It’s Easter, so this week, we will hear about how Pontius Pilate handed Jesus over to a screaming crowd who insisted on crucifying him. Pilate knew this was wrong, but he didn’t stop the injustice or the death of Christ.
Remember David Bowie playing Pilate very sympathetically in that controversial movie a few years back? The idea of a sympathetic Pilate isn’t a new one, for example Bulgakov one of the greatest Russian novellists painted a tortured and ultimately redeemable Pilate in Master and Margarita (possibly my favorite novel, ever).
Why do we like him so much?
Granted, everyone accepts Judas Iscariot as the villain of the piece. No one is especially fond of the guards who flogged Him, performed the actual crucifixion and then gambled for His clothing. We all see the error of the crowds and their clamoring too.
But given that all of these very distasteful elements were just like Pilate – playing an important role in what was ultimately the salvation of every human who grasps and embraces the truth of this event – why are we so hard on all of them and so soft on Pilate?
I challenge the sympathy is misplaced. Feel the pain of Jesus’s companions, who were bereft and terrified by the end of Good Friday. Try to fathom Mary’s anguish that her wonderful and perfect Son was experiencing such torture, suffering and the death of a criminal. Identify with Peter’s self-loathing when he refused to associate himself with his dear friend and teacher out of fear.
But the broader question is why do we excuse Pilate? Why is he more agreeable to us than Judas, for example?
Our culture is soft on sin. Our culture wants to excuse wrong-doing that doesn’t directly hurt anyone outwardly. Our culture wants to accept people and actions and behaviours because we like to think of ourselves as tolerant, accepting people. We excuse, we justify.
We pay $10 to watch the same behavior that sent Jesus to the cross on a big screen while peacefully munching our popcorn.
We say nothing when our friend, neighbor or family member steps out of bounds – and behaves in a way that we know is outside the Christian walk.
We hover at the edge of the cliff, we equivocate, we explain away.
The reality is this: if it was a sin 2,000 years ago, it is still a sin.
Satan isn’t sitting in comfort, fat and relaxed, thinking to himself, oh well I won’t bother going after that one; after all Playboy is for the articles. They’re going to get married anyway, so what’s the big deal, or these drugs shouldn’t be illegal so why do I care? No, Satan is laughing at us.
I’ve looked over the edge of that cliff, and thank God I’m back. I know my flirting with danger is why Jesus decided to die the way he did, and I know the reason I’m fine now is because He defeated everything that would have defeated me. He endured physical pain I will never know, terrible emotional agony when His own Father turned away from Him and I don’t have to pay for any of the sins, large or small, that I have had in my own life.
You know what the corrollary to this is?
Sin isn’t contagious.
You have it or you had it, period.
So there’s no danger in proximity to sin or sinful people if you are about God’s work. So you won’t be magically sullied by helping a drug addict, an ex-convict or a sinner of any flavor because Jesus helped you the same way. Or, He would like to very much. Being saved from sin isn’t like bleaching a stained garment, where traces of the stains may hang around and make you think, gosh this used to be a nice dress. Being saved from sin is like getting a brand new dress that is nicer and more splendid than any dress you ever had or saw before, and it’s yours and you get to keep it.
The point is that sin is a very black and white, sharp-edged issue. It isn’t woolly or fuzzy or soft-focused or anything that can be played with sympathy by David Bowie.
Sin is sin, and it is the Devil at work.
God is good, and those are your two choices.
During Lent, reflection on the culture where we are planted shows us that this is still as true for us as it was when Jesus died. We can’t sympathize with sin, although we can safely love the sinner. We can understand lost and broken and sinful because we have been all of those things, but we can not minimize the dangers or the impact of sins large or small in our own lives, in the lives of those near us or in our culture.
Those were real nails, it was real pain and that was real blood. Our sins are just as real, as is our need to be saved from them by the only One who can. We can’t soften the hard edges of the truth. Easter is the perfect time to remember this, be thankful and be strong in our truth.