What do we do with Pontius Pilate? On the one hand, he’s the bad guy. He represents Empire. He holds the power of life and death and reminds Jesus of that. On the other hand, Pontius Pilate pleads with Jesus to give him something to work with. Pilate may not be a nice guy but he can see that Jesus has been wrongly accused and he really seems to be trying to release him, for he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. How much Pilate cared about justice we don’t know. It may be that it was his own wife who was the greatest influence, for Matthew tells us that, While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.
So, in the end, Pilate made his decision. When Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”
As we hear the stories of our faith week after week, year after year, we are invited to find ourselves in the story. Tonight we ponder Pontius Pilate, a man who seems so different from us—a man of privilege and power, a man from a far-off place in a far-off time. And yet, we recognize Pilate’s situation. Seeing the right thing to do, he chose not to do it. For the sake of self-interest, out of fear, he publicly, literally, washed his hands of the problem.
I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves. Under pressure, Pontius Pilate refused to take responsibility. His response leads us to ask this question: Who do we not take responsibility for? The poor? Those without shelter? Those without health care? People of different races or religions or nationalities—or anyone who is not like us? How many of us have prided ourselves in pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps? If I can do it, so can they! we say—which almost completely misses the spirit of the one who was crucified, who refused to wash his hands of other people and their problems. Jesus went out of his way to get his hands dirty, to steep himself in the messiness and ugliness of life, as an example for us all.
Although this day is called Good Friday there are no heroes on Good Friday. There is no one in this story who is good. Just lots of flawed, frightened human beings like us. Faced with choices that may have some effect on the well-being of others, sometimes we don’t know what the right choice is. But a lot of times we are like Pontius Pilate. We know what the right thing is to do for the sake of others but, like Pilate, we find some reason not to do it. Like Cain, following the murder of his brother Abel, we ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Well, Jesus had an answer to that question. Yes, he said, I am my brother’s keeper. I take responsibility for others, especially those who have little power and few choices. I am willing even to die for them.
Dear friends in Christ, we gather this evening to remember that sometimes those who take responsibility for others end up on a cross. On Good Friday we remember that Jesus’ love is not just for us. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Like Jesus himself, therefore, we are our brother’s keeper. We take responsibility for our neighbor. We serve the world. In so doing we come closer to obeying Jesus’ command to love one another, as he has loved us.