Pontius Pilate and the Abuse of Authority
By Alice Doyle
While no race or person bears sole responsibility for the death of Jesus, the authority to say yes or no to His crucifixion ultimately rested on one man, Pontius Pilate. Though many individuals helped to send Christ to the cross including Judas, the traitor, only Pilate’s name is repeated daily — forever linked to Jesus’ death by the words “suffered under Pontius Pilate”.
Pilate’s case exemplifies the triumph of evil due to weak devotion to truth and justice. It’s clear that Pilate valued justice. All four gospels tell us he struggled with Jesus’ case. He did not want to condemn an innocent man. Several times he faced the people saying, “I find no fault in Him.” (John 18:38) and “It is plain He has done nothing which deserves death.” (Luke 23:15). Pilate declared Jesus, “an innocent man.” (Matthew 27:24) Clearly, he knew the truth, and knew what he, as judge, should do. In the face of the angry Jewish mob, however, Pilate wanted to appease them. He questioned Jesus, hoping to find something to balance against the claims of His enemies.
Ironically, while deciding Jesus’ case, Pilate received evidence of Jesus’ innocence in the form of a dream. “Even as he sat on the judgment seat, his wife had sent him a message, ‘do not meddle with this innocent man; I dreamed today that I suffered much on His account.’” (Matthew 27:19) Consider what people before him did due to dreams. Joseph took Mary as his wife. The magi changed their route home. Joseph fled with his family into Egypt.
Although Pilate could not present Claudia’s dream to the Jews as proof of Jesus’ innocence, it should have fortified him to do what justice demanded. Knowing that Jesus was innocent, Pilate had no authority but to release Him. In the end, however, Pilate refused to exercise his authority, washed his hands of the whole thing, and turned his power over to the people who perpetrated the greatest injustice of all time in his name.
It is typical to reflect on Pilate’s role in Christ’s passion and condemn his weakness in much the same way one despises the weakness of contemporary leaders including some among our own shepherds. A more difficult question to consider is how Pilate’s case applies to each of us individually.
As Christians, we are all called to be leaders for two reasons. First, we are blessed by God with knowledge of the Truth. Second, each of us is entrusted with authority of his own. Authority is a combination of power and obligation. It always requires self-sacrifice. Consider positions of authority you hold. Are you a leader at work or church? Do you head a group or committee? Are you a teacher or coach, a parent or grandparent, an aunt or uncle, an older sibling, a godparent? Are you an expert in a particular field? Has anyone ever asked your opinion or advice or questioned you about your faith? In each of these situations, God’s authority is on loan to us. We can abuse His gift in two ways – by using authority unjustly or by refusing to use it at all. The first case involves an attack on truth and justice, the second, a failure to defend them. Either way, by commission or omission, evil prevails. The second case may not appear quite as bad because the person who refuses to carry the cross of authority may appeal to the merit of a less important virtue such as tolerance, peace or unity. The choice of a lesser virtue over truth, however, crucifies it as effectively as a direct attack. And, as our modern culture illustrates, eventually leads to hatred of truth itself.
Pilate’s story is a negative model for us. We might ask ourselves in an examination of conscience, “How have I behaved like Pilate?” “Have I washed my hands of responsibility I should have shouldered?” “Have I chosen personal comfort or some lesser virtue such as tolerance or peace over truth?” “Have I feared men more than I fear God?”
As a wife and mother I reflect on the difficulty with which I carry my small cross of authority. It makes me sympathize with secular and religious leaders whose crosses are heavier. I have heard it said that we get the leaders we deserve. Perhaps as we pray for them daily, we should also try to become ourselves the kinds of leaders we desire.