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The Characters of Lent: Pontius Pilate
Matthew 27:11-26

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Lent Service II—March 4, 2009

In the summer of 1961, a two-foot by three-foot stone tablet was discovered at Caesarea on the coast of Palestine, bearing the inscription, “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.”  This was yet another stunning archaeological confirmation of the authenticity of the New Testament.

Pontius Pilate came from the Pontii family of Italy, an ancient family of Roman nobility.  A modern-day descendant of this same family is the Italian film director Carlo Pontii. 

Pontius Pilate served as the Roman governor of Judea for ten years, from 26 to 36 A.D.  He had some difficulties with the Jewish people, and by Good Friday in 33 A.D., the Roman emperor had put Pontius Pilate on notice that any more problems in Judea would result in his dismissal as governor.

The Gospels state that Pilate wanted to set Jesus free.  As this evening’s reading records, one way Pilate tries to set Jesus free by appealing to the crowd, giving them a choice between Jesus and a notorious, dangerous criminal, that no one could want back out on the streets, so he assumes they will chose Jesus instead: “It is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus?”  But Pilate’s plan fails when the chief priests stir up the crowd to ask instead for Barabbas.

Even then Pilate is reluctant to fulfill their request, but Matthew tells us he gave in when he saw that a riot was developing.  A riot was just the kind of thing emperor had warned Pilate about.  It would mean his humiliating dismissal as governor.  Mark reports, “Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them.”

Pilate then has Jesus flogged, hoping that this severe torture will be enough to satisfy the demands of the chief priests.  After the flogging, John reports, “Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.’  When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, Behold, the man!’ As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’  Pilate answered, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.’”

At least three times Pilate declares Jesus not guilty, and Matthew records in this evening’s reading: “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said.” 

It is from this incident that we get the expression, to “wash your hands of the matter.”  That washing could not absolve Pilate of his guilt.  But, there is a spiritual washing, which does for you what Pilate’s futile washing could not. “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from every sin.” 

The cleansing of Jesus’ blood comes to you as you hear and read and study his Word, as Jesus said at the Last Supper, “You are clean through the word which I have spoken to you.”  The cleansing of Jesus’ blood is poured out upon you in Holy Baptism, as Acts says, “Be baptized and wash away your sins.”  The cleansing of Jesus’ blood is bestowed on you in Holy Communion, as you receive his body and blood, “shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.”  There is indeed a spiritual washing, which does for you what Pilate’s futile washing could not.  Trust in Jesus, your Savior, for your sins ARE all washed away by his blood.

Pilate resisted the demand of the chief priests until they found his weak spot.  John continues, “From then on Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.’”

“Friend of Caesar” was a technical term for an elite group of advisors to the Roman emperor.  As a Roman governor and a member of the nobility, Pontius Pilate was part of this privileged class, this elite group, a friend of Caesar. The only reason for being kicked out of the friends of Caesar was treason against the emperor, in which case you were expected to kill yourself.

“The Jews kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.’”  Treason is exactly what the Jews are threatening to accuse Pilate of.  John continues, “When Pilate heard THIS, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat.”

The Jews were threatening to accuse Pilate of treason.  Even though he knew Jesus to be innocent, in order to save his own position and reputation, Pontius Pilate sacrificed the life of Jesus.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”  Nothing in this world, no honor, no position, no wealth or prestige, is worth forsaking Jesus Christ. 

That is the lesson of the Lenten story of Pontius Pilate.  Amen.

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