Living through Lent, the Trials of Jesus—His Passion according to John 18-19

As St. John’s Gospel unfolds, the question is whether people will choose the Light or the Darkness. This choice is dramatically portrayed in a series of individual one-on-one encounters with Jesus—Nicodemus—the woman at the well—the woman caught in adultery—the man born blind. In each case the question is: Would this person choose new life in Jesus—or their natures and darkness?

The last of these encounters is with Pontius Pilate. John demonstrated Pilate’s inward struggle by having him physically go back and forth—first outside the praetorium where the crowd is—then inside where Jesus is, then back outside, and so on. Pilate’s struggle is very similar to many people we know. Jesus came to bring Light and Life—will Pilate choose it—will our good friends—does my immediate family?

In St John’s account of the Passion of our Savior, we learn more about the Roman trial of Jesus of Nazareth, than the other Gospels combined—John chapters 18-19. In the minds of many people, Pontius Pilate is thought to have been a high-ranking Roman ruler. The truth is Pilate was one of many governors or ‘prefects’ in the Roman Empire, assigned to a relatively small non-prestigious post far, far from Rome, during the years 26-36 AD. His power did not even extend over the whole of Israel—only the southern part. Had it not been for his involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus, Pilate would be an obscure figure in world history—who remembers Valerius Gratus, his predecessor? But as it is, ‘Pilate’ is literally a household word—every time the Apostles’ Creed is recited, Pilate is mentioned.

Instead of killing Jesus, which Pilate attempted to avoid—or simply releasing Jesus, which he was afraid to do—he compromised. Pilate punished Jesus with a severe beating and attempted to satisfy the crowd, even though he had declared Him innocent. Then Pilate wouldn’t have to decide for or against the truth. Compromise is ‘to promise something together’; it usually involves a mutual concession. But a concession of the principle of truth? The founders of our country avoided facing the truth of slavery, with terrible, lasting consequences.

Courage is quite another thing. It comes from the word ‘heart’ and means to have the ‘heart to struggle for the truth’. I have seen the poor compromises others have agreed to—but I need to think about the decisions I have made, and Who alone paid the price and died for them, and can forgive them.

Pilate declared Jesus innocent, but after scourging Jesus—this declaration of innocence had a hollow ring to it. This is one of the most dramatic scenes in the Gospels. Pilate proclaimed the famous Latin words: ‘Ecce Homo’ or ‘Behold the man’. Now for the first time Jesus came outside. He stood there for all to see, bloodied, beaten, wearing the crown of ridicule—a purple cloak of mockery. He is there for us to see as well, for He stands there on our behalf—I deserved this ‘cup’—but Jesus drank it in my place!

Pilate, the Roman governor of the Imperial Province of Judea—who declared three times that he found Jesus innocent, who with one word could have commanded His release—was reduced to plea bargaining. The sight of the beaten Jesus did not evoke the sympathy the Governor had hoped—instead, it evoked a chilling cry to crucify. Pilate, as he stood there on behalf of the mightiest power on earth, was afraid.

Pilate was a prisoner of his compromise—his back-and-forth efforts searching for or manipulating the truth. The truth can be a difficult thing to face. So, we often put it off for a better time, and become prisoners of our own fears and compromises. Jesus suffered and died because of our lack of courage, our inherited and developed weaknesses, our failures to embrace and act on our Lord’s truth, ways and will.

This Lent, draw nearer to our Lord—and He will draw nearer to you—read John chapters 18-19 this month.

Mark Gade, for the CtK e-newsletter, Lent 2024