Jesus before Pilate (John 18:28-40)
This passage is as profoundly inspiring as it is dangerously misleading. It suggests what is the redeeming, transformative meaning of Jesus’ death, but it also misleads us as to why Jesus died. The author of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ death was called for by “the Jews,” by “your own people.” (The phrase “the Jews,” comes up 21 times in his Passion narrative.) We know now, as the Second Vatican Council has admitted, that this accusation, which has branded the Jews as Christ-killers and so has inspired and justified the horrors of anti-Semitism throughout Western history, is not true. If there are any Jews among us today, I profoundly apologize for this reading. John’s blaming of the Jews came out of the tensions between the early communities of Jesus-followers and the Jewish communities. John, more than the other Gospel writers, sought to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death and so exonerate the Romans.
But to blame the death of Jesus on the Jews is to miss what makes this death redemptive. Jesus did not die because he offended the Jews by claiming to be the Son of God. Rather, he died because his vision of society as the compassionate and just Reign of God was in opposition to the class-structured, violent Empire of the Romans. He died because he opposed the Romans— but without hating the Romans. He spoke up against their oppression, but he would not allow his followers, as the text tells us, “to fight,” that is, to resort to violence as the Zealots did. To resist evil without hating the evil-doers, to resist oppression out of love for both oppressed and oppressors, even if it leads to one’s own death – this is a power, perhaps the only power, that can change and redeem our suffering, violent world. This, I believe, is the saving meaning and power of Jesus’s death on the cross. – Paul Knitter
Text: John 18:28-40 – Jesus before Pilate
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning.They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own people and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My realm is not of this world; if it belonged to this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Temple authorities. No, my realm is not of this world.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’