When I read the Bible for the first time when I was in my 20s, I had a hard time getting into it. With little knowledge of Christianity and no knowledge of Judaism, I often felt that an impenetrable gulf separated me from the events depicted on the wispy pages of my brand new book. Even the New Testament seemed foreign; it took a while before I was able to feel a connection even to the figure of Christ himself. But there was one exception. One event described in all four of the Gospels jumped off the page to me in its vividness, because I felt an odd connection to one of the main people involved: Pontius Pilate.
When Pilate came on the scene for the first time in the Gospel of Matthew, I sat up in bed, transfixed by what I read. I found the scenes that involved him to be some of the most fascinating that I'd encountered yet, though I couldn't put my finger on why. As I went on to read the accounts of his actions in the books of Mark, Luke and John, however, I came to the unsettling realization of why this person had so captured my interest:
Because he reminded me of me.
Of course I'd heard the name of Pilate before, and knew that he was somehow involved in Jesus' crucifixion, but I'd always pictured him to be nothing more than The Bad Guy, an evil cardboard character, a one-dimensional figure with motives no deeper than that of a B-movie villain. But then I read of his back and forths with the crowds on that fateful Friday, and saw the hesitation in his words even 2,000 after they were spoken. I realized that he was a different person than I'd imagined, that the motives for his choices were complicated, disturbing...and familiar. More than anyone else in the Bible, I saw in him someone whose thought patterns and actions I recognized in an intimate way.
"There is nothing this man has done to deserve death." (Luke 23:15)
Pilate said to them the third time, "But what crime has he committed?" (Luke 23:22)
"You take him, then, and crucify him. I find no reason to condemn him." (John 19:6)
Pilate knew what was right. He knew that this was an innocent man, and seemed to suspect that this might even be someone very special. But with the massive momentum of the crowd barreling down upon him and his political future to consider, there was a lot of pressure to make a certain decision. So what does someone like Pilate do when he or she stands in the face of this kind of temptation? I knew before I read it:
Pilate asked the crowd, "Which one of these two do you want me to set free for you?" (Matthew 27:21)
Pilate wanted to set him free, so he appealed to the crowd again… (Luke 23:20)
You test the water a few times. You keep flirting with the prospect of doing the right thing, hoping against hope that maybe this time it will be easy. But, all too often, there is no easy way out, and you find yourself face-to-face with a choice: You can stand up for what you know to be good and true, or you can be respected by the world. You cannot, however, have both.
He tried to find a way to set Jesus free. But the crowds shouted back, "If you set him free, that means that you are not the Emperor's friend!" (John 19:12)
And when you determine that it's just too difficult to take the high road...
He took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd, and said, "I am not responsible for the death of this man! This is your doing!" (Matthew 27:24)
...You pass the buck. You pat yourself on the back for trying, loudly assure yourself that you would have really liked to stand up for what you knew to be right, but, alas, it would have caused you too many problems. You confuse passivity with innocence, cowardice with blamelessness, and you go wash your hands.
I thought of all this yesterday at Mass, when Pilate made an appearance in the Gospel reading. As our culture becomes more and more hostile to age-old Christian values, any Catholic who openly practices his or her faith is increasingly considered not to be a "friend of the Emperor." We are constantly faced with the same temptation that Pilate faced there in front of the crowds, to wiggle out of uncomfortable situations, to appease the world, and to make excuses for doing so.
Maybe it's wishful thinking, but sometimes I imagine that Pilate eventually experienced profound regret for his despicable actions, and begged for forgiveness from the God whom he literally turned his back on. If so, perhaps he prays for those of us in times like these, as one who understands that no earthly gain is ever worth keeping silent when it's time to stand up for the truth.