When You, O God, stood before Caiaphas, and thought being the Judge, You were given over to Pilate, the Heavenly Powers were shaken with fear. Then lifted upon the wood between two robbers, You the sinless On, were numbered with the transgressors, in order to save mankind. O Most forbearing Lord, glory to You.
~12th Antiphon, 12 Gospels, Holy Thursday Evening, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when He was accused by the chief priests and elders, He made no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?” But He gave him no answer, not even to a single charge; so that the governor wondered greatly. Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered Him up. Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over Him today in a dream.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let Him be crucified.” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let Him be crucified.”
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered Him to be crucified.
Pontius Pilate is one of the most well-known figures in the Holy Week narrative and in my opinion, also one of the most intriguing. He was a powerful man, being the procurator (or Roman provincial governor of Judea). As his territory was far from Rome, it was also not one of the most desirable posts in the Roman government, so he was also probably frustrated with it, and hoped to move up to a better assignment. Because of this, he wanted to keep peace in the area, he wouldn’t have wanted any negative reports to go to Rome about any incidents that would reflect negatively on Rome, and therefore on him as well. You might say there was an uneasy relationship with Pilate and the Jews. Sure, he was ruling over them. But it was a tenuous peace. The Jews knew that he couldn’t afford to have any uprisings among them, so their leadership could be bold with Pilate.
The Roman governor had authority over life and death, and was the arbiter in death penalty cases, of which there were many. Execution was an often-used method of punishment. On the day Jesus was crucified, there were two other thieves who were crucified with Him. Crucifixion wasn’t reserved for murders, even thieves could be executed. Golgotha, which is called the Place of the Skull, had this designation because it was the place of execution, a prominent place where crucifixions could take very publicly, as a deterrent to those thinking of breaking the law.
When Jesus came before Pilate, Pilate had no reason to not just execute Jesus. Yet, Pilate was intrigued and questioned Jesus on his own. Pilate didn’t really believe Jesus was guilty of anything. So, he tried a few things to get Jesus released. There was a custom that at the feast of Passover, the governor would release any prisoner that the people wanted. He had a notorious prisoner named Barabbas. Pilate decided to offer the people a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, a man of peace versus a man of violence. While he was setting this up, Pilate’s wife told him to have nothing to do with Jesus, that she had suffered much in a dream over this, and that Jesus was a righteous man.
The crowd was influenced by the chief priests to demand the release so when Pilate offered them a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, the crowd demanded the release of Barabbas. Pilate was undoubtedly surprised. When he asked what he should do with Jesus, the crowd demanded that He be crucified. Again, this shows the power of suggestion, that this same crowd who had cheered Jesus as a king just five days earlier when He entered into Jerusalem were not jeering and demanding He be crucified. It just goes to show how people can be influenced by those controlling the narrative. In this case, the chief priests and elders were persuading the people to have Jesus crucified. In modern day, it is the media and politicians who are controlling the narrative and people are being convinced of non-truths because of loud opinions.
Pilate was still uneasy about meeting their demands. So, he again asked what Jesus had done? The crowd, now in a frenzy, was not going to address any questions. They adamantly demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. No doubt Pilate was evaluating his options and looking at all possible outcomes. Perhaps he saw his career flash before him. He saw a riot breaking out. If news of unrest got back to Rome, perhaps he would be stuck in this horrible post away from Rome forever. Perhaps he would get an even worse assignment.
Pilate then asked for water to “wash his hands” of the problem, and in so doing, he said that he was innocent of killing Jesus, “innocent of this Man’s blood.” (Matthew 27:24) The people told Pilate in return, “His blood be on us and our children.” (27:25)
Who, then, is responsible for killing Jesus? Was it the Jews who delivered Jesus to Pilate? Was it the crowd that demanded it? Was it Pilate who went along with it, despite washing his hands of the issue? Was it the Roman soldiers, who were just acting on orders?
Two interesting points are raised here. First, it is easier to wash our hands of a problem, than to stand up under intense pressure to do what the crowd wants. Many times in life we will be confronted with a conflict over whether to go with the crowd or go against the crowd. In fact, this is where character is measured, when we do what is right, not necessarily is popular. Secondly, it is very easy to deflect blame off our ourselves and put it somewhere else. For instance, the Jews will blame the Romans for crucifying Jesus, Pilate washed his hands, the crowd might say “we didn’t put the nails in.” The fact is that all were complicit in the death of Jesus. Because all were there and no one stood up to stop it. There are many situations in life where we will be confronted with the same thing—something wrong is happening that needs to be stopped and no one will step up to stop it. Instead we will wash our hands, or listen to the narrative of someone else instead of to our own heart and what it’s telling us.
“Let Him be crucified!” cried they, who had always benefitted by Your gifts of Grace. The slayers of the righteous, requested a malefactor, instead of the Benefactor; but You, O Christ were silent, enduring their impudence, that You might suffer, and save us, as a Loving Lord. (8th Antiphon, 12 Gospels, Holy Thursday Evening, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas)
When you know something is wrong, speak to what is right. Don’t wash your hands of it, don’t go along with the crowd and don’t listen to the narrative you know isn’t true. May we all have the courage to do what is right even if it means going against the crowd.