The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate of Jesus. The question is timeless. I read the passion narrative and thrill at my omniscience. I know the story better than Jesus. At every passing verse the vivid picture of the arrest, trial and sentence unfold as I know they will. And at every reading each character in the unfolding drama of redemption is drawn inexorably toward a worn path that led out of the walled City to a near-by hillside.
Pilate asks the question that every generation before and since has harboured in silence – afraid to speak its name. Truth and its close companion, reason, appear illusionary. As a magistrate, he was accustomed to weighing right and wrong, innocence and guilt, good and evil. And I suspect that the scales of justice weighed heavily for him. I hear that in his question. Good and evil are, equally, illusionary for the cynic.
I hear Pilate asking the question demanding a decision. Muttered under his breath, Pilate addresses the vapours. And Jesus overhears him.
Worn down by innocence, Pilate knows only that there is but one’s will, and the power to realize one’s will. All else is a linguistic illusion and the bother hardly seems worth the effort of searching out truth. One witness’s testimony is counter-balanced by another. Good is perceived as evil in the fog of deception. Guilt is disguised as innocence. But justice is demanded and justice will be exacted.
The pitcher of water not far off provides little refreshment. A bowl is splashed full and hands rake through the tepid water. Impatiently dried, a towel is carelessly, absently tossed aside.
Bar Abbas proclaimed his innocence. This felon simply stands mute. The startling silence of Jesus challenges him.
Pilate’s judgement is clouded. For him, it is no different his saying, “I want to do this” and “I have the right to do this.” He may grant life or he may extinguish it – as he sees fit. The distinction is not as clear as courtiers might imagine. Ability is confused with will and hands are wrung with perspiration again. The naked expression of one’s will is clothed in the disguise of power and righteousness.
The scene plays out every year. And every year the characters act predictably, seemingly unaware of the dramatic climax approaching. I almost want to blurt out and caution Jesus, protecting him from the deceit of man’s heart. But I cannot. Nothing may prevent this unfolding. As much as I know the story, the scene unfolds predictably, with each character acting out his role. It’s a well worn tale and it has been cherished by every generation that has rehearsed it.
Cherished not for its beauty, understand, neither for its high drama – for the scene is cunning. Cherished, rather, for its faithful witness of man’s primeval will stripped bare of illusion. The wilfulness of Pilate is echoed in every age in small ways and in large ways and his ambivalence reflects traits familiar to us all.
We know it as sin. It’s a distortion of truth.
In small ways we see no difference in saying “I want to do this” and “I have a right to do this.” The expression of our will is disguised. Wilfully we distort truth. Considering truth illusory, good and evil become amorphous servants to our aims and ambitions.
Pilate’s question disallows our deflection of the question to others. He disallows the linguistic illusion of transference. He owns his ambiguity and wrestles with the inner turmoil of his own wilfulness. The temptation is to look for the mote in the other’s eye, to find failed standards in others. Pilate does not do that. Pilate knows his own illusion of truth and justice and takes ownership of his own sin. He does not claim the high moral ground and impose absolutes on others, beyond himself. He does not hold others to a standard that he himself avoids, evades.
The scene is too intimate to allow that.
Here we see Pilate in the Confessional and his priest-confessor is before him, mute.
“I have the right to grant life, or take life” sounds like “I want to do this” dressed up.
Every voice in every generation has breathed this. I hear Pilate breath voicing this for me. I hear others breath echoing Pilate’s question daily. I hear it in the coffee shops. I hear it in the shopping centers. I hear it in churches, and I hear it in homes. I hear it on the radio. I hear it on the television. I hear it in familiar voices, and I hear it in stranger’s voices.
Most recently I have heard it voiced by politicians and militarists. I have heard wilfulness in the voices of Presidents and Prime Ministers, in the voices of Colonels and Generals and Admirals. The illusion of truth beguiles and seduces even those who claim a faith – especially those who claim a faith!
Sin still stands before Jesus. And Jesus remains mute. And he still follows a worn path that leads outside a City wall to a near-by hillside. It has ever been so.
That is the cost of redemption in a world jaded by wilfulness: of Pilate’s as well as mine, of those we love and those who cause us to be afraid and those whom we distrust. The vapour of our illusions evaporates and we are left with a Cross, in silence.
Copyright © 2003 James T. Irvine