself – hands tied by past guilt and personal danger. How could such a man be certain about any thing? He’s a wimp. A leaf on the wind. “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” “He that is of the truth, hears the voice of truth.” To the untrue man all things are untrue. To the up and down man, who can not know his own mind, all things seem alterable, changeful, unfixed;
He was false to his own convictions. He had a feeling that Jesus was innocent. Instead of acting on that, he talks and talks himself into uncertainty. ….Now it’s ok to think things over and to reconsider priorities. It’s good to check yourself. (What do we believe?).
You can change opinions or points of view but there are eternal rights and wrongs.
“Woe to the man who moves boundary stones.” Pilate was false to his conscience. His conviction was that Jesus was innocent. It was not a matter of speculation : they are persecuting a guiltless man. Every charge has fallen to the ground. And he hesitates to be true.
He was too worldly to recognise the truth
He was a public man. He knew life on a shallow level, and had never committed to a spiritual ideal. It was fashionable tobe sceptical, It still is.
And yet he was merciful, kind-hearted and tolerant:“So youre a king?” Was he playing to the crowd? A little flippant?
And now this awful encounter when he finds his worldly façade stripped away. And the fearful thought like the ground opening beneath him that this man could be the real thing. He says “What is truth?” and here is Truth in front of him.
To such a character Jesus would not explain His truth. He gave no reply: He held His peace. Jesus knew all about pearls before swine. “The natural man cannot receive the things of the spirit.”
But what about the priests? Pilate wasn’t sure, but they knew that Jesus was innocent. A man once said “Why, what evil has he done?” . And they pounced on him. And here they ready themselves to pounce on Pilate in the same way. Bigots insisting on their version of the truth. “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend.”
And the crowd roar their approval (like at Stalin’s show trials). This is what bigotry does: it creates cowards, claims to infallibility, it means they insist you stop thinking… just do what I say. turning private opinion into civil crime: and they make skeptics of the acute intellects which, like Pilate, see through their fallacies, and like Pilate too, dare not go on….
Doctrine can become something to bully people with. It doesn’t matter WHAT the doctrine, it’s how you believe it. And how you live it. And faced with it people become fanatics or sceptics… not believers.
So how do we find the truth? And What should Jesus have answered? Trouble is, as soon as you label it then it becomes an IT, a substantival Thing that can phariseed into dogma.
The truth is like a sea washing around the shore… principles, an inward life, the life of the spirit. How could his question be answered except by a LIFE
“The words which I speak unto you, they are truth, and they are life.” How could Pilate’s question be answered except by a Life? The truth, then, which Pilate wanted – which you want, and I want – is not philosophical propositions, but truth of inward life. Truth for me: Truth enough to guide me in this fog- enough to teach me how to live and how to die.
How? By hearing from God for yourself (like a guide up the mountain, a specialist doctor Ultimately you HAVE to think for yourself.
But stay humble. Remember: no man is infallible By staying teachable Arguments to see who wins?? Christ would not argue with Pilate. And Pilate missed the answer to his question. “The meek will He guide in judgment.”
By acting on your conscience This was Christ’s rule – “If any man will do His will….” Do the right. Some things are clear in the fog. Do it. Love kindness. Give. Make it simple. Live seriously, and you will know the answer to “What is truth?” To believe is to commit yourself to action.
It occurs to me now that it wasn’t Jesus on trial at all, but Pilate.
When Jesus confronted Pilate as Truth incarnate, there were only two possible outcomes. Either the Truth would be crucified, or Pilate would have denied himself, taken up his cross, and followed Jesus.
Which would you have chosen?