The Riots of Pilate: No Middle
Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22
What do you know
about riots? Have you ever seen a riot?
Many of us here
today have experienced a riot. A riot is where large masses of
people are jammed together and they have become excited, incited,
uncontrolled, angry, and rebellious. Most of us have not experienced
riots directly but indirectly by watching the news on television or
reading about riots in the newspapers or seeing graphic pictures of
a rioting mob. So we get this feeling of what it is to be in a riot. We see pictures of police, with their shields in front of
them, marching in a row, shoulder to shoulder, very tight and
intimidating, carrying long wooden clubs or riot sticks. Opposing
the police is the mob, with rocks in their hands, overturning cars,
breaking windows, burning cars or buildings, throwing back canisters
of tear gas. In the
middle of the riot, there seem to always be two sides and no one
survives safely in the middle.
When I think of
riots, I think of Harlem, Watts, and Chicago years ago. The riots I
remember best were the race riots of the early 1960s, the race riots
in Harlem and Watts, where whole cities were burning in flames. I
remember vividly the 1960s, when my wife, Jan, and I were living in
Park Ridge, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and the race riots were
sweeping the nation. We
were absolutely terrified to go into the slums of Chicago at night.
We knew what could happen.
When I think of
riots, I also think of the riots during the Viet Nam war in the
1960s, and I think of Hubert Humphrey being nominated to be the
Democratic Presidential candidate.
We, as the public, saw all those gruesome pictures of the
riots at the Democratic convention in l968, and I have the feeling
that the pictures of those riots cost Humphrey the election. On
television, there were pictures of the police clubbing the rioters,
and the rioters throwing rocks and bottles at the police. There was
nobody in the middle.
When I think of
riots and the war, I think of Madison, Wisconsin, where I had worked
as a youth director in a church. A conservative pastor friend called
and told me about the rioters throwing Molotov cocktails, buildings
being bombed, and students being killed because of the rioters.
Meanwhile, I was also hearing from the opposite side, from my young
radical nephew in Madison, and he was convinced that the Viet Nam
war was wrong. So on
one side was my conservative pastor friend, and he was not neutral.
On the other side was my nephew, and he was not neutral. The town
was polarized and there was no neutrality to be found. Riots are
often like that. The polarizations are so great that you can’t be
When I think of the
word, riot, I think of Eugene, Oregon, in 1968 or 69. I think of the
congregational meeting that night at Central Lutheran Church where I
worked as a young assistant pastor in Eugene. Riots had been going
on in the city and college kids tried to burn down the ROTC
building. We called a congregational meeting that night, and I will
never forget this big hunk of a man in his bib overalls, my good
buddy Lyle, a Sunday school teacher, with his baseball bat in his
hand, an angry red face and an angry red neck. He threatened one of
his young twenty-four year kids who had grown up in his Sunday
school class, “If I ever catch you on campus doing that, I am
going to come after you with this bat.”
And so on that wonderful Sunday night congregational meeting,
we had the wonderful Sunday school teacher and the wonderful future
law student very unhappy with each other.
There was no neutrality in the room that night.
None. I guarantee you. I remember vividly. If they had taking
a vote, nobody would have been in middle. They were going to be on
one side or the other.
It is with this
mood of rioting, polarizations, and a nation and city torn apart,
that we approach the governorship of Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the
governor of Jerusalem and Judea. Pontius Pilate, during his ten
years as a governor, from the year 26-36 AD, had thirty-two riots.
32 riots in mere ten years. Three major riots a year for ten
consecutive years. The Jews hated the Romans. They hated the Roman
taxes. They hated the Roman insensitivities to their religion. The
Jews of that time were constantly on the edge of rioting, especially
I would like to
briefly tell you about three riots during the reign of Pontius
Pilate. These reports come from Philo, a Jewish theologian, and
Josephus, the historian.
The first riot was
like this: The Jews were fanatics about God, and they were absolutely
committed to their second commandment, you shall have no graven
images of God. Idolatry
was the worst of sins; worshipping a graven image, a carved image of
God. Carved or crafted images of God were absolutely and totally
forbidden. In the year
26 AD, shortly after Pilate become governor, Pontius Pilate came
riding into the city of Jerusalem with his troops bearing their
standards or flag poles. On
the top of every flagpole was a carved image of Caesar, the bust of
Caesar. No Roman governor had done this before; parading with a
carved image of Caesar. It
was a total insult to the Jews, and so a riot began. The Jews first
came out by the hundreds and then by the thousands to the home of
Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, and for five days, they staged a
sit-in, much like college students stage a sit-in on the college
campus, on the front law of the college president. Pilate was
infuriated with the protestors.
He rounded up some of them into an auditorium and killed
several of them. The
Jews continued their civil disobedience, passively offering their
necks to be sliced. The
protests were effective; Pilate backed down; and the busts of Caesar
were removed from all the flagpoles. But lives had been killed and
this was the first of many more riots to come.
Let me tell you
about the second riot that Pilate precipitated. Pilate wanted money
to be taken from the temple treasury in order to build a pipeline to
bring water into the city of Jerusalem. Like Arizona and California
today, Jerusalem had water problems. Jerusalem had to get money in
order to build an aqueduct so water could be transported to the
city. Where was Pilate
going to get the money? He didn’t have federal funds to draw on;
he didn’t have any extra tax money sitting around. So Pilate went
to the temple treasury, to the sacred money, to the money of Annas
and Caiaphas. Pilate stole or borrowed the money from the temple
treasury to build his aqueduct, and immediately, the rioting began.
This time Pilate ordered his soldiers to dress up as plain-clothes
men, secretly to arm themselves and mingle with the rioting mobs. As
the signal was given, these Roman soldiers, dressed as civilians,
bludgeoned the Jews with their weapons, clubbing and stabbing the
Jews to death. Thus another riot was stopped during the reign of
Pilate. Pilate, of course, was hated. And the neighboring governors
started sending letters to Emperor Tiberius in Rome complaining
about Pilate’s brutality in handling the riots. (Again, this
useful material comes from Josephus, the historian, and Philo, the
Jewish theologian, both writing at this time.)
Let me tell you
about the last riot, the 32nd riot under Pilate, this in
the year 36 AD in Samaria. A Samaritan told some Jews that he would
show them where Moses had hidden sacred relics up on a mountain.
People were going on a wild goose chase, up to the top of the
mountain, looking for a copy of the Ten Commandments, the sacred
relics of Moses. The Jews had small arms with them.
Pilate, hearing that the Jews were armed, ordered his
horsemen to attack and kill the essentially defenseless Jews. It was
a bloodbath, a slaughter of innocent people.
One neighboring Roman ruler was so upset about Pilate’s
slaughtering of the Jews that he sent another letter to Caesar
Tiberius in Rome complaining about Pilate.
Shortly thereafter, Pilate was removed from office because of
his brutal handling of the riots. On his way to Rome, Emperor
Tiberius died, and we don’t ever know what happened to Pilate.
Pilate disappears into the pages of history; only to have his name
repeated every Sunday in our creed, crucified under Pontius Pilate.
Maybe our creed should have said, “Jesus was crucified under the
riots of Pontius Pilate.” Our creed would have been more
Pilate was a person
who was sick of rioting, sick of the mobs, sick of a nation torn
apart by strive. It is
with this awareness of Pilate and his riots that we begin to more
clearly understand what happened to Jesus on that Friday morning in
Pilate had already
arrived in Jerusalem with his wife, Procula, and 600 troops. Yes,
600 armed soldiers. The soldiers had come prepared; they were well
armed and trained to exercise control if another riot erupted.
Normally, Pilate lived in Caesarea on the Coast, but Pilate would
come to the capital city, Jerusalem, whenever the city was jammed
with potentially rebellious pilgrims. It was Passover time on that
particular Thursday and Friday, and there were two-three million
people jammed into Jerusalem. So Pilate came from Caesarea by the
Sea, his home residence, to Jerusalem with 600 troops and 600
horses, “just in case.”
nothing happened. It was calm that Thursday night, but Friday
morning, all hell broke loose.
Annas, the old man and power behind the high priest, and
Caiaphas, his son-in-law and current chief High Priest, brought
Jesus to Pilate. Annas was first high priest, then four of his sons
were high priests, and now his son-in-law was high priest. Annas
kept the high priestly power in his family. Annas and Caiaphas, the
two religious leaders and thugs, brought not only Jesus, but a large
mob of shouting, yelling, shrieking Jews who were bent on rioting at
the least provocation. Annas and Caiaphas brought their charges against Jesus,
telling Pilate that Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews, stirred up
the people into a riotous mood, and forbade the citizens to pay the
proper taxes to Caesar. Annas
and Caiaphus finally played their trump card when they said:
“Pilate, if you are a friend of Caesar, you better execute this
revolutionary, this seditionist, this anarchist. Pilate, you better
have him killed.”
questioned Jesus and found no guilt in him; Jesus was innocent of
the charges that the two high priests had brought against him.
Pilate saw through the sham; Pilate saw through the scheme of Annas
and Caiaphas. Pilate
wanted to dismiss the whole affair as a nuisance, but the powerful
high priests incited the crowds to begin rioting. The Bible says,
“In order to avoid a riot,” Pilate condemned him to death.
Pilate was caught
in the middle and he didn’t like it. There is no neutrality before
the cross; there is no middle ground.
When I think of Pilate, he is not like Annas and Caiaphas who
blatantly wanted to have Jesus killed. Pilate is not like Judas, who
betrayed Jesus for money, greed and material prosperity. Pilate is
not like Peter, who denied Jesus at the crucial hour, pretending he
never knew Jesus. Pilate
was like none of these. Rather,
Pilate was one of those people who wanted to remain neutral, who
didn’t want to become involved.
He wasn’t for Jesus nor was he against Jesus.
Pilate was the man in the middle and he wanted to remain the
middle where he thought he could save his skin.
There is one basic
lesson to be learned from Pilate:
before the cross of Christ, there is no neutrality.
The cross of Christ always demands a decision.
Pilate, during the trial, asked, “What shall I do with
Jesus?” There was no
middle ground. Either
he was to cast his lot for Christ or against him.
The cross does that. During the whole passion narrative, the
cross forces people into a decision.
People had to make a choice, either to be for Christ or
against him. There was
Let me give you
some examples of this. The eleven disciples. When Jesus was arrested
in the garden, the disciples had to make a decision, either to be
crucified with Jesus or to run away. The disciples made a decision;
they ran. There was no
Or, Simon Peter out
in the courtyard at the home of Caiaphas. A maid asked Peter the
question: “Are you one of the Galileans or not?” Peter had to
make a decision. “I am not,” he said.
Again, there was no neutrality.
Or, two men were on
the cross on either side of Jesus at Golgotha. One criminal made a
decision to ridicule Jesus; the other criminal made a different
decision and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingly
power.” Again, there
was no neutrality.
It is the nature of
the cross that compels us to make a choice, whether a person has to
make a snap decision or a slow decision.
There is something about the cross that compels us to make a
choice, either for him or against him. You can’t find a middle
ground when it comes to Christ, even though at times we try to.
This is clearly
expressed in a poem:
I stood alone at
the cross of Christ,
In the hush of twilight dim,
And faced the question
That pierced my heart,
What shall I do with him?
Crown or crucify, what shall it
No other choice is offered me.