Commentary on John 19:1-16a
Jesus gets enthroned. Everyone else condemns himself or herself. Let us count the ways we do!
Pilate gives the crowds — and us — a choice. Who does Pilate release — Jesus, the king of the Jews, in whom Pilate finds no guilt or Barabbas, a violent revolutionary? Jesus’ accusers ask for Barabbas. They choose violence as their king. In the language of this gospel: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). We condemn Jesus — and ourselves when we choose other — seemingly more powerful, pragmatic, and expedient — kings. The preacher might dare to name some of them.
But Pilate is not ready to condemn Jesus to death. Instead, Pilate has Jesus flogged (John 19:1). In the process of torturing Jesus, the soldiers ironically coronate him king. They crown Jesus with thorns and dress him in a purple robe. Then the soldiers mockingly but truthfully hail Jesus as “the king of the Jews” (19:3). Jesus is crowned, clothed, and proclaimed king by Roman soldiers. If the soldiers knew the truth they were speaking, they would realize that they had condemned themselves as traitors. Perhaps the preacher might name some of the ways our cruelty condemns us. Anyone who has ever witnessed bullying on the school playground will understand.
Pilate goes out to Jesus’ accusers again (19:4-7) and declares Jesus innocent a second time. Jesus comes out under his own power, still in control, dressed as a king. Jesus is not condemned but crowned. Unlike the synoptic gospels, Jesus remains dressed in purple robe and crown. He goes to the cross, his glorification, as a king. Pilate calls Jesus “the man,” as in Son-of-Man. The chief priests and police demand that Pilate crucify Jesus. Presented with their crowned king, “the innocent Son-of-Man,”1 Jesus’ accusers fulfill his words: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he” (8:28). They finally bring their charge against Jesus to Pilate: Jesus claims to be the Son of God (19:7). Jesus’ accusers cannot or will not see that Jesus is. And, like the Pharisees on hand when Jesus healed the eyes of the man born blind (John 9:1-41), they condemn themselves for refusing to see God in their midst. How often we condemn ourselves in this same way.
Pilate is “more frightened than ever” (19:8) by the possibility that Jesus might be “the Son of God.” He enters the headquarters again and asks Jesus the foundational question of John’s Gospel: “Where are you from?” (19:9). But Jesus gives no answer to what we understand to be this foundational Christological question. In his previous encounter with Pilate, Jesus tried to invite the Roman governor into God’s kingdom and was rejected. Now, Jesus remains silent. Pilate threatens Jesus with his political power over life and death, but Jesus is not impressed. Jesus points to the one “from above,” who has ultimate power over life and death, and in so doing answers Pilate’s question of where Jesus comes from. Could it be that Jesus cannot help himself, but gives even Pilate one more chance to enter Jesus’ kingdom of truth? But Pilate doesn’t take it. Have you ever condemned yourself by refusing to accept grace?
Though Pilate is still not ready to enter Jesus’ kingdom of truth, he does, at least, seek to release Jesus. But now, Jesus’ accusers put Pilate on trial. They cry, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor” (John 19:12). On the day of preparation for Passover, Pilate brings Jesus out, declares him king, and expresses surprise that Jesus’ accusers would crucify their king. Then, at noon — the precise hour when the Passover lambs are sacrificed, as the chief priests declare themselves to be better friends of the emperor than Pilate (19:14), Pilate capitulates to their demands and hands Jesus over to be crucified, to be lifted up. The chief priests, who insisted that Jesus be put to death for claiming to be the Son of God, have claimed first Barabbas and now the emperor as their king. How do we condemn ourselves by the alliances we make and the company we keep?
On the cross, Jesus, who has been crowned rather than condemned, will be enthroned and glorified. Jesus will save us from all the ways we condemn ourselves — choosing what is powerful, pragmatic and expedient; being cruel; refusing to see God in our midst; refusing to accept grace; the alliances we make and the company we keep. Our list goes on.
They take Jesus to be crucified (19:16). Still in control, Jesus carries the cross himself to Golgotha. Jesus is “lifted up” between two others, already gathering people to himself. Yes, we remember Jesus’ words to Nichodemus: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life…. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life…. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:14-17).
1. Francis J. Maloney and Daniel J. Harrington, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), p. 495.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
In this season of contemplation, help us to recognize and know the one true king, Jesus Christ. We worship and praise him for his majesty and glory. Amen.
I want Jesus to walk with me ELW 325, UMH 521, NCH 490
Praise the one who breaks the darkness ELW 843
My song in the night, Paul Christiansen