Friendship Wrought From a Theatrical Moment

Pilate and Herod Become Best Mates
Luke 23: 1-25

And the entire assembly rose as one and brought him to Pilate. And they began to make their accusations saying: “We find this man has been corrupting our nation, forbidding the paying of taxes to Caesar, saying that he is the Christ and thus a King.”
And Pilate cross-examined him saying, “So, you are the King of the Jews are you?”
And he replied, “That is what you say! [Those are your words].”
And [finally] Pilate said to the chief priests and the assembled crowd: “I can find no crime in this man!”
But they were insistent, saying, “He stirs up the people with his teaching throughout all of Judaea, beginning with Galilee and now he has come here.”
Having heard of Galilee, Pilate made enquiries as to whether he was a Galilean. And as soon as he realised he was from Herod’s jurisdiction he arranged for him to be taken to Herod, since he too had come up to Jerusalem at that time.
And upon seeing Jesus, Herod was very pleased. He had been hearing about him for some time and was hoped to see some sign wrought by him. And he questioned him at length but Jesus said not a word.
Meanwhile, the chief priests and the scribes were also present, throwing malicious accusations at him. Having come to despise him, Herod and his soldiers mocked him by dressing him in a gorgeous robe to be then sent back to Pilate. And from that day, Pilate and Herod became friends because up to that point they had been each other’s enemies.
And Pilate called together chief priests and the rulers, with the people, to tell them:
“You brought this man before me accusing him of corrupting the people. And now, take note, I have examined him before you and found he has done nothing worthy of death. Neither has Herod for he sent him back to us. I will reprimand him and release him.”
But the crowd shouted in reply: “Away with this man and release Barabbas for us!”
This was the man imprisoned because of a rebellion staged in the city and for murder. But Pilate called out to them, pleading, wishing to release Jesus. But they shouted back:
“Crucify! Crucify him!”
He, now for a third time, replied to them: “What evil has he done? I found nothing in the case [you brought against him] that deserves death. I will reprimand him and let him go.”
But with a concerted chant they demanded his crucifixion. And their voices prevailed.
And that was how Pilate came to pass judgement at their request, releasing [at the same time] the one who had been thrown into prison for rebellion and murder, according to their request. But Jesus he handed him over according to their will.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ trial and committal hearing tells Theophilus that the Roman Governor had no special interest in this case. He obviously knew little about Jesus; it was only from the Jewish Council that he now learned about him. We can speculate upon what took place beyond what the Gospels tell us, but Jesus’ case was achieved with what seems relative efficiency. There is Pilate’s uncertainty , and his wife’s dream. But what we have here is in many respects a similar account to what is reported in John 18:28-40. Luke is telling his account with an emphasis upon the haste with which his judicial murder was carried out. Barabbas was obviously guilty and he was still in prison and his crime had taken place some time previously. Barabbas was presumably subject to some negotiation between the Governor’s administration and those wanting to make political capital for themselves from his incarceration.

But with Jesus’ “trial”, if we can call it that, it is the haste of his enemies that Luke emphasizes. But there is one feature that Luke adds to our Gospel knowledge of Jesus’ crucifixion – before he was nailed to the cross he was sent over to the (holidaying) Herod. Presumably, this was Pilate’s device to get himself off the hook, and Jesus’ enemies off his back.

And whatever Pilate’s exact motive may have been, Luke is also reminding Theophilus of the man who ended the life of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. The actual story of John’s beheading is not recounted by Luke – we find it in Matthew (14:1-12) and Mark (6:14-29). But Luke’s account tells us explicitly that Jesus did not take the opportunity to discuss “religion” or any other relevant topic with the gutless monarch. He remained silent.

That silence, says Luke, simply inflamed Herod’s instinctive abuse and mockery. He had this “king” dressed in a royal robe and sent him back to Pilate.

We have to wonder why it was that they became friends from that day on. Was it not that they had shared a theatrical event that goes them a moment’s respite from their respective uncertainty when faced by this innocent Teacher, let alone their boredom with the duties of public office.

And so, Herod entertained Pilate on that day – one can only wonder how Pilate greeted the mob of High Priests and rulers who brought him back to Pilate for concluding the charade. Herod had endeared himself to Pilate; we guess it was the royal robe. And with that development, Pilate resolved – Matthew tells us he was subject to his wife’s plea (Matthew 27:19) – to let him go.

And so the negotiation begins again with Jesus’ enemies and this time he is ready with a carefully formulated judgement

You brought me this man accusing him of sedition. Take note, I have examined him before you and found he has done nothing worthy of death. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. I will reprimand him and release him.

But Jesus’ accusers are ready. They have the Barabbas issue to resolve and besides it’s the day when a prisoner can be released.

Come on you guys. We know each other, don’t we. I can’t condemn this innocent man. You haven’t told me what evil he has done!

But what was he to do with demands for Barabbas’ release now being shouted from the roof-tops?

Luke tells us what we already know: Pilate’s uncertainty caved in.

We may now wonder whether Pilate had to deal with his wife’s subsequent sleepless night because of the injustice wrought on “that innocent man”, but Luke was telling Theophilus that efficiency prevailed and that a most convenient political friendship had arisen from a theatrical moment in the proceedings. Herod obviously knew how to engage in the art of dealing with conflicting demands. Nice touch that. Good theatre with that gorgeous royal robe. Helps a lot.

It may have been a difficult day for Pilate, as he confronted the organised insistence of Jesus’ enemies, but then his action betrays the realpolitik cop-out: that’s the reality of political life, isn’t it?

Besides he and Herod had shared a theatrical moment together, a joke that may have been at this poor man’s expense, but then the friendship between the Judaean Monarch and the Roman Governor was forged wasn’t it? Public administration, especially of such a difficult polity, needs such friendships, doesn’t it? It’s all part of the deal!

BCW 17th February 2017.

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