WHILE THE GUARDS TOOK JESUS away to be scourged, Pilate remained at his judgment seat in the courtyard of the praetorium. The crowd was aware of the terrible scene that was to take place within the building, but their hatred of Jesus was as violent as before. Here and there a fist was raised menacingly against Caesar, and there were whispered threats of rebellion and reprisals.
Seeing the people were in a riotous mood, Pilate hastened to divert them with a ceremonial taken from their own religious rites. He ordered a basin of water to be brought to him, and deliberately washed his hands while the Jews looked on. “I am innocent of the blood of this just man,” he said. “See to it yourselves.”
He was formally absolving himself of all responsibility in the affair and was transferring any possible guilt to Christ’s accusers. But they were indifferent to this threat, and shouted, “His blood be on us and on our children.”
The shouts of hatred suddenly died on their lips as Jesus was led forth from the torture room. Streams of blood ran down from His brow, pierced by the thorns of the cruel crown; the Sacred Face was bruised and swollen, stained and disfigured by blood, sweat, dirt, and spittle; and the shapeless red robe hung ludicrously from His weary shoulders.
The sight of their tortured victim brought a murmur of awe from the crowd, and Pilate said to them, “Behold, I bring Him out to you, that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.” Pointing to Jesus dramatically, the procurator exclaimed, “Behold the man!”
The priests had noted with alarm the changed feeling of the people when they saw the pain and ignominy Jesus had suffered. To revive the crowd’s blood-lust, they and their attendants shouted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
Pilate replied indignantly, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.”
The procurator’s remark was sarcastic, as the Jews well understood. It was his last word on the case as they had presented it, and their victim seemed on the point of slipping from their clutches. Rapidly shifting their attack, they returned to the charge of blasphemy, the charge for which the Sanhedrin had condemned Jesus but which they had hesitated to present to the procurator in their initial indictment.
“We have a Law,” they said, “and according to that Law He must die, because He has made Himself Son of God.”
Pilate was dismayed. If Jesus had really committed a capital crime according to the religious laws of the Jews, he would have to sanction His execution. He had been embroiled twice already with the Jews during his four years as procurator. In each case they had appealed to Rome, and he had been reprimanded; he could not risk a third complaint of this sort. Leading Jesus back into the praetorium, he prepared to question Him on this new charge. Christ’s reported claim that He had come from God might be a good starting point. “Where art Thou from?” asked Pilate.
Jesus gave no reply, for His origin was beyond the comprehension of the pagan procurator. But Pilate was irked by the prisoner’s silence and exclaimed, “Dost Thou not speak to me? Dost Thou not know that I have power to crucify Thee, and that I have power to release Thee?” Jesus said:
“Thou wouldst have no power at all over Me were it not given thee from above. Therefore, he who betrayed Me to thee has the greater sin.”
Leaving Jesus, Pilate returned to his court. These last words had entered his conscience like a flash of lightning, laying bare his real motives in handling this case as he had, motives which he had been seeking to ignore or camouflage. He had been picturing himself as the defender of justice against the malice of the Jews, whereas he had really been temporizing because of his cowardly fear of consequences. He, too, had sinned: against this just man and against the truth. Though he was, in a sense, merely an instrument, having his power from above, from Rome, and though he had sinned through fear and weakness, he was only less guilty than the Jewish leaders, whose sin was one of malice.
As he stood pondering what means he could use to release Christ, the Jews again began howling for action. Surmising that Pilate was still reluctant to deliver Jesus, their leaders shouted, “If thou release this man, thou art no friend of Caesar; for everyone who makes himself king sets himself against Caesar.”
Despairing at his own weakness, Pilate falteringly ordered Jesus to be brought out. He took his seat in the place of judgment, the Lithostrotos, and, in a last appeal to the humanity of the mob, called on them to consider the pitiful figure of Jesus.
“Behold your king!” he said. But the crowd shouted, “Away with Him! Away with Him! Crucify Him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” asked Pilate. And the chief priests said, “We have no king but Caesar.”
Then Pilate decreed the sentence they asked. He surrendered Jesus to the chief priests and assigned some of his men to carry out the execution for them.
Jesus was to be executed with the sanction of Rome; He was to suffer crucifixion, a Roman form of execution, and His actual executioners would be Roman soldiers. But Rome was here merely supplying facilities to carry out the will of the Jewish people. The responsibility for His death was entirely Israel’s; the guilt of His blood belonged to the Children of the Promise.
Meditation: Pilate really had hoped to release Jesus. But, while he wanted to be just, there were some things he valued more than justice. And the Jews knew it well. Pilate put his position, his favor with the Roman emperor above every other consideration, including justice. When in their plot to secure the death of Jesus, they reached the final move, they played upon this weakness of Pilate. Pilate’s ambition made a murderer of him. That is a warning to us. How far will I allow self-interest to push me?
Information from The Life of Christ “Our Lord’s Life with Lesson in His Own Words for Our Life Today” The Catholic Press, Inc. 1959. 269-272. © 1954 edited by Reverend John P. O’Connell, MASTD and Jex Martin, following mainly A Chronological Harmony of the Gospels by Stephen J Hartdegen OFM NIHIL OBSTAT John A McMahon; IMPRIMATUR Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago August 1, 1953. Print. Drawing by Albert H Winkler.