Jesus Before Pilate: Five Observations of Fulton Sheen

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri c. 1880

Possessing exceptional knowledge and wisdom, the Archbishop uncovers meanings in biblical texts that would be otherwise easy to miss.

1. After Jesus’ arrest and trial by the Sanhedrin, Friday morning He was taken to Pontius Pilate with a demand for his execution; Pilate responded,

“What charge do you bring against this man?” (John 18:29).

They simply responded that he was a “malefactor”; Pilate refused to hear the case. They then presented Pilate with three charges:

“We have discovered that this man is subverting the loyalty of our people, forbids the payment of tribute to Caesar, and calls himself Christ the King” (Luke 23:2).

Sheen reminds us that in the Sanhedrin he had been convicted of blasphemy. Knowing that Pilate would not judge a religious matter, they made up lies and Pilate knew it:

“If Christ had been the ringleader of sedition or if there had been any signs of insurrection connected with his name Pilate would have heard of it. So would have suspicious Herod; but never had the slightest complaint been brought against Him.”†

2. While Pilate is dismissive of the charges, he is concerned on behalf of the Emperor whether Jesus is truly claiming to be a king. He asks directly, “Art thou King of the Jews?” Jesus explains that his kingship is neither earthly nor political but spiritual. Pilate then asks, “Thou art a King, then?” Jesus responds:

“It is thy own lips that have called me a King. What I was born for, what I came into the world for, is to bear witness of the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth, listens to my voice” (John 18:37).

The Archbishop interpreted the words, “listens to my voice”, as reflecting personal commitment:

“He laid down the moral condition for discovering truth and affirmed that it was not only an intellectual quest; what one discovered depended in part on one’s moral behavior.”

“…Pilate evidently caught the idea that moral conduct had something to do with the discovery of truth…”

So Pilate responds with skepticism, “What is truth?” Sheen adds,

“Skepticism is not an intellectual position; it is a moral position in the sense that it is determined not so much by reason as by the way one acts and behaves.”

“…If therefore, the impulse toward truth was in Pilate, he would know that truth itself stood before him; if it was not in him, he would sentence Christ to death.”

“…[I]ndifference to right and wrong, eventually ends in hatred for what is right.”

3. Christ is nevertheless pronounced innocent by Pilate, “I can find no fault in Him” (John 18:38). The Archbishop makes a simple but significant observation:

“If there was no fault in Him, Pilate should have released Him”.

Pilate cared more about the chief priests than justice, so Jesus remained in custody.

4. When Pilate was called upon by the crowd to release a prisoner for Passover, Sheen notes that Pilate thought he had them cornered,

“Pilate was very clever; he sought to confuse the issue by choosing a prisoner [Barabas] who was guilty of exactly the same charge they brought against Christ, namely, sedition against Caesar.”

It’s astonishing that the chief priests were able to convince the crowd to liberate someone who was convicted of rebelling against Roman rule while condemning Jesus for the same crime; and then cry out to Pilate “We have no King but Caesar!” (John 19:15).

5. Then the chief priests accuse Pilate,

“Thou art no friend of Caesar if thou dost release Him, the man who pretends to be a king is Caesar’s rival” (John 19:12).

Archbishop Sheen explains that Pilate was ultimately worried about Emperor Tiberius, and a delegation of Jews traveling to Rome with complaints in hand.

“The terror of Tiberius seemed more real to Pilate than the denying of justice to Christ. But in the end, those who fear men rather than God lose that which they hoped men would preserve for them. Pilate was later deposed by the Roman Emperor on a complaint by the Jews — another instance of men being punished by the very instruments in which they confided.”

…rjt

†Quotations taken from Sheen, Fulton J., Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

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