Commentary on John 19:1-16a
This week’s text continues Jesus’ trial before Pilate.
The first three scenes, covered in last week’s text (John 18:28-40), move from the handing over of Jesus to the release of a bandit. We begin here with the central scene of seven, in which Jesus is scourged and mocked as king.
In Matthew and Mark, this takes place after Pilate has condemned Jesus; in Luke it is Herod who does it. Here it is embedded in the trial narrative and plays a part in John’s larger trial motif in which it is ultimately those who believe they are judging Jesus who are themselves judged.
The text literally says that Pilate scourges Jesus although it is obvious that soldiers do this. But the wording underscores the place of the scourging in Pilate’s own danse macabre with the religious authorities, which continues as Pilate parades Jesus before them as mock king.
Pilate’s intentions are unclear. Does he mean to mock them by presenting Jesus again as king (having already referred to him as their king when he offered them Barabbas)? Or does he mean to show that such a pathetic creature could not possibly be a threat? What is not unclear is the narrative irony in Pilate’s presentation of Jesus as precisely the sort of king he is. Like the suffering servant of Isaiah 50 (to which the scourging and slapping here may allude), Jesus is the vulnerable embodiment of God’s love for a dark, broken world, of which Pilate and the religious authorities and their soldiers and police are the representatives par excellence.
Jesus is declared king from the earliest chapters of all the Gospels, though the word used most often is Christ, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. That he is crucified is an utter redefinition of what this means, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). As he tells Pilate, his is a kingdom not from here.
The chief priests and police respond to Pilate’s presentation of Jesus, scourged and in mock kingly garb, with predictable ire and again demand his execution. Pilate offers his third assertion of Jesus’ innocence and insists that they crucify him, which everyone knows they cannot do (John 18:31). So they raise the stakes. He is not only claiming to be king, they say, but also claiming to be Son of God.
Pilate is now said to be even more afraid. This could be understood as exceedingly afraid rather than an escalation in fear since none has been mentioned before. But as bullies are perpetually afraid, it is not difficult to imagine this of Pilate. We do not know if he is more afraid because of the supernatural aspect now introduced or whether it is the onus on him to fulfill the religious requirements of the Jews by killing someone whom he knows to be innocent.
His fear elicits the question “Where are you from?” to which Jesus gives no answer, having answered this already in John 18:36-37 although Pilate has not understood.
Pilate reminds him of his power over him, to which Jesus replies that this power is irrelevant. Pilate is part of something he does not understand, and in that sense is less guilty than the religious authorities who should perhaps have known better than to kill the Word made flesh. Any power Pilate seems to have has come from above.
This phrase, a single word in Greek, which appears also in John 3:3-7, 3:31, and 19:11, also answers the question of Jesus’ origins, which, like the question of truth (see last week’s commentary), forms part of the narrative from its earliest verses, where the Son-Word abides in the heart of God before time and creation.
Then Jesus’ origins remain in question throughout the Gospel. That he is from Galilee is clear from John 1:45-46 and reiterated in 6:42 and 7:52. But even beyond the glorious mystery of the prologue, it is clear that Jesus is also from God. Nathanael knows it. Even Nicodemus, who understands precious little (including from above, which he interprets to mean again), knows it. The man born blind knows it. Peter and Martha declare it.
Perhaps even Pilate finally has an inkling because from this moment he tries in earnest to release Jesus.
But now the religious authorities frame the choice in terms they know he will understand: Is he a friend of Caesar or of this powerless prisoner? If his ultimate goal is power, it cannot also be justice and love, so Pilate will execute an innocent man.
The word used to describe Pilate’s sitting on the judge’s bench can also mean that he seats Jesus on it. Either way, Jesus at his most powerless, but still robed in purple and with a crown of thorns, is now both king and judge.
As Pilate has earlier ordered the religious authorities to behold Jesus as a beaten man, he now orders them to behold him as their king and to condemn him themselves, which they do. And in so doing, they, like Pilate, declare their ultimate loyalty to Caesar — not to God.
Pilate hands him over to them to be crucified. As with the scourging, which Pilate is said to do, so here it is the soldiers, not the religious authorities, who do the killing. But in both instances the narrative places the responsibility with the ones in power, not their servants.
Still, the servants reflect the one who is their master. Servants of Caesar are known by their violence. Jesus says everyone will know his servants by their love.
We might wish to ask if this is so of us.
Does our testimony in word and deed reflect our citizenship in the alternate kingdom from above, where servants of the Beloved are nonviolent, vulnerable lovers of friend and foe? Or do our words and actions suggest that our first allegiance is to something else — a nation or party or religious institution?
If the answer is not clear, the good news is that it is precisely this broken world of Pilate and the religious authorities and our own hearts that God loves. The judgment of this world is also its salvation.
When truth-telling love is bound and beaten and killed (not only in Jesus but again and again in other times and places) out of fear or ignorance or greed, that is never the end of the story. The seed that dies bears much fruit.
And the morning comes again.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
In this season of contemplation, help us to recognize that you revealed yourself in Jesus, who walked among us and was handed over to be crucified. May we be strengthened by his presence among us today. Amen.
My song in the night, Paul Christiansen