33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters[a] again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
It was a chilly January day in central Pennsylvania. My friend Kim was just a toddler at the time, but her gregarious nature and zest for adventure were already apparent. The storm from the night before had left a foot of powdery snow on the ground, and the pristine blanket of white seemed to beg for the addition of a few snow angels.
Her babysitter, a septuagenarian who had no blood relation, but whom the family lovingly called “Meemaw” carefully dressed her in a puffy purple snowsuit. Such an outfit was reminiscent of a cross between the Michelin Man and Violet Beauregarde of Willy Wonka fame. She laced up Kim’s snow boots and opened the front door to the wooded home. Just as the door was opened, and the pair stepped onto the covered porch, the phone was heard ringing inside. Meemaw stepped back inside to quickly answer the call so they could be on their way. Less than a minute later, she returned to the porch… a porch that was now empty. Kim had made a run for it.
She scanned the lawn for the small child she had just bundled up, but Kim was nowhere to be found. She made her way around the house and up the driveway, hoping to discover that her eyesight had caused her to overlook that Kim had just stepped off of the porch to play in the fresh snow. She frantically paced up the driveway and turned onto the main road, knocking on the doors of neighbors to see if they may have seen a small purple figure run through their yard. Coming up empty, she began down the main road, desperately calling out, “Kim! Kim!”
A postal worker noticed Meemaw’s unusually troubled demeanor and stopped to inquire about what has happened. She explained the situation and the mailman offered to join the search. He took off toward the initial point of escape, and as he approached the home, he noticed a faint set of footprints leading up the drive. He tracked them up a steep hill, about a quarter mile (quite a feat for a little girl), before arriving at another home. The tiny footprints curved around the side, appearing to lead to the back door. He stopped, smirked to himself, and tapped his fist playfully on the front door. As the owner greeted him, he told her with a bit of a chuckle, “I think you might have a visitor at your back door.” Confused, she made her way to the back of the home and swung open the back door. There she found a small, golden-haired girl in a purple snowsuit, rosy-cheeked from the way the wind smacked her face as she ran through the fresh snow, wearing a large grin, and looking up at her beloved grandmother Iralene.
Now Kim did not have bad intentions. Her mind could not have considered the worry she may have caused others or the grand search that might ensue. This wasn’t a power play; she just wanted to see her grandmother.
At this stage in life, one is likely to run away when there are threats to autonomy or connection. For example: when a rambunctious lover of people must wait alone on a porch.
In responding to such actions, punishment may be the natural inclination. However, at that stage of development children often do not understand the connection between their action and the punishment.
One recommendation as to how to respond to such acts makes more of a difference as they grow older, and it has to do with the question of belonging. It’s suggested that one try to get to the root of the escape, ask the child why they chose to run, and help them to see why they are essential to the family system. The child may be told that each member of the family belongs to one another. The thought behind this approach is that one’s sense of belonging greatly determines one’s sense of identity, and one’s sense of identity dramatically influences one’s actions. [i]
In this opening verse Pilate expects Jesus to respond to his question with “guilty” or “not guilty,” but he doesn’t. It wasn’t until this past week that I truly considered the strangeness of Jesus’ response, and it was this piece from an article written by David Lose that prompted me to look at this passage in a new light. He writes:
For most of my interpretive life, I’ve read Jesus’ statement as disavowing his connection to this worldly kingdom of which both Pilate and Jesus’ own accusers are a part […] Jesus is essentially saying that if this conflict were happening in his kingdom, then indeed his followers would fight, but since it was happening in this other kingdom, a kingdom that cannot keep hold of him, his followers do not get involved.
But not too long ago, a colleague suggested I’d been misreading it entirely, and I’ve come to believe she’s right. What Jesus might be saying, this colleague proposed, is that were he and his followers of this world, then naturally they would use the primary tool this world provides for establishing and keeping power: violence. But Jesus is not of this world and so Jesus will not defend himself through violence. Jesus will not establish his claims by violence. Jesus will not usher in God’s kingdom by violence. Jesus will make no followers by violence.[ii]
The world’s imposter of truth values self-reliance, quid pro quo over than freely given grace, punishment over forgiveness or rehabilitation, and violence in response to violence.
It promotes the idea that material wealth is an indicator of success, illness and misfortune are directly correlated to past failures and missteps, people never change, kindness and favor are only worthwhile when there is reciprocity, and death is always the end.
This truth of which Jesus speaks runs counter to these claims. It doesn’t ask what we must do to separate ourselves from others, but instead asks us what we must do to become more connected and what barriers or rules we must break so that human life and well-being are respected.
It seems that such a truth is also precisely why those whom Jesus healed came to believe in him. No one of this world, even if they had such power, would break cultural conventions the way he did.
He healed, but he also acknowledged the humanity of those he healed.
He spoke to those society ignored and showed them a sense of being known.
He touched those who were considered unclean.
He broke conventions of this world in order to show love to his neighbor.
He ignored the sacredness of rules in favor of elevating the sacredness of human life
He ignored the idea that social status is an indication of the value of a person.
He rewarded people who had nothing to offer him.
He forgave people who hurt and betrayed him.
Robert Bryant points out, “in context, it becomes evident that at least two trials are underway: one between Pilate and “the Jews”…- who in John are most often Jesus’ opponents and must not be interpreted anti-Semitically- and the other between Pilate and Jesus.”[iii]
Pilate may not have cared all that much as to whether this group found Jesus as a threat to their power. He even says, “I am not a Jew, am I?” In his eyes, Jesus wasn’t a direct threat to his power, but he was an indirect threat. Therefore, to stay in the good graces of the Jews and not have this one dispute threaten his place as the leader and political authority of the community, he needs to catch Jesus on a technicality.
Jesus notices Pilate’s façade, and I think this is why we then see him treat Pilate as he did the Samaritan woman he met at a well. He tries to get to get closer to Pilate, to show him that he sees through this act. He knew that the woman at the well wasn’t truthful about her situation; she was trying to hide part of who she was to stay within the conventions of the world. Pilate is doing the same.
Jesus asks, “do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” He knows that Pilate is conducting this trial to stay in line with the conventions of this community, a strategy that will help him in maintaining status and power. This role and office is Pilate’s identity. It’s what gives him a sense of belonging, and therefore, it is where his loyalty lies.
However, we see that this power he tries so hard to maintain, this power that appears on the surface to be his most significant act of power over others, is not as it seems. His decision to let someone live or die is shown to be overturned. Moreover, it is the power of Grace, the power of the one who is seen at this moment to be the weakest and most vulnerable, that proves it to be superficial and ineffective.
It may seem odd that we approach this point in Jesus’ life just before Advent commences. However, it’s here that we are reminded why we are waiting and why we are entering this season in hopeful anticipation of the day when Christ might come again.
The celebration of Christ the King Sunday is a relatively recent addition to the liturgical calendar. It began in 1925 by decree of Pope Pius XI (eleventh) as individualism was on the rise along with nationalism that put loyalty to a country before loyalty to God.
This Sunday was meant to serve as a reminder before Advent that this kingship of Christ is not one gained by oppression or threatened by every challenge to its authority. This kingship does not rely on creating outsiders in order to feed the ego and wealth of the insiders but is established on a truth that is the foundation of love and grace.[iv]
Such Truth takes time and practice to understand and to live out. It’s something we have to be taught, and we hope that Jesus is patient as we begin to develop into this way of understanding and looking at the world. Thankfully, it is not a worldview learned by shame or punishment but by assurance that we are already claimed.
Jesus tells us that those who belong to the truth hear his voice. When we truly believe that that community is the one to which we belong, we are more in tune to the ways we can do the work of Jesus in this world. When that sense of belonging and identity is our starting place, we hear Jesus reminding us over and over again that we belong to a different family and directing us to the ways we can work in this world to make the lives of others better and more vibrant and to seek out those places where there is brokenness and pain and try to bring about healing. Our lives are reflections of where our loyalties and our sense of belonging lie. We belong to the Truth.
[i] Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4:Season after Pentecost 2, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 332.
[iii] Robert A. Bryant, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4:Season after Pentecost 2, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 333.