Leave Your Box at Home
Are we ready? Are we really ready for God to come to us? Are we ready for the transformation that will entail? Are we ready for what will be required of us?
John’s Gospel suggests that we are not. Over the last two weeks, we have learned how, at the moment that mattered most, the disciples were not ready. First, Peter was completely baffled by Jesus insistence on washing his feet; then Peter denied he even knew Jesus.
The disciples are not ready. But neither is anybody else.
28Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” 31Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” 32(This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)33Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35Pilate 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?” 36Jesus 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.” 37Pilate 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.” 38Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. 39But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 40They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.
The trial of Jesus is a bit of a ping pong match. He is initially arrested by the religious leaders –but they do not have the authority to put him to death. So this week we hear how they shuffled him off to Pilate, the Roman Governor.
What follows is an odd exchange—recorded only in John’s Gospel—between Pilate and Jesus. They seem to speak past one another. Pilate tries to locate Jesus in the categories he understands (“Are you King of the Jews?”). But Jesus insists that my kingdom is not of this world. And Pilate ends the conversation with his famous question: What is truth?
Truth, of course, is exactly what stands before him. Truth will suffer and die. And Pilate won’t do anything to stop it.
The religious leaders aren’t ready. The political leaders aren’t ready. And, as the end of the story reveals, the crowd is not ready. Instead of Jesus, they ask for Barabbas –a “bandit,” a known quantity, someone they can understand.
The crowd prefers a bandit they can comprehend to Truth that refuses to fit in their boxes.
Two quick thoughts, as we get ready for worship this week.
First, John shows some very sophisticated insight into the nature of evil. Pilate is not a mustache-twirling bad guy; he is a harried and overworked state employee. Sometimes the worst deeds do not happen because of anyone actively willing them but because of the casual indifference of bureaucracy.
Second, I despise the cliché “outside of the box.” But I don’t know how else to characterize the conversation between Pilate and Jesus. We all have a tendency to try to fit Jesus into familiar categories. (Among mainline Protestant Christians, politics and self-help seem to be the most popular boxes). But in Jesus Christ, the fullness of God’s truth stands before us and refused reduction to our categories.
God’s truth is breaking into our world, sometimes standing right in front of us. If we want to be ready, this much is clear:
We need to leave our boxes at home.