Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”
Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.
There has been a tendency in the Christian telling of the Passion story to exonerate Pilate or at least to make him an unwilling pawn of the Jewish leaders and crowds. Pilate, it is claimed, was a truth-seeking man who was caught between a rock and a hard place. Were it not for the pressure he received from the Sanhedrin and their supporters, he wouldn’t have crucified Jesus.
This view of the noble Pilate seems at first to fit the facts of the New Testament Gospels. But, upon closer scrutiny, it falls short in a number of crucial ways. (I have written extensively about Pilate’s legal guilt for the death of Jesus here.) Pilate was clever and deceitful enough to sentence Jesus to death while avoiding public responsibility for his actions.
I see Pontius Pilate as a paradigm of the person who fails to take responsibility for his actions, especially his sinful ones. Perhaps Pilate really believed he was innocent of Jesus’ death. Perhaps, as I have suggested, he was playacting for his own political benefit. Either way, Pilate issued the verdict that sent Jesus to the cross. Yet he did so in such a way as to appear innocent of Jesus’ blood. He did not take responsibility for what he had done.
How often do we do this sort of thing ourselves? How often do we rationalize our sins, blaming them upon others? How often do we fail to take responsibility for what we have done wrong, preferring to assign credit to our parents for raising us wrong, our society for mistreating us, our boss for abusing us, or our spouse for misunderstanding us? I can’t tell you how many times, as a pastor, I have heard people try to evade responsibility for their own sins by pointing to the sins of others. And, if truth be told, I’ve done plenty of this myself.
Why is this wrong? Well, for one thing, it’s dishonest. Yet, beyond this, when we fail to accept responsibility for our sins, then we lose the opportunity to experience forgiveness for them. If I’m blaming others when I do wrong, then surely I won’t confess what I’ve done as sin. And this, in turn, will keep me from experiencing the grace of God with respect to this particular sin. (I’m not saying this will keep me out of Heaven, but rather than I will fail to enjoy the fullness of God’s forgiveness in this life.)
When we’re tempted to be like Pilate, we’d do well to remember a portion of the first letter of John in the New Testament: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
As you look at your life, don’t be like Pilate. Don’t try to wash your hands of that which you have done wrong. God isn’t fooled. Rather, tell God the truth about your sins so that you might experience his forgiveness through Christ.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Can you think of times when you did not seek God’s forgiveness because you rationalized your sin? Are there actions or decisions for which you need to ask God’s forgiveness today?
PRAYER: Dear Lord, you know how easy it is for me to be like Pilate. I don’t like to take responsibility for my failures. I find rationalization to be so natural. I can fool myself into thinking I haven’t really done wrong.
So forgive me, Lord, when I follow the way of Pilate. Help me to acknowledge my sins, both to myself and to you, rather than wallowing in my pointless excuses and defenses. By your Spirit, guide me to see clearly where I have missed your mark, so that I might confess truly and fully. Help me to experience the forgiveness you offer in Christ and to live in the freedom of the cleansing you alone provide. Amen.