by Jeremiah Bartram on 16/11/09 at 7:42 am
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “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.” John 18, 33-37; reading for November 22, 2009.
NRSV: “This exchange [meaning the whole passage] is laced with sarcasm.” It further notes that the charge that Jesus called himself “King of the Jews” constituted sedition – although the Jewish authorities do not make that (or any) accusation in John’s account. Thus, Pilate’s question seems to come from nowhere.
Hardy notes that “we must assume that more passed in the conversation between Pilate and the Jews than is actually recorded here.” Pilate’s question to Jesus occurs in all four gospel accounts, and Jesus’ response “was always marked by a certain reserve. Here, the same reserve is expanded into a definition of the exact sense in which Jesus could admit to being a ‘king’. To understand it, we need to remember that the word ‘kingdom’ need not imply any territorial claims; it is equivalent to ‘reign’, and on other occasions Jesus had prophesied that, as the Son of Man, he would share in the reign, or ‘kingship’, of God the Father.”
Alain Marchadour (in “Les Evangiles, Textes et Commentaires”, Bayard, 2001) reminds us that the historical Pilate was a cynical and cruel ruler. John has softened his character in order to explore the nature of Jesus’ royalty and the limits of the civil power. The royalty that Jesus asserts is neither what the Jewish nation looked back to, as existing before the foreign conquest; nor is it a human office imposed by military power. Rather, it comes from elsewhere, as does Jesus himself. Anyone who welcomes Jesus becomes part of his kingdom, which is both now and to come; his subjects are those who “belong to the truth”. Thus, when Pilate famously asks, “What is truth?” he is refusing to become a disciple, a citizen in that kingdom.
Gospel for gays
Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and perhaps some other denominations celebrate the Feast of Christ the King on November 22, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. I love this feast, for reasons I don’t entirely understand; maybe I’ll gain some insights in reflecting on its reading in this post.
As a feast, it is quite recent. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, to remind Christians of their true allegiance in the face of virulent Communist and Fascist ideologies that claimed to create earthly paradises that would fulfill every human need, while exerting absolute dominion over their populations.
The first thing that strikes me about today’s reading is how carefully focused it is. Pilate’s famous rejoinder, “What is truth?” is not included. And we are not invited to contemplate the abused and humiliated figure of Jesus whom Pilate shows to the crowd a few hours later, bruised, bloody, mockingly wrapped in a purple robe and crowned with thorns: “Ecce homo; Behold your king!”
Neither are we asked to imagine the end of time and the coming of Christ the victorious king of glory. That was last week. This is different. This reading consists of a dialogue between the captive Jesus and the representative of imperial power. They talk on different levels – and that is the point.
Let’s review the three phases of their exchange.
Pilate begins by asking, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus does not answer, but instead shifts the focus to Pilate himself: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
It is a question that invites a certain interiority on Pilate’s part, and it pulls him into a relationship with Jesus, as an equal. He rejects this uncomfortable invitation abruptly, contemptuously and asserts his dominance: “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
I note that Pilate drops his question about kingship, merely demanding to know what Jesus has done to offend his accusers. However, Jesus does not answer him. Instead, he continues to expand on the theme of kingship, describing his kingdom while refusing to call himself a “king”: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate shifts again – and we have to imagine that he is both intrigued and dissatisfied with these elusive counter questions and answers. He demands certainty: “So you are a king?”
But Jesus refuses to answer directly. “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.”
The reading ends here, without (as I noted above) including Pilate’s famous rejoinder, “What is truth?” – surely a rhetorical statement rather than a genuine question. He is actually saying, “There is no Truth. Everything is relative. Therefore, nothing matters.”
What do these three exchanges tell us about Jesus our king, and his kingdom?
First, it is interior: “Did you ask this on your own?” He who seeks, finds; knock and the door will open. But if you refuse to seek, and fail to knock – you won’t find it.
Secondly, it is not restrictive in its scope. Pilate asks a very specific question: “Are you the king of the Jews?” In his responses and counter questions, Jesus moves the dialogue away from the specific to the general. He is not king of the Jews – or the Romans, or the Greeks, or any specific nation.
Thirdly, it is not of this world. The jaded but intelligent Pilate does not understand what Jesus is talking about; indeed, he is frustrated by this elusive but somehow magnetic man, who is not afraid of him and behaves like an equal. And the followers of Jesus are not using arms to establish his kingdom by force.
Further, its citizens “belong” to truth, an intriguing phrase; and Jesus came into this world to bear witness to truth. A less rhetorical version of Pilate’s question seems appropriate to me, at this point: what truth do you mean, Lord?
The truth that God is our father and loves us? The truth with which John opens his gospel, of the Word that was in the beginning, through whom the world was made, now made flesh in this man, Jesus, who is about to die at the hands of men who do not belong to his kingdom? The truth of the Resurrection? All these things?
And finally, Jesus refuses to declare himself a king. It is we who do this, not he.
Ambiguous kingdom; mysterious king.
Is there a gay reading to this gospel?
Maybe not a particular gay reading – because it speaks to everyone. I think that’s why I like this feast so much. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. His kingship and kingdom include all time, and all eternity.
So it includes us, too.
And when we bear witness to the truth of our gay natures and the holiness of our gay experience, I think we are imitating him, and through that imitation, we are declaring ourselves to be his followers. He is our King.
And I think we “belong” to truth by listening to his voice, the voice that speaks within us, the voice of our conscience, the voice of love. And thus we belong to his Kingdom.