The Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost by Martin Elfert

Daniel 7:9-10,

13-14 Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

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Through much of high school I imagined that I was going to be an actor or, possibly, a director or playwright. I was in a bunch of shows, I directed my classmates in several shows, and I actually wrote several shows. (I haven’t seen the scripts that I wrote in years and I would be tantalised and afraid to return to them now – I am not sure what I would discover within their pages.)

One of the acting exercises that I remember most vividly from those days involved taking a script and seeing how many ways you could say a given line or even just a given word. Let’s imagine an actor comes on stage and the script calls for them to say the standard-issue greeting Hello.

How many ways could they say that word?




This sort of exercise is particularly fun and particularly challenging with an old-school playwright such as Shakespeare. Contemporary playwrights will often give you some clue as to how they imagine an actor saying a given line – the stage directions, in italics and square brackets, will tell you that certain words are whispered or yelled or spoken through tears. Shakespeare doesn’t do that. And so we have centuries of different interpretations of:

To be or not to be,

that is the question.

So. I love the lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow across the year. It takes us to places that I probably wouldn’t go on my own. Divorced from the discipline

that it gives us to visit the Bible in almost its entirety, I would probably just choose to preach on my favourite verses over and over again.

But there are times when the lectionary drives me a little nuts. And this is one of those weeks. We are in John and we hear the famous encounter between Pilate and Jesus – the encounter that begins with Pilate interviewing or examining Jesus and ends with Jesus interviewing or examining Pilate. It’s an amazing scene. But today, the lectionary cuts off the last line of the scene.

Jesus says:

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

And that is where the lectionary told Liz to stop reading. But in John, Pilate says something after that. Does anyone remember what it is?

Pilate says:

What is truth?

I’d like us to remember that acting exercise from my high school days and see how we might read Pilate’s words. They are tricky because scripture, like Shakespeare some 1500 or 1600 years later, doesn’t have stage directions. John doesn’t tell us that Pilate speaks angrily or sadly or quietly or anything.

And these words are tricky because John does something extraordinary, which is that as soon as Pilate asks the question What is truth, the fourth Gospel immediately cuts to another scene. John 18:38 goes like this:

Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

After Pilate had said this, he went out to [Jesus’ accusers] again and told them, “I find no case against him.”

Jesus’ reply is totally missing. We don’t have that response to help guide our interpretation of Pilate’s question. Does Jesus respond with anger, with an enigmatic saying, with a parable, or, as he so often does, with a question of his own? Is John implying that Jesus responds with silence? Or does Pilate ask his question and then just run away?

Regardless, it is a brilliant decision for the Fourth Gospel to end this scene with Pilate’s question rather than Jesus’ answer.

And that means it’s up to us to decide how Pilate asks this question.

Here are three possibilities.

One. Pilate full of haughtiness and sarcasm.

Pilate: So you are a king?

Jesus: 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: What is truth?

Maybe this is the Pilate whom we picture most easily. A monarch who is accustomed to people kissing his ring, a nihilist, someone who reckons that his pleasure and his power are the beginning and the end of what matters. And who finds anyone who thinks differently misguided and pitiful.

And maybe that is right. But I am always suspicious of reading a person – in my immediate life or in the news or in scripture – in such a way that there are less than fully human. And villains, people who are capital E evil? They may be fun in movies, but they probably aren’t fully human. Most people, it seems to me, when they do immoral or evil things (when we do immoral or evil things?) are telling a story about how their actions are good, necessary, and justified.

So let’s try again.

Two. Pilate stuck deep in the mud of bureaucracy.

Pilate: One more question – Mr. Christ, is it? One more question: You’re a king?

Jesus: 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: Uh huh. And what is truth?

This one feels maybe a little more real to me. It’s Hannah Arendt who writes the famous book about the Holocaust perpetrator, Adolph Eichmann. To no small controversy, Arendt subtitled her book The Banality of Evil. Eichmann was one of the chief administrators of the Holocaust: he was a mass murderer who never killed anyone with his own hands. And Arendt’s thesis is that, among other things, Eichmann and his colleagues were able to carry out this monstrous act of evil by employing euphemism and by disguising it as an unremarkable act of accounting, as just doing their everyday jobs.

I can imagine Pilate as this kind of bureaucrat. A man aware, at some level, that he was engaging in terrible evil, but disguising the evil to himself by dressing it up as his plain-old duty.

One more try.

Three. Pilate as asking as sincerely seeking something.

Pilate: One more question – Mr. Christ, is it? One more question: You’re a king?

Jesus: 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: What is truth?

This is the one that I want to be true. Pilate is carrying out the everydayness of empire, engaging, as in our second reading, in banal evil. But then Jesus says something or does something or is just there in his presence, the Son of God. And Pilate is shocked out of his routine. And in naked sincerity he asks:

What is truth?

Maybe the guards who are in the room with them at this moment perk up. So accustomed are they to bureaucratic cruelty, to suffering imposed by an indifferent judge, that they don’t know what to do with the abrupt emotion, the deep longing in Pilate’s voice.

If this reading is right, then this is maybe the most beautiful and real moment in Pilate’s life. And it is followed by his most pathetic. Because Jesus is offering Pilate transformation. And Pilate wants it so bad. But he doesn’t want it as bad as he wants his next promotion. He wants stuff and status just a bit more than he wants God.

And so Pilate, who totally has the power to just say, Jesus is innocent – I’m letting him go, instead tries for this half-hearted middle ground. He says to Jesus’ accusers, I don’t think he did anything. We should probably let him go. But when they insist, what does he do?

He washes his hands and he utters the most cowardly words of his life. He says:

You are the ones who are doing this.

Which reading is right? Is there still another that we have not considered? Is Pilate a villain, a perpetually distracted bureaucrat of evil, or – as is my hunch – someone who

can’t quite bring himself to choose love and to choose God? And depending on which way reading we choose, what does his story have to teach you and me?

Pilate did not expect the Son of God to turn up in his life that day. And maybe many of us have that in common with him – we don’t expect Jesus. Maybe that is why scripture tells us so often to stay awake, to be ready, to notice that Jesus is here the whole time, most often in the person of the least of these, our siblings.

So be ready. Be ready so that when Jesus speaks to everyone who belongs to the truth, you will be listening.

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