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Edward F. Markquart

The Riots of Pilate: No Middle Ground 

Palm/Passion Sunday     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 neutral.

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 the Galileans.

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 historically accurate.

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 Jerusalem.

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.”

Thursday night, 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.”

Pilate then 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 no neutrality.

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 neutrality.

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 be?
No other choice is offered me.


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