Predikan av/Homily by Dom Benedict Hardy OSB
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
Each of the four Gospels identically records this question of Pilate to Jesus. In each of the Gospels too, it’s the first thing Pilate says when Jesus is brought before him for trial and condemnation.
In the original Greek, the emphasis apparently falls on the technically redundant first word, “you”. We might translate: “King of the Jews? You?!” The question is sarcastic and contemptuous, but surely also it expresses genuine puzzlement. Pilate expected to encounter just another fanatic, like Barabbas; to be confronted by eyes filled with hatred and defiance; or at least to see desperate and craven fear. But in this Man before him now he sees something that is entirely new to him. There is here such dignity, and also humility; and both with a depth Pilate would never have imagined possible. It’s obvious to Pilate, at a glance, that this Man can pose no real political threat. Yet also clearly he possesses an inner strength, an innate authority, which somehow fills Pilate with dread.
The Passion narrative according to St. John puts much greater emphasis on the Kingship of Jesus than do the other Gospels. Jesus is called King no fewer than eleven times in these two chapters. No detail of John’s writing here should be lightly passed over, for everything is fraught with significance, often operating on several different levels at once. In particular, we should note John’s use of irony, often in multiple layers, as words or actions reveal for the reader meanings different from those intended by the characters involved.
Already, then, we who read or listen know that Pilate’s understanding of the Kingship of Jesus falls far short of the reality. Pilate indeed thinks his question self-evidently ridiculous. He sees that Jesus has no power, and that the Jews, of whom he is supposed to be King, are even now loudly demanding his execution. But we know Jesus is the promised Messiah (12:13), and Son of God. More than that, he is the one through whom all things were made (1:2).
The response Jesus makes is not at all what Pilate expected. Do you ask this of your own accord, he says, or have others spoken to you about me? Suddenly the trial has gone into reverse. Pilate is now in the dock, and his life will depend on the answer he will give to Jesus’ question. At this moment of decision, whatever others might say becomes irrelevant. What matters is what Pilate himself will say. Will he genuinely and openly examine the teaching and claims of Jesus? Is he ready to acknowledge whatever truth he finds there? Is he ready to receive the gift that Jesus offers, or will he reject it, deliberately prefer untruth, and for that be judged by God?
Pilate answered: Am I a Jew?
For John, for us, for Pilate if only he knew, this is the crucial question. In John’s hands it is deliberately ambiguous. “The Jews” may be defined in the first place as those who knowingly exclude themselves from the Kingdom of Jesus by demanding his death. Is Pilate then to be numbered among them? Or is he to be found, on the contrary, among those who will be drawn to Jesus when he is lifted up, royally enthroned, on the Cross? Will he be numbered among those who acknowledge him, and belong to him? That is, will he be counted among those “Jews” of whom Jesus is truly King; those named on the inscription of the Cross not just in Hebrew, but also in the representative languages of all the nations?
The first question Pilate asked was about the identity of Jesus. Then came a question about his own relationship to Jesus, for or against. Now we have another question. Pilate asks: What have you done?
To answer in terms of this Gospel: Jesus has done his Father’s will. He has made his Father known, and opened up for us the way to the Father. Soon he will consummate this work of his on the Cross. There he will hand over to us the Holy Spirit. From there will spring his holy Church, with all her sacraments. There he will definitively take away all the sins of the world; bring into the world a peace that cannot be broken; manifest and pour out love, divine love, to the end.
Let me now for a moment imaginatively set the New Atheists of our time beside Pilate at his tribunal. On this Feast of Christ the King, they are somehow constrained to pass judgement on Christ and on his disciples. What they see might well fill them with disdain. Secure in their own dominance, they might point to the state of our country. Once it was Christian; then it was post-Christian; now it’s becoming ever more aggressively anti-Christian. So Christ, for them, is finished. He has no power, and neither does his Church.
We who belong to Jesus could respond with his own searching question. Look at Jesus, we say, with open eyes. See that his Kingship is not oppressive, but liberating. If many today reject it, that is their great misfortune. But many today do still choose it; perhaps many more than you might think. They celebrate today’s feast with gratitude and joy. They acknowledge that those who have received the gift of faith have entered into the greatest possible good fortune, beatitude, happiness. They are impelled to pray, perhaps today especially, for those who do not yet have this gift. They acknowledge too that Christ’s Kingdom is not confined to the bounds of the Catholic Church. It manifests itself wherever truth, goodness and beauty are to be found; wherever faith, hope or charity are manifested; wherever there is authentic human joy; wherever conscience leads people to upright behaviour; wherever acts of unselfish loving kindness are performed.
Our atheist and secularist friends typically respond: this may be fine for you, but we don’t need Christ, or his Kingdom.
They say that, as a fish might say it doesn’t need water; or as a sky diver might say he doesn’t need his parachute. Actually, we reply, you do need Christ. You need him as the condemned felon needs pardon; as the sick person needs health, as an infant needs its mother. You need him because in him there is life, and without him there is death.
My Kingdom, said Jesus, is not of this world. It does not impose itself: it has to be chosen. For all that, it does have an impact on the world. The New Evangelisation to which all of us are called means that we all have to do all we can to bring about the values and reality of Christ’s Kingdom in our society. We approach this task knowing we are on the winning side. Soon, soon, Christ will come again, and his Kingdom will be established in power forever. And until that time we ever pray: May your Kingdom come. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.