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The Cross and the Crown

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
St. Stephen Presbyterian Church
Fort Worth, TX

March 24, 2013
Palm/Passion Sunday
John 19: 1-16

Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan claim that what we call Jesus’ “Triumphal entry” happened at the same exact moment as, on the other side of Jerusalem, at a more prominent gate of the city,  Pontius Pilate made his ceremonial entrance into the city. Pilate was the Roman procurator of Judea, the man appointed by the Roman emperor Tiberius to govern Judea. Judea was Rome’s most unruly province. Every year, at Passover, Pilate came with a procession of soldiers in full military regalia, to back up the already strong presence of the Praetorian Guard that was always stationed in Jerusalem. He came because it was during Passover that the most Jews were present in Jerusalem and that any agitation against Rome would most likely take place.

If Crossan and Borg are right, then Pilate’s entourage was being imitated, and mocked, at the other end of the city by a lowly Galilean peasant carpenter, riding a donkey, greeted by excited revelers, laying out coats and waving palm fronds in deliberate parody of Pilate’s entrance to the city. (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem. HarperCollins Paperback, 2007, pp. 2-5)

It was inevitable that these two opposing visions of power, authority, and peace would clash. And it was predictable who would be the loser.

Ever been in that situation—where you know right from the beginning that you’re going to lose?

When I was in Seventh Grade, I was constantly being picked on by a big bruiser of a kid, Melvin Brown. There was a point when, even though he terrified me, I just had too much pride to allow it to go on anymore. So one day at recess, I challenged him to a fight.

(Now please, kids and their parents, I am not recommending my junior high behavior to anyone! I’m only telling a story!)

Now the thing to remember about this fight is that I was going to lose. It was a foregone conclusion. I did not stand a chance. When we stood there in the courtyard, the traditional place for a fight, surrounded by the crowd egging us on, I noticed for the first time in no uncertain terms exactly how much bigger Melvin was than me. There was moi, wearing my coke bottle glasses that I had to hand to a kid who’d volunteered to be my “second,” and there was Melvin, who looked like he ate a whole cow for breakfast and it all went to his shoulders.

My strategy: kick him where it hurts. And that’s what I did. Twice.

It didn’t hurt him.

Then Melvin, his hands up like a boxer, began to slap-box me. Hands the size of cinder blocks came at me again and again, and I had not a clue how to cover up. At some point, I don’t remember how, the fight ended. For days after that the left side of my face was swollen.

After that, strangely, Melvin and I became friends. Admittedly it was a friendship that was a bit nervous on my end, but I think it was sincere on his part. And at some point I realized something: Melvin didn’t have to slap box me. If he’d closed his fist even once, in all honesty, that kid could probably have put me in the hospital. That’s how much bigger he was than me.

Melvin Brown showed me mercy. And I never forgot it.

If the only picture we had of Pontius Pilate was the one that’s drawn by the Gospel writers, we might perceive him to be a noble, thoughtful individual—conflicted—torn between doing what the Judean leaders were asking him to do and doing what his heart told him was right, which was to recognize Jesus as harmless and let him go.

If all we had to go by was the Bible. Unfortunately for poor Pontius Pilate, we also have history, and history does not paint him nearly so well. The Pontius Pilate of history was without doubt the most bloody and most anti-Semitic of all the Roman proconsuls who ever ran Judea. Pilate was the only procurator in Judea who persistently, and intentionally, violated Rome’s policy of treating the Jewish religion with respect in order to keep the peace. Apparently Pilate was an Emperor Cult fundamentalist, who believed that Jews’ refusal to bow to the emperor’s statue was an insult to Caesar. He ended up killing hundreds of unarmed Jewish men, women, and children who protested his disrespect for their religion.

The irony was that by his pig-headed insistence on promoting the emperor cult at the cost of Jewish religious beliefs, he was violating Roman policy and making Caesar Tiberius himself furious with him. Ultimately, it led to Caesar calling Pilate back to Rome in a fury, intent to punish him. Pilate’s fate is lost to history.

The Pontius Pilate of history is not the noble, conflicted, sympathetic bureaucrat of the Bible. The Pilate of history was a bully, pure and simple. He was an Emperor cult fundamentalist, an anti-Semite, and apparently not bright enough to learn from his own mistakes.

By any measure, Pilate shouldn’t have treated Jesus any differently than he did anybody else. It should not even have been an issue what to do about a potential trouble-maker at Passover: Execute him. No one would even have questioned it.

Jesus knew what kind of man Pilate was. But, incredibly, Jesus himself gives Pilate a “bye.” Jesus tells Pilate, “You would have no power over me if it were not given you from above. Therefore, the one who handed me over to you is guilty of the greater sin (John 19: 11).”

Jesus himself absolves Pilate of blame. Pilate is just a poor, poor player who struts and frets his time on stage, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. His grabs for power are sideshows to the main event—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Pilate of the Bible, in contrast to the Pilate of history, seems somehow to sense this. For a while he has become aware that beyond his political and military machinations there is some great cosmic meaning, and somehow it revolves around this man, Jesus of Nazareth. We who read the Bible see a side of Pilate that we’d never know from history—a man who actually struggles with an ethical question instead of employing his usual ham-handed approach. A man who has been allowed a peek—just a peek–behind the cosmic curtain and has suddenly discovered, to his dismay, that there are far larger, deeper, and mysterious matters going on than he has ever dreamt in whatever it was that passed for his philosophy.

The Pontius Pilate of history is redeemed by the Pontius Pilate of the Bible. Pilate was the man who put the final stamp of approval on the execution of the Savior of Humankind, and as a result he, or at least his reputation, is the very first thing saved by the cross of Christ.

It’s hard to imagine that a man like Pilate, a man who tried so hard to be a winner, didn’t know deep down, that actually he was a loser. Nothing could be more obvious than that such a man is compensating for some kind of deep inferiority complex. And somehow Jesus touched that side of him, the side he spent so much time trying to hide, the scared boy trying to be a man. For some reason, Pilate respected Jesus, even felt empathy-empathy!– enough that he tried to make Jesus’ accusers sympathetic and empathetic, too. He presented Jesus whipped, mocked, and beaten, to His accusers, in hopes they’d realize what a pathetic figure Jesus was and relent. Pilate doing this was the equivalent of Melvin Gray slap-boxing me instead of beating me into the concrete. It was an act of mercy.

It is because of this completely new and uncharacteristic quality of mercy that the Bible remembers Pontius Pilate better than history does. Somehow Jesus found tenderness and vulnerability in this bloodthirsty bully and for a moment it changed him. For a moment it turned the monster into a human being.

One of the sad realities of history is that this new feeling, this discovery of empathy and mercy in meeting Jesus, didn’t stick. After Jesus’ death, Pilate went back to his old habits, ultimately leading to his own destruction.

But for a moment, one of the great villains of history discovered mercy, empathy, and shared humanity in meeting the Son of God.

I said recently in a sermon that God is on the side of the losers, not the winners; and someone asked me afterwards, “If God welcomes everybody, then shouldn’t God be on the side of the winners as well as the losers?”

The answer is that there aren’t winners. We can convince ourselves that we’re winners, but we aren’t. And deep down, we know it. It’s the “loser” side of us that interests God. It’s the part of us that knows we’re weak, and inadequate, and vulnerable that enables us to understand one another. It’s this “loser” side that finds mercy and empathy with our fellow human beings.

And it is as a loser that Jesus meets us—riding humbly on a donkey–whipped, beaten and mocked by soldiers—dying broken on a cross.

Pilate thought he was a winner, but history shows us that he wasn’t. When he met the Lord of Life, humble and vulnerable, it got him in touch, for a brief moment, with his own vulnerability, his own suffering, his own need. It was a moment that he could have been transformed. That happened for my enemy, who became my friend, Melvin Brown. Our fight changed him and made him decide to be my friend.

That didn’t happen for Pontius Pilate. But his moment of transformative possibility is fixed for us forever in Scripture as a promise that even the worst of us can be transformed, we can be humanized, we can be redeemed–when we meet the God who died on the cross to save Pontius Pilate—and to save us all.


 “The Cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his or her cross, with all of its difficulties and all its agonizing and tension-packed content, and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way that comes only through suffering.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, National Conference on Religion and Race, 1963.