Neo has written about leadership; in the story of the Passion of the Lord we have two examples: one is Jesus Himself; the other Pilate. If Jesus offers us a leader who is wiling to pay the ultimate price to do what is right, Pilate offers us something we see only too much of in our own world, a political leader with the instincts of the Duke of Plaza Toro – I am their leader, I must follow them.
Pontius Pilate was the prefect of Judea. This was not a first-class governorship. Judea was on the very edge of the Empire, and not the sort of posting given to those on the way up. Pilate, like most governors in such jobs had two priorities: to keep things quiet and make money for himself. The Romans were pragmatists. Gods? They had hundreds of them. So it was irritating that those Jews insisted there was only one of them. What was worse is they wouldn’t bend the knee to the gods of Rome. Live and let live was Pilate’s motto. He went to Judea in about AD 26, and had been there a few years when the Jews brought Jesus to him. He couldn’t see much wrong in the fellow, and he tried to find a way of avoiding blatant injustice. He was quite willing to have him flogged, but crucifying him – that was another matter.
Napoleon once said you could do anything with a bayonet – except sit on it. Imperial rule was not easy. Repression cost money, and everyday life went on because the Jewish authorities usually collaborated in making things easy for him; so his feelings about the innocence or guilt of Jesus, took second place to pragmatism. The Jewish authorities wanted Jesus crucified. Pilate didn’t want any trouble, and you can almost hear him: “Come on, give us a bit of wriggle room here, the man’s basically harmless, how about you cut me a bit of slack.” But they wouldn’t. On the one side the pragmatic politician looking for a way through; on the other men who knew what they wanted and would stick at nothing to get it. If you didn’t know, you’d be able to tell who was going to get their way, and you’d not put money on the first man.
Enter Mrs Pilate, telling him that she’s had a dream and that he should let the man be. That was all he needed, the little lady putting her oar in. Didn’t she realise he had enough trouble with those stiff-necked Jews? Clearly not. Well, only one thing to do, wash his hands of it and let it be. And it all went off well in the end. There weren’t any riots, and although there were the strangest stories that the man had not died, it caused Pilate no problems for a bit. Politics is the art of the possible. You can see him afterward with Mrs P: “Come on my dear, what else could I have done? What do you want? I did my best. Now what’s for supper, not more larks’ tongues?”
How little either of them could have realised that nearly two thousand years later more than a billion people would repeat the name of Pilate every Sunday. It is said that Alexander the Great wanted his name to live forever. Pilate had no such ambition, and yet, ironically, where it was the great daring and ambition of Alexander which ensured that his wish would be granted, it was Pilate’s lack of these things which has made his name live for ever.