Lent 5 / Congregational Memorial Service
April 10, 2011
William G. Carter
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
This is a text that starts a lot of conversations. Any one of them could be pursued.
We learn that Barabbas had a first name: “Jesus.” He was “Jesus Barabbas,” prompting Pilate to ask the crowd, “Which Jesus do you want? Do you want Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Christ?” That’s intriguing, since if you translate “Barabbas” it means “son of the father.” In case, the people are stirred up to choose Barabbas the criminal over Christ the Innocent. Sometime we could have a conversation about the downside of getting what we want.
In this text, Pilate’s wife sends the message of a holy nightmare. With apparently no warning, Jesus has invaded her dreams. Since the Gospel of Matthew begins with a number of God-drenched dreams, we need to pay attention to this. In the beginning of the book, in the Christmas story, Joseph is guided by four dreams; that’s how God protects the baby Jesus. And the three wise men have a dream; that’s how God protects them. Now Mrs. Pilate has a dream, which would offer protection for Jesus; but nobody listens to her.
A few weeks ago, we heard this text announce one of the most notorious verses of the Bible. It was verse 25, where a mob of people declare, “His blood be on us and on our children.” I made the case then and I would make it again: Matthew is making an unfortunate generalization. What was probably meant as a corporate confession of sin was twisted into a blanket accusation. It fueled Hitler’s hatred and torched many synagogues.
We could talk about Barabbas, talk about Pilate’s wife and her dream, talk about anti-Semitism. We could even talk about torture; in the text, we hear the empire “flogged” Jesus. They probably attached bits of metal to the cat of nine tails, as Mel Gibson showed us relentlessly in his snuff film from seven years ago. We could talk about the appropriateness of torture in light of God’s grace.
But the most compelling word of the text is not a word at all. It is the silence. Jesus takes all of this in silence. He never said “a mumbalin’ word.” That might be the most unsettling detail of this very unsettling text.
All the Gospel writers agree on his silence. When he is asked, “Are you the King of the Jews? Are you a politician?” Jesus says, “You say so.” Pilate doesn’t know that means, and neither do we. Jesus does not speak another word while he is condemned, tortured, humiliated, and nailed to the cross. Only then does he speak four words from a psalm.
The scene sets before us Jesus and Pilate in an unsettling silence. They are very different from one another. One is bound, the other is free. One is a prisoner, the other is his judge. One has restored life in other people, the other has the authority to take away life and does so regularly. They meet for an unfinished conversation, the details of which differ slightly between the Gospels. But all the stories agree that Jesus concludes the conversation by refusing to say another word. He refuses to defend himself. And the silence is so unnerving that the Roman politician walks out of the room.
Silence has that kind of power. A preacher I know once read his sermon text from the prophet Habbakkuk: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (2:20). Then he began his sermon by staring them down. Didn’t move his lips. Didn’t fill the air with cute stories and religious mumbo-jumbo. Just stood there mute. Two minutes went by, five minutes went by. People started to fidget and twitch. One looked at her watch. Another decided to pull his check out of the offering envelope. Still - - nothing. At last a voice rang out; it was one of the ushers. “Hey preacher, would you say something? We aren’t a bunch of Quakers.”
Do you think any of them heard the sermon? I think they did, and they didn’t like it.
Silence is unsettling. The oncologist says, “I will call with the report at 9:00 on Wednesday,” and then the phone doesn’t ring at all. The single mother sleeps with one eye open on prom night, waiting for her daughter to get home, and it’s a quarter past three; nothing. The employment office promised to get right back to you with an offer, and now it’s been two weeks. You get down on your knees to pray, you pour out your heart, you want to grab God by the collar and shake out an answer – but not a sound in return.
Today we hear of a career politician, stuck in a tinderbox town where everybody seemed to have a set of matches. The religious phonies drag some troublemaker in front of him. He can read it for what it is: this Galilean chap has some charisma and they can’t stand him. Pilate doesn’t care about the specific charges. He will not step in the middle of a contest among theological skunks. They hurl their curses and accusations at the prisoner – but he will not say a word. The Roman governor asks incredulously, “Don’t you hear what these people are saying?”
Jesus just stares at him. His eyes, like lasers, drill two holes in the governor’s heart. He will not speak a word. It is a brief moment, filled with haunting ambiguity.
Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, says this ambiguity is the most important detail in all the stories of when Jesus goes on trial. These stories of judgment question our human judgment. The authorities judge Jesus, and in the process they are judged. And that unsettles every aspect of human authority.
The soldiers have had their chance to rough him up. An officer of the temple police smacked him in the face and gave him a swollen lip. They have kept him awake all night and forced him through two interrogations. Now his enemies shove him down to the Roman headquarters. They have no regard for Jesus. They hand him over as a criminal, although they have no specific charges. They insinuate how he deserves the Roman death penalty, yet refuse to explain why. His enemies force Jesus to go through all of this, yet he remains calm, centered, focused, and still.
Pontius Pilate asks, "What evil has he done," knowing the crowd has no rational answer. He makes an offer that could release the man, but other voices prevail. He washes his hands of the matter – but somehow that doesn’t let him off the hook. It is unsettling.
The whole scene reminds us once again how the world resists the love and justice of very Christ through whom all things were made. As another Gospel warned us at Christmas time, "The world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own home, and his own people did not accept him" (John 1:10-11). This is the moment when the world is judged. The Light of the World has come into the world, and the world said, "Turn off the lights!"
And in the thick of it, Jesus stands silent. He doesn't have to say anything or do anything. He leads no revolt. He does not call in a high-priced attorney. His very presence exposes both the sham of his arrest and the indifferent arrogance of the Empire. This is not how we were meant to live: betraying one another, picking on one another, stirring up trouble against one another, striking one another, murdering one another. Yet Jesus neither strikes out nor gives in. In deep and holy silence, he confronts the truth about power with the power of truth.
Kent Groff, our guest speaker for later today, has a brief prayer-poem about this moment. He captures it in just ten words:
Paucity of words,
Audacity in deed. (“Facing East, Praying West,” p. 63)
A friend of mine stopped to see me when his mother was dying. Most of the time, she was at peace about her impending death, and her peacefulness was the disturbing thing for a lot of other people. Friends would stop by to see her, and many were anxious about it. They didn't know what to say. They didn't know what to do, so they brought some things. Some brought food, even though she couldn’t eat very much. Some bring little gifts, and she laughed, "What am I going to do with this?" All the time, he said, she remains still and steadfast -- because nothing could shake her.
My friend and I were talking about that. He said, "Did you ever notice that the person who has true power is not the one who fusses around, stays busy, does all the talking, or tries to push their way upon others? No; it's the person who stays rooted and focused on the ways of God. People like that don't have to prove anything. They just be. Much of the time, they don't have to say a word."
In all of Pilate’s questions, Jesus stands in secure silence. He doesn't have to say or do a thing. So it is Pilate who grows anxious. It's Pilate who tries to appease everybody. It's Pilate who tries to put a lid on the pressure. It's Pilate who goes on trial. Jesus may be bound in chains, but actually he is the One who is free.
Pilate has the army, but Jesus has the power.
Pilate has the throne, but Jesus has the authority.
Pilate asks the questions, but Jesus holds all the answers.
Tell me something: who's the One who is really in charge? And so he stands in silence.
It would be enough to join him in that silence this day. To be quiet. To hush, and to be still. There is nothing to say, there is nothing to prove – not any more. No amount of blathering or babbling on the church’s part is going to correct the injustice of Jesus’ condemnation. There are no words that will undo what the world has done.
Not yet, at least. That day is coming.
We will find our voices on the Third Day. “On the third day . . .”