“Ecce Homo!”: Pontius Pilate As The Every Man
In the passion narratives, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is not portrayed as a monster, but a man, made of flesh and blood, nerve and passion, and of course ambition and the underbelly of weakness that often accompanies it. In fact, he becomes the sarcastically cynical “every man” caught in the grip of world-changing events who speaks more often than not with accidental irony. Indeed, his life is one great unfolding irony.
Legend has him born beneath an ancient yew tree, symbolizing death. His mother was a Caledonian tribeswoman who pleasured the Roman soldiers stationed at Fortnangall. His father was an official of Caesar, and had a reputation to protect; this half-blood barbarian’s offspring would nevertheless have inherited his name, and been educated as a true Roman. He would have been taught of Romulus and Remus suckled by a she-wolf, and how their great civilization had brought order to a warring world and reached the pinnacle of human achievement. He must been installed with a respect for Roman law and the concept of Roman justice
And yet even though this noble blood flowed through his veins, he could not change the fact that he was of mix race, forever tainted, having come forth into the world the unwanted accident of a night’s folly, under a tree as twisted as the ways of men. He could afford to be a cynic. Perhaps whatever high ideals might have been taught to him were largely superseded by a yearning to find some legitimacy, some sense of belonging…and power. He had a ferocious temper and would have tasted vengeance on his tongue often enough. He must have yearned to make those who treated him with contempt rue the day they crossed paths with him.
He would be a loner, a plodder, a self-made man. But, in spite of all hurdles in his path, he would excel as a military officer through his father’s good name and his own determination. In this capacity, he learned to channel his fiery personality into fighting barbarians to defend and spread the empire. What matter was it to him that his mother had been one? Surely he had been taken from her as a child, and never loved her; his connection to her had only brought him shame and disgrace and was best forgotten or counteracted by greater striving in the service of Caesar; she had never wanted him, anyway, a brief interruption of her own colorful career. So he could learn to hate the enemies of Rome, view them as subhuman. He could order their dispersal and massacre with few qualms.
And yet, when his position changed from military to political, he was expected to sheath his sword, and work solely to uphold Pax Romana in conquered lands. Even through appeasement, which he clearly found hard to swallow. Palestine was a necessary evil in his life, but he was a soldier by training, not a diplomat. And indeed, there were many times he gave up trying to be one altogether. He did not suffer fools, or rebels, lightly. If any Jew dare raised his hand against Rome, that hand would be swiftly cut off. He was not afraid of the use of manacles and whips and crosses.
Nevertheless, although he put the people in fear of his emperor’s regime, he was dissatisfied. This foreign outpost must have felt to him like a desert forsaken by the gods. The omen of the yew tree still hung over him, cursing his every step. He was governor of a province he would have considered infested by priests and scribes and religious fanatics and false messiahs. And yet, how could he turn the post down? After all, perhaps it might have been an opportunity, sent from the gods for his glory. If he succeeded in keeping the peace among such a restless population, he would surely be promoted ahead of others. But how could he be sure the fickle gods of fate were truly on his side?
Pilate has gained the power he could snatch at, and he intends to hold onto it and build upon it. He claims his security from his worldly rank, but his encounter with this prisoner, Jesus of Nazareth, this one some call the Christ, slowly but surely crumbles this pretension and reveals that it covers a deeper personal insecurity. It is pulling at something deeper still within the man: his humanity, his soul, his consciousness, his underlying unease when confronted with things beyond the norm, things that whisper numinous mysteries. He thrives on the order of his universe, and that stability is being shaken.
He wants to shrug it off as some fairytale or superstition toying with his logical mind, but, though he has mixed rebel blood with mortar often enough in the name of the empire, some inner instinct, and some vulnerable point of his heart, does not want this man’s blood to stain his hands. Pilate’s brutal streak is renowned when it comes to eliminating those who offer the least bit of resistance to Roman rule, but his brutality must have a rhyme and reason to it more than petty factional squabbles within the Temple courts. He feels this type of petty plotting by religious hypocrites is beneath his self-respect. He wants no part of it. He wants a way out.
The governor is shrewd, with little love for the Sanhedrin, and hates the idea of being mired in one of their jealous schemes. In that, he may secretly admire Jesus for taking them on, yes, even turning the tables over on them earlier that week. He is the enemy of Pilate’s enemies, even if his position forces him to pander to them, and there is at least some sense of sympathy in that. He is disgusted by Caiaphas using him to try and eliminate his rivals, almost as if he were some perverse crucifixion factory, churning them out to the highest bidder.
Furthermore, he must have heard other rumors about the Nazarene by now, how he was accredited not only with curing all manner of disease and casting out demons, but also with having command over the elements and turning back death itself. But most telling of all, it had been said this Judean peasant had the power to read men’s souls, so that the thoughts of their hearts would be laid bare. He has been known to convict those he has encountered with a mere word, a glance. There is something about him that cannot be chalked up to mere charisma. He brings out the worst and best in humanity by his very presence.
What must Pilate have thought when he first looked into those piercing eyes? Perhaps he himself did not fully know, perhaps he tells himself that he, unlike the simple-minded Judean peasantry, is immune from it. But for all his years of bloody soldiering for the expansion of empire, and for all his iron-fisted edicts against any who rebelled against the supremacy of Caesar, something here gives him pause, something halts him. All is not as it seems.
In this, his half-sight seen through a dim glass, he failed to realize that the Man before him was the Beat Heart of all mankind, and anything he did to the least other man, he did unto Him. And, yet, even with his mixed motivations, his imperfect vision, something stirred inside Pilate, and for the good. It was unearthing some latent ideal of justice with a hardened cynic. He wanted no part in this charade, and he brought to bear all his cunning to outplay the pieces on the board before him. It is almost as if Christ Himself became his conscience that he is afraid to face, yet also afraid to kill, lest he lose himself altogether.
Whether or not he believed in the gods as anything more than vague representations of ideals, or statues embroidering the past of his people, he was a Roman, and Rome prided herself on her justice. It was his race that had coined the maxim “Fiat Justitia ruat caelum” – “Let Justice be done, though the heavens may fall.”
To him, as the long Friday morning wore on, it must have felt as if they were falling on him. Yes, heaven really was falling, straight into the pits of hell, and every mortal found themselves standing somewhere in the chasm, the great betwixt and between of light and darkness.
Pilate develops some strange cat-and-mouse relationship with his prisoner. The question is: Who is the cat, and who the mouse? From the governor’s perspective, this man before him is the enemy of his enemies, the Sanhedrin and their ilk who he finds to be a bothersome, scheming, nagging lot. There is some kinship in that, no?
Deep inside himself, perhaps he ponders if there is truth, but he is afraid of it being realized, and walks away from the potential within himself to realize it. He asks if Christ is a king, half in taunt, half in curiosity what answer he might receive.
“Do you ask this of your own accord?” Jesus asks him, trying to bring something out of the man, not the first of many gentiles he tried to reach in stark contrast to his tradition.
“Am I a Jew?” comes the retort. Am I my brother’s keeper?
Pilate wants to be left alone, not questioned by his prisoner. “You do you, I do me.” He doesn’t want to kill Christ, but also doesn’t want to delve too far into the Christological mystery either. But Christ is doing this work of redemption for Pilate as much as for anyone. Indeed, if he did not know the essence of souls closer than their own consciousness, how could he bear the onslaught of such marring dysfunction?
When Pilate has Christ scourged, in hopes of bloodying him enough to satisfy the crowd, is Christ not imagining each and every one of us, yes, even Pilate who uses his gentile status as insulation against powers beyond his control, pulling at the core of him? For he opened his eyes just a little and feared he might be blinded. He is a logicist, and his mind works in clever patterns that enabled him to climb the ladder and evade a fall. But now, with his plans unraveling at the behest of an illogical mob and confronted by something far beyond mere logic in Christ, he sinks into a frustrated panic.
Added to this was his wife Claudia’s haunting vision in a dream of this Man, and her insistence that her husband have nothing to do with it. In the past, she may have taken comfort in her husband’s straightforward nature. She could rest assured that, for all his faults, Pilate would remain Pilate no matter the weather, and that he would be the same man in public and private. And he was, for better or for worse, a true man. Her presence alongside him in his post in Palestine, where there were serious risks to run, indicates some genuine devotion, and for her to assume he would take her advice indicates she may well have been a helpmate and counselor to her husband. But would their bond be close enough to alter destiny, to alter eternity?
Pilate was already giving away the moral high ground, and he knew it. If the man was truly innocent, how was scourging him a just sentence? He knew the nature of these things; whips with bits of metal attached, a partial death sentence as it was. But perhaps it might put an end to the horror. Perhaps, this compromise with corruption may be enough to get away mostly clean. It is a decision so frequently made in this world. Just give in a little bit, and it would do no harm…
Was it that the more Pilate tried to save this man… the more invested in his life he became?
But when he is checkmated, and all that is left for him is to choose, he falters, preferring to secure a superficial peace and preserve his own position than be branded as one who is “no friend of Caesar”, who the high priests conveniently claim is now their only king.
Pilate returns to question his prisoner, demanding him to speak, and receiving a deeper silence in return. Sometimes, there is nothing to be said, and that is the greatest terror. “Do you not know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?”
Yes, the insecure always try to cling for the security that lies in earthly power, even when the gaze of the divine is on them. But we can imagine Christ pities Pilate in this even He sets him straight: “You would have no power over me if it were not given you from above.”
But Pilate’s own ambition gets the better of him. It has long defined him, and made him rise beyond the expectations of others who would spit in his face if he turned his cheek to them, snickering that their mothers were ladies. It has been his yardstick for the worth of a man. Yet, now it proves to be fatal flaw.
Here we may be given an uncomfortable start at the realization that we are not so very different from as we first imagined. Is there anyone truly free from the gnawing intensity of blinding ambition, and the havoc it may wreak upon the soul? Yes, perhaps one…bled out on the ground, with ambition’s teeth sunk into his flesh.
And so Pilate plays the part of the ultimate cynic and queries “Quid est veritas – What is truth?”He would not have thought, then, of the anagram of the phrase: est vir qui adest, “it is the man who is here.” Yes, the man who is here, who is front of you, always, and in every innocent victim, and in every impoverished immigrant, and rejected outsider, and soul in the jaws of death, in everyone and everything we choose to turn away from. Yes, yes, the Man is still here, still bleeding, still being turned over to a howling mob.
Peering down from the steps of judgment, across the faces in the crowd, Pilate would have surveyed them all, snarling, fist-waving, beyond the point of reason. Yes, he knew the final word still rested with him; but to speak it would be either this man’s undoing or his own. Was he really willing to risk that much for a Judean peasant? But this man, this man… something about him made him feel stripped naked before him, to that part of him that still clung to some notion of justice and some desire to follow it, in spite of everything. The better angels of his twisted nature, of our twisted nature, perhaps? Was the yew tree so very different than the fruit tree, at the end of the day? And is the hound of heaven baying in Pilate’s own heart, louder than he could ever wish?
Perhaps all he knew was himself, and the Man, as if they were the only two beings beyond the insanity raging below in that one horrific moment.
“Ecce Homo!” he cries. “Behold the Man!”
Yes, behold Him, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, and takes them into Himself unto that utmost alienation from God and from His fellow man, and yet stands in the place of all blood-blinded mortal beings…Ecce Agnus Dei…
Yes, behold Mankind, baying for blood below, behold them for whom this blood is shed, trickling down through the sands of time, wet and weary, coagulating with crime upon crime and ever darkening blindness that swallows up the very senses of the soul.
And yes, behold this man who casts judgment now, this every man, this mirror of our best intentions and worst results. Behold Pilate, the man, in his hour of spiritual peril and tragedy.
But there is no justice in this world, he decides. The gods are made of stone, images of ideals no mere mortals can hope to achieve. Why should the heavens fall on his head? Why should he sacrifice himself for lofty notions thought up by philosophers? Life is too short, with too little meaning. He must grasp what we can, while time is still on his side. What does it matter to him if there be one god, or a thousand, or none at all? He is a realist; Rome is the world built by men. He has struggled to find his place in that world his whole life. Why should he abandon it for the sake of an abstraction?
And so Pilate is both condemner and condemned in this, and so is everyone in the crowd. Indeed for him, the spirit had been willing, but the flesh had been weak, He weakens and washes his hands in water that can never clean the soul, even as he condemns the Living Water to be spilt in the Jerusalem streets.
He could not know that his verdict this day would seal the fate of Rome and shake it to its foundations. He cannot know that his language, stately, solemn Latin will become the universal liturgical tongue to adore this Man he condemns, to call for “Ubi Caritas” among the members of the Body of Christ and sing “Salve” to his trauma-stricken mother who he now may spy, leaning against the beloved disciple, somewhere in the courtyard. He could not know his name would forever be encrusted in the creed, spoken daily by billions of Christians throughout the world as the one who made God Himself suffer in the flesh.
Can Pilate ever walk away from this moment a whole man, or will the tiny window of empathy opened up inside him always feel the sting of barbed metal on his own skin, and the crush of wood on his own shoulder? Will he feel death forever gnawing at him until his own knife claims his own life in a prison cell, after finally encountering and being overcome by his greatest fear, the loss of power, of position?
He could at least die stoically like a man, he must have thought then. Perhaps that would cheat his enemies of the sweetness of mockery, of deriding Pilate, wasting away in a dungeon. His sullied honor would be restored to some extent, through his own self-destruction. But did his hand tremble on the blade? What a strange thing it is, to harm one’s self! So unnatural to man, with his wit and cunning and ambition…oh, ambition…
Would he then see again the eyes he saw for the last time as the cross was on His bloodied back, which surely show not hatred, but pity? For in truth, if there be any truth at all, Christ knew Pilate, and not just like a Roman god, dictating fate without entering into the mystery of humanity… no, he knew Pilate more than Pilate knew himself. For though the high priests would not be contaminated by going under Pilate’s roof, Christ had been brought there, and He had offered to go to a centurion’s house once before, on a mission of healing. Who is to say he might not have come under Pilate’s roof, deep within himself, on just such a mission when the end came?
September 17, 2018