Proper 29, Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 25, 2012

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
2 Samuel 23:1-7Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18)Revelation 1:4b-8John 18:33-37

By Russell Pregeant

“What is truth?” (John 18:38) By ending the gospel reading at 18:37, the lectionary deprives a potent scene of its climax in this enticing question. To end with a question might seem to leave the interchange between Jesus and Pilate hanging, but to do so is perfectly in line with the Johannine device of contrasting speech that is “from below” (that is, based upon defective, worldly understanding) with speech that is “from above” (that is, based upon knowledge of the truth, which is grounded in heavenly reality). In v. 37, Jesus alludes to his origin in the divine realm, defines his mission as testifying to the truth (which belongs to that realm), and lays down the criterion for the judgment of human beings: “Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice.” Earlier in the gospel, he has proclaimed himself as the truth: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” All of this is highly poetic, imaginative language, and in John it functions as a theologically-charged alternative to mundane language that reflects an inability to grasp divine truth. All through the gospel, Jesus and his conversation partners “talk past” one another, precisely because he speaks in language “from above” and they speak in language “from below.”And the same thing happens in 18:33-38. Pilate, thinking in earthly-political terms, asks Jesus if he is a king; Jesus, thinking in heavenly-theological terms, answers that his kingdom (or reign) is “not from this world”—that is, does not have its origin in this world.

The force of the unanswered question in v. 38 is thus two-fold. First, it reveals Pilate’s inability to understand Jesus’ witness because he thinks only in earthly terms. The truth is literally staring him in the face—in the form of Jesus himself—and he cannot recognize it because he is unable even to understand the implications of his own questions. To ask about either Jesus’ kingship or truth is to ask about the divine realm, but Pilate can think only “from below” because he is “from below.” Second, the fact that the question remains unanswered directs it from Pilate to the reader. “What is truth?” now confronts the reader with the necessity to decide between “above” and “below”—that is, between the truth that Jesus both is and witnesses to and the false truths the mundane world offers in its place.

Pilate’s role in the interchange, moreover, models typical ways in which human beings avoid the moment of decision. By asking in v. 33 whether Jesus is “king of the Jews” he reduces the question of Jesus’ ultimate origin and significance to one that is appropriate for the Roman state—that is, to a merely political question. And by asking what Jesus has done (v. 35), he reduces the question of Jesus’ mission (which is to testify to the truth) to a question appropriate to a criminal trial. From a mundane perspective, of course, the reductionist questions are appropriate: this is a judicial proceeding, after all—however unjust it might be! But of course that is not the point at all from the perspective of the gospel writer. The issue here, as throughout the gospel, is who Jesus is and whether one accepts him for who he is.

Pilate’s inability/unwillingness to understand and his reduction of the theological question to a political one set the background for the scene that follows in 18:38b-40. His declaration in 38b that he finds no case against Jesus is by no means a sign of his good will. It is rather the logical outcome of his policy of avoidance of the real question at stake. As Bultmann comments, so far as Pilate as concerned, “the state is able to adopt the point of view that the questions about aleitheia (truth) has nothing to do with it. As v. 36 established, the state as state is not affected by the claim of Jesus to sovereignty, and this claim can appear as fantastic and vain.”[1] Pilate’s declaration does serve the Johannine agenda of shifting the weight of blame for Jesus’ death to the Jewish leadership, as does v. 34. This motif is qualified, however, by the fact that it is God who is in control of the situation. This is made clear by 19:11, even as it states explicitly that the Jewish leadership bears the greater guilt. We thus face a paradox: those who put Jesus to death are guilty, even though it is God who has for divine purposes engineered the event. Consistent with this paradox is the way in which Jesus, as many commentators have recognized, appears actually in control of the whole trial sequence in John. Jesus is accused in 18:33-38, but it is Pilate who is ultimately on trial. Although the point remains unstated, he stands condemned: avoidance of the question of truth does not work!

The full impact of the gospel selection is not evident until the entire trial sequence comes to a climax in 19:15-16. Following Pilate’s repeated attempts to release Jesus, the Jewish crowd declares that “We have no king but the emperor.” In making this declaration, the crowd clearly commits idolatry, choosing the Roman state over the one who is the truth. Ironically, however, Pilate’s role in the matter actually disempowers the state. His declaration of Jesus’ innocence should have led him to release Jesus, but instead he acquiesces to the wishes of the crowd. In the face of that crowd, the just decision would have been, in Bultmann’s words, “a decision against the world.” But Pilate “was afraid of the world, and before it he gave up the authority of the state.”[2]

The judgment of God is a central motif in Revelation. In 1:4b-8, the author sends greetings to seven churches from God, Christ, and the seven spirits (that is, angels) before God’s throne, then offers a doxology, but finally turns to a depiction of Jesus’ eschatological return as judge. Judgment, of course, entails authority, and the theme of divine sovereignty pervades the passage. The opening verse mentions God’s throne and refers to Jesus as “ruler of the kings of the earth.” Verse 6 then ascribes “glory and dominion” to God, and in v. 8 God is self-designated as “Alpha and 0mega”—that is, the sovereign over time—and “the Almighty.” We can therefore identify the motif of sovereignty as a point of contact between the gospel and epistle lessons, and the motif of the state is also common to both. In Revelation, as is often observed, there is a direct and irreconcilable conflict between the witness of the church and the Roman Empire. If we broaden the issue from church vs. Empire to church and human government, however, the issue becomes more complex. In identifying Jesus as “ruler of the kings of the earth,” the passage opens up the possibility of a more positive relationship between church and state, and this possibility is enhanced near the end of the book. In 21:24, the kings of the earth bring their glory into the New Jerusalem, even though in 19:17-21—in a stunning paradox—they make war against God and are eaten by birds at God’s command!

The relationship between God’s sovereignty and human government is also a motif in the readings from the Hebrew Bible. In both 2 Samuel 23:1-7 and Psalm 132:1-12, 13-18 we have classic iterations of the Davidic covenant, in which God promises the perpetuation of the Davidic line and the protection of Zion. Psalm 23:11 states that God will not turn back from his promise to place a son of David on the throne, and vv. 13-14 declare that Zion will be God’s “resting place forever.” There is a difference between the psalm and the passage in 2 Samuel, however. For the latter states only that the covenant with David is everlasting, whereas the psalm introduces a note of contingency in v. 12: “if your sons keep my covenant…their sons also, forevermore, will sit on your throne.”

Another theme common to the gospel and epistle readings is that of Jesus as witness. In John 18:37, Jesus tells Pilate that his mission is “to testify to the truth,” and in Revelation 1:4 he is called “the faithful witness.” In John, Jesus’ act of defining his mission is also an enactment of that mission: his interchange with Pilate is itself a testimony that is, through Pilate, also a witness to the state. His witness, moreover, is a prelude to his death—he witnesses even at the cost of his life. And the connection between witness and martyrdom is also at play in Revelation. As Eugene Boring comments, “The phrase ‘the faithful witness’ points to Jesus, not only as the revealer from heaven but as the one who also, like the Christians in [the author’s] churches, once stood before the Roman authorities.”[3] There is thus a price to pay for making a decision against the world “below” on behalf of the truth “from above.”

The standards of the world “below” vs. the truth “from above,” the interaction between divine sovereignty and human government, the cost of witness, the impossibility of avoiding decision—what an array of preachable interlocking themes are present in these passages! The persistence of the theme of human authorities in relation to divine rule provides an excellent opportunity for reflection on the proper role of government and the distinction between governments that serve divinely-grounded values and those based upon the lust for power. An important point to note is that in Revelation the primary critique is not of government per se but of the Roman Empire, which could easily be made the basis for a critique of empire altogether.

It is also important, from our contemporary perspective, to make the crucial distinction between the church-state issue and the religion-politics issue, which are too often confused. In a way, we can say that Pilate was right in thinking that acceptance of Jesus’ religious claims was not the business of the state (although, as noted above, the gospel of John frames the issue in an entirely different way). The role of the church’s witness to the state in our context is certainly not to cajole it into granting Christianity a favored position. It is, however, its legitimate mission to testify to the state regarding transcendent values that are in principle recognizable by all–values that should affect its policies on such matters as civil rights, human rights, economic justice, and the environment. In this regard, the State can err in two ways. On the one hand, it can exercise raw power simply in order to keep a given regime in control. On the other, it can do as Pilate did in acquiescing to “the crowd” without considering the ultimate implications of its decisions. If the former way is particularly characteristic of overtly totalitarian regimes, the subtler sin seems characteristic of our own society in which special interests with enormous resources at their fingertips are able to buy whatever policies suit them—without regard to the common good.

There are potential pitfalls in these readings, and the preacher should be aware of them. One is Pilate’s notation that Jesus was delivered to him by the Jewish authorities, which has historically contributed to Christian anti-Judaism. Another is the use of royal language, which can undermine the ability of the gospel message to challenge hierarchical structures. On the one hand, designating Jesus or God as king can be used to show the falsity of human governments’ claims to ultimacy. On the other, however, it can play into the traditional notion of a “great chain of being” that places human rulers in a hierarchy of authorities and sacralizes various forms of elitism. Process thought can be of service in guarding against such elitism, by virtue of its sense of the unity of all aspects of reality and its notion that the entire universe is pervaded by the divine presence. Its emphasis upon evolution, however, recognizes gradations in complexity among the various entities in the universe. For that reason, it is important to allow its democratizing aspects, together with the Bible’s “preferential option” for the poor and disenfranchised, to guard against the misuse of this motif.

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (trans. G.R. Beasley-Murray,; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 656.

[2] Ibid., 65

[3] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (Louisville: John Knox, 1989), 76.