Pontius Pilate and How to Forgive Yourself When You Have Ordered That an Innocent Person Be Executed (7th sermon in series, “Lessons from Political Leaders in the Bible”)



What is it like for one human being to hold the life of another human being in her or his hand?  That’s a sobering thought for most young parents transporting their newborn home from the hospital to take care of that precious bundle of life on their own–without the presence of nurses and doctors and aids to help them make sure the baby is OK around the clock, completely in every way.  It’s scary.  You can read all those self help books on parenting you can get your hands on including DUMBING DOWN PARENTING FOR IDIOTS, but nothing can prepare you for the real responsibility of holding your beautiful little baby on your forearm–so fragile in so many ways.  One substantive error could prove dangerous, to say the least.
Medical professionals perhaps more than any of the rest of us know what it’s like to hold the life of a person in hand.  The physician inserts the breathing tube, and the respiratory therapist turns on the respirator; sometimes family members are asked to sign papers so that the respiratory therapist can legally stop artificial breathing support.  What’s coming, everyone knows.  Either the patient breathes on her own his own and makes it or cannot breathe on her or his own soon to depart this life.
Years ago long before I came to Wilmington, I had sinus surgery–rhinoplasty, to be precise; and on the morning of my surgery (and by the way this is the only surgery I’ve ever had) the ENT surgeon came into the pre-surgical holding area bright and early to find me sitting with my kids who were probably 10 and 12 and my parents who’d driven up to Baltimore from Tennessee to take of me post-surgically.  So, there was Dr. Papel, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and he asked sincerely and politely, “How are you this morning?”
I responded by saying, “The answer to that question is nearly immaterial.  The most vital question is:  how are YOU this morning?  Do you feel well?  Are you hands steady?  Did you have a happy beginning to your day and a trouble-free drive to the hospital?  Did you and your spouse part on positive terms?  Children were getting ready for school without causing you grief?  Overall, are your physical and emotional states in the A or A+ categories?  And I’d like to ask the same questions of the anesthesiologist.”
He smiled and said, “Reverend, you’re one of my most unusual patients.  Only the best for you, sir.  I’m going to roto-rooter those nasal passages and sinus cavities, and we’ll have you in the recovery room in no time.”
“What’s the rush?” I asked.
“See you in the OR, Reverend.”  At that point the nurse pops in to get a signature that says if you summarize those several pages, “You agree that if the surgeon or the anesthesiologist or any member of the medical staff makes an error seeming to cause your malfunctioning or your death, they can’t be held responsible because everyone who works here always tries to do her or his best.”  It’s an odd series of papers to sign and hardly comforting as you prepare to put your life in the hand of one or more of these medical professionals.  “Vulnerability” is the operative word!
Outside the hospital, paramedics in much more complicated situations and locations also hold the life of a human being in their hands–immediately after a car accident or in response to a dangerous health incident in the home.  The paramedics are the ones who are there quickly on the scene to administer all the life giving techniques possible, and many lives are saved that otherwise wouldn’t be.
Similarly, firefighters willingly, knowingly, courageously walk or climb into blazing buildings for one reason alone.  They are there under tremendous risk to save lives or only one life.  Finding a victim who has not yet succumbed to the smoke and the flames, a firefighter will often hold the life of a fellow human being in her or his hand.
There are a number of people who regularly take classes in lifesaving just in case, just-in-case there’s ever a need for her or him to use those skills.  This reveals a very high view of human life, worth living beyond an accident or a negative health incident.
In a much longer term way, an excellent therapist has countless times held someone’s physical life in her or his hand, and whether or not that client’s life continues depends to some degree on the work the therapist is able to do with her or him on mental and emotional health improvement.  Who knows how many people are walking around in this realm today because of the profound concern of an insightful counselor who values human life and who talked and listened and suggested until the person finally saw the ray of hope deep down inside somewhere that kept her or him wanting to live.
I knew of a preacher early in my pastoral ministry who got an anonymous note from somebody who’d heard his sermon the previous week, and the note said something to this effect:  “I had planned for this Sunday to be my last trip to church–not just your church but any church. In fact, I had planned for my church visit this week to be my last visit anywhere. I came to church to try to close out some things within myself and with God if I possibly could because I fully intended on Sunday afternoon to take my own life. But I heard your sermon; at first I was only half listening. I heard your sermon, though, and that is why I am here today why. I have no clue exactly what it was you said, but as a result I believed that I could productively press on.”
Astounding American preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, is the Episcopal rector who became famous for writing a book about leaving the church, which she did–at least for a time.  She is now professor of Philosophy and Religion at Piedmont College in south Georgia and a part-time seminary professor at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where she coordinates a Doctor of Ministry program in spirituality.  She has preaching responsibilities again, this time at a small church, which is as much, I believe I’ve heard her say, as she ever plans to take on again.  The little church is typically full every Sunday of the year–mostly because of her preaching.  She has been named several times, by groups who compile such lists, as one of the ten greatest preachers in this country or one of the ten greatest preachers who preach in the English language.  In talking to students about the importance of preaching she said once sermon time is no time to waste time. The sermon is not for dealing with insignificant matters just to fill time or to impress the congregation.  Taylor said that in the small group to whom she preaches every week–half of which are probably visitors who have driven or been bussed in to try to get a seat in the small church so that they might hear for themselves one of the ten greatest preachers in our time.  She has told her students and her sister and brother preachers that she estimates in a congregation that small, there are ten people facing death.  For some, death is at hand.  For others, there’s no immanence to it, but they’ve received a diagnosis with a minimum and a maximum number of years remaining attached to it.  She believes that part of the preacher’s task is to give these people, especially these, sparks of reasons to love life until the very end.  In a real sense, then, their lives are in the preacher’s hand.

Not all who hold a life in hand treat it with care in the hopes of preserving it.  Alois Brunner was Eichmann’s secretary in Vienna when Jews first began being sent to death camps. It was Brunner’s job to register Austrian Jews and then arrange to deport them to the east where the first death camps had been built.
He was so good at what he did that he was transferred to Berlin to register Jews there and arrange for their deportation, again to the death camps. How many deaths he had a hand in I suppose no one knows, even himself.  He still realized, however, that what he did in the eyes of most people around the world was both criminal and subhuman. That held no sway with him; in his mind he did exactly what he should have done. After the war he changed his name to Alois Schmaldienst, and he lived in Essen.  In 1954 he was sentenced to death in absentia by a French court where he had also done some work during Hitler’s reign of terror.  At this point he fled to Damascus, Syria, where he was granted complete asylum living under the assumed name of Dr. Gregor Fischer.  In Damascus, Brunner lost an eye and a few fingers as a result of a mail bomb sent to him by the Mossad, the Israeli secret police.
The Chicago Sun Times reported in a 1987 article detailing the results of a telephone interview with Alois Brunner, aka Dr. Gregor Fischer, and he was quoted by the reporter as having said this: “The Jews deserved to die. I have no regrets. If I had the chance I would do it again.”
Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia remains an ardent proponent of the death penalty despite the increasing numbers of discoveries that innocent people have been put death.  He says that the machinery of death, his phrase, operates in an accurate and effective manner.  He insists, despite what one source calls an inundation of fresh news stories of wrongful capital convictions, that capital cases are given especially close scrutiny at every level. In a 2006 or 2008 opinion written by Justice Scalia, a legal scholar says that Antonin Scalia is so eager to defend America’s currently indefensible capital punishment statutes that he is willing to ridicule his most senior colleague on the Supreme Court.  He insists that evidence of wrongful convictions are exaggerated and that there is ample evidence that the system works and has the backing of a Constitution that permits the death penalty even if it is poorly or unfairly or inaccurately carried out.
A young woman by the name of Melissa Harrington who was 27 years old back in 2008 when she, under the influence, hit a bicyclist with her vehicle and killed him.  By getting behind the wheel under the influence, she made the choice that her alcohol consumption was more important than the lives of those who would be driving and walking and running near her as she sort of drove home.  A month or so after the incident, she was in jail, and she talked to a friend on the telephone; the jail’s policy was to record all telephone conversations in which prisoners were involved.  The male friend with whom she was speaking told her not to feel bad about what had happened, that she should be given a medal instead of a jail term.  With one little swerve, she had killed a Frenchman and a gay guy all in one.  She laughed.  The prison officials carried a tape of the conversation to the judge who upped her sentence from about five years to the near maximum she could be given in Arizona, ten and a half years.  In explaining his actions, the judge called Harrington’s laughter breathtaking in its diminishment of humanity.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas by lethal injection in 2004. There was concern by defense attorneys and others at the time about the validity of the investigation.  There was a fire at the Willingham home; his wife was away.  He escaped with burns and bruises; their daughters died in the inferno.  Investigators said there was clear evidence of arson, and on the basis of that Willingham was found guilty and sentenced to death.  Governor Rick Perry refused to stay the execution.  Concerns about holes in the prosecution’s case and especially the conclusion of investigators that Willingham had set fire to his own home in order to kill his daughters, left many of those close to the case with significant doubts.  A commission was appointed to reinvestigate, and one of the first issues to be raised was that there was no where near enough evidence to prove that the fire was caused by arson.  If this were true, judge and jury and governor had sent an innocent man to his death.  Perry replaced three members of the commission with three of his plants, but even they had to agree that there was no convincing evidence of arson.  Willingham had been unjustly executed.

May 1981. St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. An assassin attempts to kill the Pope, Pope John Paul II. In a Time magazine article reflecting back on that frightening moment for many citizens of the world, a writer says, “Ordinarily the spasm of savagery simply passes and recedes in time, an ugly, vivid memory.”   What we had seen in the spring of ’81 speeding across our television screens time and time again was the attempted murder and its aftermath.  We heard the shot, and then the Pope fell backwards in the Popemobile, blood spattering his white robes.  Security personnel and medical professionals jumped into action, and the Popemobile disappeared.  No one knew whether his eminence would live with full recovery, live with permanent impairment, or die.  About three years later, John Paul II showed up at the jail cell of his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ah Agca.  He spent about twenty minutes with the man who had wanted him dead; he held the prisoner’s hand offering physical pastoral comfort.  The Pope forgave him for what he had tried to do, and the two men became reconciled to each other in an unbelievable drama–beyond the comprehension of many of us.  Referring again to the reflective Time magazine article:  “On one level, it was an intensely intimate transaction between two men. But if the Pope spoke in whispers, he also meant to proclaim a message to the world….He wanted the image in that cell to be shown around a world filled with nuclear arsenals and unforgiving hatreds, with hostile superpowers and smaller implacable fanaticisms.”
We can assume with accuracy that the life for the man who dared to try to kill the Pope, if he were permitted to live in the long run, would have been no life at all.  In a real sense, therefore, the Pope held this man’s life in his hand, and in the hand of the Bishop of Rome, a would-be assassin’s life was renewed and restored.  Had the Pope not gone to meet the one who had been willing to kill him, there would have been no criticism of the Pope.  I can’t help hearing the words of Jesus wafting down from his cross, prayer words:  “God, please forgive these Roman executioners; they don’t understand what they are doing.”
Much closer to us and much more recently, a crazed truck driver, a milk delivery driver in Amish areas without their own dairy cows, drove up to an Amish school for girls, said he was still angry and hurting about something that happened twenty years ago, and then Charles Roberts shot several of the girls execution style before killing himself.  Three of these young women, part of one of the most pacifist religious groups in the world, died almost immediately and two others at area hospitals a few hours later.  Five others were critically wounded, but I think all of them have recovered physically.
He wasn’t around, obviously, to have to take responsibility for what he did or to receive forgiveness from a community of grace that amazed the world.  About a year after the terrifying murders of mere children, the Amish community of which the parents and families of the those girls is associated donated money to the killer’s widow and her three young children.  Signs of forgiveness, however, began almost immediately and weren’t held off until the financial gift a year after the fact.  Sociologist Donald Kraybill commented in his book, Amish Grace:  How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, “I think the most powerful demonstration of the depth of Amish forgiveness was when members of the Amish community went to the killer’s burial service at the cemetery.  Several families, Amish families who had buried their own daughters just the day before, were in attendance and they hugged the widow and hugged other members of the killer’s family.”  Of all things, those who had lost the most were extending a life-giving hand to the violent man’s family whom society at large might have written off as reminders of the carnage.  The Amish couldn’t have done what they did for the family of Charles Roberts had they not first forgiven him and renewed their view of the value of life.
Pontius Pilate was not the big boss. As we look back on the story with which many of us are familiar, we tend to think that he was the big boss, but no.  Pilate worked for the Roman emperor who at the time was Tiberius Caesar, and everything that Pilate did had to meet with the approval of Tiberius.  Keep this in mind as we look at this familiar story with a different angle today, with an angle that will show us how Pilate behaved politically.
Pilate did not like the Jewish people. He considered his assignment from the emperor a kind of punishment or a kind of indication that he wasn’t suitable for more responsible opportunities. So when he had to give his undivided attention to matters Jewish such as at the large festivals when thousands of Jews gathered from all over that part of the world to commemorate their heritage and define who they were to the world as well as to their offspring.  Pilate had to be close at hand to be certain that nothing went wrong. What the Emperor most feared in terms of something that could’ve gone wrong was an uprising that would’ve mandated the involvement of the Roman legions to fight the people back into submission; he did not want that call.  If Pilate didn’t stay on top of things and some such event occurred then once the uprising was calmed Pilate would’ve been called to the headquarters of Tiberius back in Rome and chewed out, maybe demoted, maybe relieved of all duties in service to the Emperor. There was a lot at stake professionally and politically for Pilate in this event, which happened to be revolved around the Jewish Passover Feast, a time when they reminded themselves, annually, what it took to get them released from Egyptian slavery and out into the wilderness on their way to a freedom they eventually weren’t sure they wanted.  Another story.
As has been made clear to us in fairly recent years by diligent Jesus scholars, the story of how Pilate came to give approval to Jesus’ execution has been tweaked beyond recognition by those who offered interpretations without studying anything of what we know of Pilate outside of scripture and what can be known about the culture in which he ruled over the Jews on behalf of the Emperor of the mighty Roman Empire.  Be sure you understand these two facts:  1) There weren’t hoards of Jews screaming in Pilate’s face, demanding that he crucify Jesus.  That would have felt like an uprising to Pilate, and he’d have called armies assigned to serve him while he presided over the Passover celebration ordering them to mow down these unruly Jews.  Another reason we can know it wasn’t a large group is that there weren’t hoards of Jews who wanted Rome to kill any Jew, regardless of what her or his offense might have been.  It is a fact, though, that officially the death penalty could not be pronounced by any Jew; only the Emperor or the Emperor’s representative had that power.  2) The Jews pressing Pilate to crucify Jesus were speaking to him in a spirit of collaboration though their voices might well have gotten louder when they were stressing that Barabbas should go free while Jesus should be crucified.  Interesting tidbit here from New Testament scholar, William Blevins.  Barabbas was a last name, not a first name.  In Hebrew, and I gather also in Aramaic, the three letters “bar” meant son or son of.   Barabbas, thus, meant son of Abbas.  Blevins thinks his first name also was Jesus, actually Yeshua.  Jesus or Yeshua Barabbas.  Which Jesus would be crucified?  Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Barjoseph?  The Jews negotiating with Pilate said that Barabbas was a troublemaker but not quite the insurrectionist Jesus was; they were sad to have to say it of one of their own, they lied, but Barjoseph was the greatest threat to continued happy associations between Romans and Jews.
Pilate disagreed, but he went with the flow.  Some say that his wife sympathized with Jesus and pressed him not to have Jesus executed.  In the end, for Pilate, no one Jew was more worthwhile than another.  Knowing that Jesus did have some seriously devoted followers, he publicly washes his hands in a little ritual to say, according to his interpretation, that he wasn’t responsible for Jesus’ death.  Self-absolution.  He ordered the death of a man he knew in his heart to be innocent, and he said so openly, “I find no fault in him.  Wish I could, but I just can’t.”  After that, he immediately forgave himself and went on with his day.  “Another dead trouble-making Jew.  You’d think those people would learn.”
In Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Pilate has a solo in the midst of all this tension and pressure.  Weber has him seeing much of what has been reported as historic instead in a dream.


I dreamed I met a Galilean
A most amazing man
He had that look
You very rarely find
The haunting hunted kind

I asked him
To say what had happened
How it all began
I asked again
He never said a word
As if he hadn’t heard

And next the room was full
Of wild and angry men
They seemed to hate this man
They fell on him and then disappeared

Then I saw thousands of millions
Crying for this man
And then I heard them mentioning my name
And leaving me the blame


The story could have gone completely differently, easily.  Pilate could have said, “There’s no way I’m voting against my conscience.  I’ve done that too much in my life.  I’d like to get it right at least once so let me have the courage to stand up to whomever may oppose me and say for reason of conscience alone, I allowed the man who deserved to live to keep on living.  There’s nothing more to it than that.  I won’t be guilty of putting one more innocent person to death.”  That would have been amazing as an ending to the story; history might have been changed based on Pilate’s courage.  As you know, that wasn’t the case.  Instead, Pilate said, “Kill him if you like.  Why should I care.  Bring a bowl of water.  See, here!  I’m washing my hands of the whole thing so no one can fault me.”
Is that all it takes to relieve oneself of the burden of having taken an innocent life, Mr. S.S. Secretary, Mr. Governor, Mr. Justice, Ms. Laughing Prisoner, Mr. President and Madame Secretary of Defense?  If so, for many politicians and plenty of their constituents, life surely is cheap, isn’t it?


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