PILATE AND THE CROWN OF THORNS
"Pilate saith to him; Speakest thou not to me? Knowest not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?" (Jn.19:10)
During his Passion, our divine Lord had to endure three different kinds of sufferings, namely, anguish in his mind, torture in his body, humiliations in his soul. The first was most severe in the garden of Gethsemani, where he was sorrowful even unto death; the second was on the cross; the third in the city of Jerusalem. In all these three stages of his Passion, our suffering Savior gave us the brightest examples of virtue, and the soundest lessons of wisdom.'
In the garden of Gethsemani, he was perfectly resigned to the adorable will of his Heavenly Father, and taught us how to pray. On the cross, he was patient and full of charity. In his profound humiliations in the city of Jerusalem, our divine Lord and Master was the most perfect model of meekness and the teacher of wisest maxims to every class of persons; but especially to those in high dignity. The High Priest Annas, the supreme Pontiff Caiphas, King Herod, Pontius Pilate the Roman Governor, received important lessons from his examples, words and silence. This last was perhaps the most instructive of all. There is often great power in silence, especially before personages in high dignity, when our life is dependent on their will. Such is now the condition of our Lord, before the Roman Governor, which we will examine in this chapter.
1. "Pilate saith to him: Speakest thou not to me?" We have already remarked, and shall have again to observe, that the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate possessed, many good natural qualities. He was a shrewd and intelligent judge of human character. To a great extent he understood the dispositions of the Jewish people, and of their civil and ecclesiastical leaders. Pilate very soon perceived that in their bitter persecution against our dear Lord, these men were animated by the passion of envy and hatred. He promptly discovered the innocence of out Savior. Several times he boldly proclaimed it before the assembled multitude. Pilate was evidently anxious, to save the life of our persecuted Lord, in short, he was naturally well disposed towards truth and justice. In his heart, however, were concealed two dangerous obstructions, namely, the rock of ambition, and the sandbank of pusillanimity, whereon, during the present storm, he drifted and was miserably shipwrecked.
2. To all persons in dignity and power, the Holy Ghost says: "The greater thou art the more humble thyself in all things and thou shall find grace before God, for great is the power of God alone, and he is honored by the humble." (Eccli. 3:20) Pilate was ambitious, and coveted dignities and power. On this occasion in his behavior towards our blessed Lord, the Roman Governor showed himself proud of his authority. Having heard from the chief priests, and Jewish magistrates, that our Lord ought to die; because he made himself the son of God; he abruptly left the balcony, and re-entering the hall of his palace; hastily interrogated our Savior, saying: Whence art thou?... Our dear Master wishing to teach Pilate, and all earthly magistrates, whatever their dignity might be, that justice should be done to every man, whatever his origin and condition is, gave no answer to his inopportune question. By this silence our Lord intended also to teach the Roman Governor, and all civil magistrates, that the knowledge of and judgment of theological matters and theological facts, belongs by right, to a higher and more competent ecclesiastical tribunal. This unexpected silence of our divine Lord gave offense to Pilate, who with an air of haughty indignation; sharply said to him: "Speakest thou not to me?...knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and I have power to release thee?"
These words evidently manifest the high opinion that Pontius Pilate had of himself, and of his dignity. He believed himself a very great and superior being, to whom even a person, like our Lord, who claimed divine prerogatives and rights, should show deference, and pay homage.... Moreover, the Roman Governor in these words expressed notions and ideas about human power and authority, which are radically wrong and pernicious. He spoke as if he were to exercise his magisterial power, in favor of, or against any of his subjects, independent of their personal merit, or demerit, just as he could distribute his personal gifts to favorites refusing them to any person he disliked. He seemed to believe that the authority and power given him was not intended for the common good of his subjects; but to promote and secure his own personal honor and profit. Pilate spoke to our divine Redeemer as if he were absolutely free to use his supreme power of life and death as arbitrarily as he pleased: "Knowest thou not, that I have power to crucify thee, and I have power to release thee? As if he meant to say: Know, Jesus of Nazareth, that I have power of life and death, I can save thy life from the hands of thine enemies, and I can condemn thee to the death of the cross, whether thou be guilty or innocent. My sentence will be favorable and thou shalt be acquitted if thou be respectful to me; otherwise I shall condemn thee to the death of the cross. Take care then to be more obsequious and respectful to me, and promptly answer all my questions." These proud and presumptuous words, subversive of the true idea and real nature of authority and of legitimate power, afforded a favorable opportunity to our divine Master for confuting and correcting a most erroneous and pernicious maxim, too commonly admitted, and too often acted upon by many of the potentates of the earth .... In their foolish pride, and arrogant presumption, they attribute power to themselves independently of God, refusing to recognize him as the first orgin and source of all human authority. This impious notion has been the main cause of the worst despotisms, and most cruel oppressions, that have afflicted human society. The history of the world, and the annals of Christianity, demonstrate this truth by innumerable facts. Hence our divine Master, and supreme Lord of heaven and earth, of angels and men, seized this opportunity given Him by the words of the Roman Governor, Pilate, to teach a most essential lesson of jurisprudence to all persons in power and dignity. Standing before the representative of the greatest power upon earth, with a Crown of Thorns upon his adorable head, with a purple garment upon his bleeding shoulders, and holding in his manacled hands a reed as his sceptre, our divine Lord and Master in a calm, solemn and dignified manner, said to him; "Thou shouldst not have any power against me, except it were given thee from above." Know, Pilate that there is no power but from God. " (Rom. 13:2) "Give not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin, and say not before the angel: there is no Providence; Lest God be angry at thy words and destroy all the works of thy hand...For he that is high hath another higher, and there are others still higher than these. Moreover there is the King that reigneth over all the land subject to him." (Eccles. 5:5)
But above governor, presidents, kings and emperors there is the most high and omnipotent God whois above all and who will one day summon to the bar of his dread tribunal
all persons in power to give a strict account to him of their administration
of law and justice among his people. Know, Pilate, that by condemning
me to the death of the cross thou wilt become guilty of an enormous abuse
of thy delegated power. There is not, and there cannot be any human power
against me, because I am the incarnate Son of the living God. I am eternal
love, truth and holiness as I am essential justice. Did I wish it, I could in
an instant withdraw myself from the reach of every human and created
power. But I came upon earth, and became man to redeem and save mankind
from eternal misery, through my voluntary humiliations, sufferings and
death. I wish to suffer, and to die in obedience to my eternal Father. My
passion and death will redound to his greatest glory, and to my personal
honor during an endless eternity. My temporary suffering and death, will
be the salvation of mankind... .Woe, however, to those, who abuse against
me their delegated authority and power. This disorder O Pilate, shall speedily
be punished in thee by the loss of thy dignity, by exile, and by death. But
the crime of the chief priests, and Jewish magistrates, who have delivered
me to thee; without any cause on my side, and so obstinately insist on urging
thee to condemn me, innocent as I am, to the death of the cross, is by far
more heinous; so their punishment shall be the more severe. Take notice
Pilate, and remember well my words: "Thou shouldst not have any power
against me, except it were given thee from above. Therefore, he that hath
delivered me to thee, hath the greater sin." (Jn. 19:11)
3. Our divine Master in these words, gave some very important lessons to the Roman Governor, and to all persons in authority. He teaches them very plainly, that all authority, and power must come from God. "For there is no power but from God. "This fundamental principle is numberless times repeated in the sacred Scripture, in order that no person in authority, believing in revelation, may be ignorant of its import. A few extracts will be useful on this occasion. They are principally selected from acknowledgements made by personages in high authority.
"The Lord is terrible and exceeding great, and his power is admirable. Glorify the Lord as much as ever you can; for he will yet far exceed, and his magnificence is wonderful." (Eccli. 43:31) The pious and zealous King Josaphat glorified God when, standing in the midst of the assembly of Juda and Jerusalem, in the house of the Lord, said: O Lord God of our fathers, thou art God in Heaven, and rulest over all the kingdoms and nations. In thy hand is strength and power; and no one can resist thee." (2 Paralip. 19:6) Holy King David, a short time before his happy death, repeated in substance the praises of God which he had so often sung in his psalms during his holy life. "David the King, rejoiced also with great joy and he blessed the Lord before all the multitude and said: Blessed art Thou O Lord, the God of Israel, our Father from eternity to eternity. Thine, O Lord, is the magnificence, and power, and glory and victory and to thee is praise. For all that is in heaven and earth, is Thine. Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art above all princes. Thine are riches and thine is glory; thou hast dominion over all. In thy hand is power and might; in thy hand greatness and the empire of all things. Now therefore, our God, we give thee thanks and we praise thy name. " (1 Paralip. 29) We shall close these sublime extracts with the royal proclamation made by one of the most powerful pagan monarchs of antiquity. "Then King Darius wrote to all the people, tribes and languages dwelling in the whole earth: Peace be multiplied to you.
It is decreed by me that in all my empire and my kingdom all men dread and fear the God of Daniel. For he is the living and eternal God forever; and his kingdom shall not be destroyed, and his power shall be everlasting. He is the deliverer and Savior, doing signs and wonders in heaven and on earth; Who hath delivered Daniel out of the Lion's den." (Dan. 6:25)
Those who see and feel the pressing need that in this degenerated age of pride and selfishness we have of these fundamental principles on the origin of power and on the nature of human government, will not disapprove of these rather long quotations from the Bible. We leave to more learned and more competent authors the fuller developments of these great principles. We firmly believe that their ignorance or perversion by persons in authority and power has reduced modern society to the verge of inevitable ruin. When the supreme authority of God is discarded by men in human legislation and government; then no respect for civil authority, no obedience to human law, can be logically claimed, or lawfully enforced. Without the support of God no authority can stand. Power contrary to God's will is tyranny. Law without God's sanction has no validity. "Counsel and equity is mine, eternal Wisdom says: Prudence is mine, strength is mine. By me kings reign and law-givers decree justice." (Prov. 8:14)
Human society must speedily return to those fundamental principles or it is doomed soon to perish in anarchy, blood and fire He will be recognized, praised, and honored as a wise teacher and great benefactor of mankind who has the ability, zeal and courage to announce and propagate these divine doctrines to the nations of the earth. The most holy and zealous of earthly Kings is in search of such apostles of order; "Who shall declare holy David asks: Who shall declare the powers of the Lord? who shall set forth his praises? Blessed are they that keep judgment and do justice." (Ps. 105:2)
Our divine Master desires to have these maxims announced to the world: "All power, he says, all power is given to me in heaven and upon earth Go ye therefore and teach all nations ...teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world." (Mt. 28:18)
When all Christian nations shall understand and appreciate the grand maxim that all authority and power emanate from God through Jesus Christ, and that they are communicated to superiors for the general welfare of society, then we shall be blessed with wise and just magistrates and with respectful, obedient and happy subjects. This is what our divine •Lord taught the Roman Governor with those significant words- "Thou shouldst not have any power against me, except it were given thee from above." Our blessed Savior was fully aware that Pilate was very anxious to keep his high position in the Roman Empire as Governor of Judea and that for this end he was courting the favor and approbation of the chief priests, Jewish magistrates and people. Hence he plainly told Pilate that authority and power emanated from above and not from below and consequently that he should study and strive to deserve the approbation and favor of God by his upright conduct, and strict administration of justice, if he wished to be protected by his divine Omnipotence and be raised by his divine Majesty to higher honors and to everlasting glory For justice exalts superiors, as humility exalts individuals. "The greater thou art humble thyself the more in all things, and thou shalt find grace before God. For great is the power of God alone, and he is honored by the humble." But Pilate in his pride, considered himself wiser than our divine Lord, the incarnate wisdom of God, and relied for support more on the favorable dispositions of the Jews, than on the approbation and protection of the Almighty. He shall soon have to deplore his fatal mistake. From the rock of his pride and ambition Pilate was stranded on the sandbank of his pusillanimity upon which he was finally wrecked.
4. "Seek not to be made a judge unless thou hast strength enough to extirpate iniquities; lest thou fear the person of the powerful and lay a stumbling block to thy integrity." (Eccli. 7:6) A firm determination to administer justice to every person without fear or favor is an essential duty of all superiors. Civil magistrates are elected for the general good of the people; they are armed and protected in the exercise of their important office with the whole strength of executive power; hence, they should be strict and firm in administering justice to all. They should in a special manner defend the weak and protect innocence and virtue. A true magistrate worthy of his name, and position, should be superior to the influence or dread of faction, and above the suspicion of bribery. Civil magistrates are upon earth the representatives of the God of justice, who is no acceptor of persons, and who will most certainly and very soon summon them to appear at the bar of his dreaded tribunal, against which there is no possibility of appeal... "Hear ye kings and understand. Learn ye that are the judges of the ends of the earth. Give ear you that rule the people and please yourselves in multitudes of nations. For power is given you by the Lord, and strength by the most High who will examine your works and search out your thoughts; because being ministers of his kingdom you have not judged rightly, nor kept the law of justice, nor walked according to the will of God. Horribly and speedily will he appear to you. For a most severe judgment shall be for them that bear rule. To him that is little, mercy is granted, but the mighty shall be mightily tormented. Because God will not accept any man's person, neither will he stand in awe of any man's greatness. For he made the little and the great and he has equally care of all. But a greater punishment is ready for the more mighty." (Wis. 6)
From these sublime doctrines of divine revelation and legislation, written for our instruction at the command of God by the wisest of inspired monarchs, we ought to learn how serious is the responsibility of all judges, and civil magistrates of every degree, from the lowest to the highest, in relation to the respective duties of their office and dignity. From these divine words we hear how strict shall be the account demanded of them by the sovereign Lord of the Universe, and Universal Judge of mankind; and lastly, we hear how terribly severe shall be the punishment inflicted by an offended God on the unfaithful ministers of his kingdom, who have not judged rightly, and have not kept the laws of justice. Justice being equality to all, the violation of this fundamental virtue by persons in authority to the injury of the least and last of men, must be rigorously punished by God, who is just and whose judgment is right. "Justus es Domine et rectum judicium tuum." Because God will not accept any man's person, neither will he stand in awe of any man's greatness: For he made the little and the great, and he has equally care of all. " Et Nunc reges intelligite; erudimini qui judicatis terram, servite Domino in timore." And now, O ye kings, understand; receive instruction you that judge the earth. Serve ye the Lord with fear. (Ps. 2:10)
If, however, the God of eternal justice will punish with rigorous severity the injury done by unjust judges and by corrupt and cowardly magistrates to the least of mankind; what punishment shall be inflicted upon those iniquitous judges and magistrates, who not only refused to do justice to his most holy Son, but who condemned him to be scourged at the pillar like the vilest of criminal slaves, who permitted him to be crowned with thorns, and who at last condemned him to the infamous death of the cross? Having considered the punishments inflicted on the chief priests and Jewish magistrates, we must now give our attention more immediately to the Roman Governor, Pilate.
At the beginning of our Lord's Passion, Pilate was well disposed in his favor. He discovered his eminent wisdom and virtue; proclaimed his innocence and pleaded with the chief priests and Jewish magistrates for his acquittal .... But gradually yielding to the solicitations and threats of the Jews, the Roman governor allowed our dear Lord to be scourged at the pillar, to be crowned with thorns, mocked, derided, outraged, and finally condemned him to die the cruel and infamous death of the cross .... He who has the sad misfortune of yielding to the first assault of temptation must, through his fall, become weaker. From one sin he will rapidly pass to a greater one. The habit of vice shall soon be formed, which will drag the unhappy soul to the abyss of misery and to final impenitence .... The Roman governor, Pilate, was weak and vacillating through false motives of human policy. Being anxious to preserve his dignity in Jerusalem as governor of Judea, he studied to conciliate the favor of the chief priests and Jewish leaders. He feared to offend the Jews by protecting our innocent Savior, and somewhat dreaded the indignation of God if he condemned him to death. Pilate had just been entreated by his wife to do no injury to our Savior, because he was a just and holy man, as had been miraculously shown to her in a vision, in which she experienced that morning great uneasiness of mind, fearing some dreadful punishment for her husband, if he had the weakness to yield to the clamor and threats of the Jewish people. Bewildered and confused, knowing not what to do, when Pilate heard the chief priests and Jewish officers insisting upon the crucifixion of our Lord, he with an expression of disgust and indignation, said to them: "Take him you and crucify him, for I find no cause in him." The weak and vacillating policy of the Roman Governor, made these wicked men, bolder, and more arrogant in their demands. In a threatening attitude of defiance they replied to him. "We have a law, and according to the law, he ought to die; because he made himself the Son of God." These words made a deep impression upon his mind; but his vacillation increased with his timidity. Pilate abruptly left the balcony, re-entered the hall, and with evident marks of uneasiness, asked our Lord; "Whence art thou?" Our divine Master wishing to teach the Roman Governor and all earthly magistrates, that justice is equality to all men and that their origin, or the accidental place of their birth or condition, cannot change the essence of this fundamental virtue, gave him no answer, but kept a profound and dignified silence. This mysterious and eloquent silence of our Lord displeased Pilate, who, with an air of disappointed pride, said with a haughty tone of voice: Speakest thou not to me? . . . Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and I have power to release thee? . . What depth of pride and injustice do these words betray? . . . Speakest thou not to me? Hast thou, O Jesus of Nazareth, no regard for my dignity of Roman Governor? Hast thou no dread of my authority and power? Knowest thou not that I, Pontius Pilate, have power to crucify thee, and I have power to release thee? Oh! Pilate! Pilate you know not to whom you speak. You know not, and are unable and unworthy to understand the dignity, power, wisdom and holiness of Jesus of Nazareth, standing as a reputed criminal before your civil tribunal. But as a Roman Governor, you should know, that no innocent person can without a tyrannical abuse of power, and without a glaring injustice, be condemned as a criminal to the death of the cross .... You have publicly proclaimed the innocence of Jesus, the persecuted victim of Jewish hatred and malice; how can you dare now to attempt to overawe him with all the weight of your dignity and power?... If Jesus be innocent you are bound in strict justice to release him. You officially proclaim his innocence and yet you threaten him with crucifixion. "Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee and I have power to release thee ? " Pilate! These words are your condemnation. They prove and demonstrate that in condemning Jesus of Nazareth to death, you were not animated by the love of justice, but by ambition of political power. Pride and ambition, oppression and injustice are always, however, severely punished by God. Take the wise and opportune advice of your pious wife Pilate, and have nothing to do with this just than. Protect his innocence, and use all your power as the representative of the great Roman Empire, to save his life.
Pilate is hesitating. The astute leaders of the Jewish people perceive their advantage, and promptly avail themselves of the opportunity. As soon as he attempted to speak in favor of our Lord, they began to shout and cry aloud: "If thou release this man, thou art not the friend of Caesar. For, whosoever maketh himself a king, speaketh against Caesar." Political charges of disloyalty to the state are always the last refuge of malicious persecutors against innocent persons. This plea is ever successful with anti-religious politicians. The state with them is above every right of religion and of justice. Power is their supreme law; might, their standard of right; wealth, the idol of their worship. Innocence, virtue and justice must be immolated on the political altar to the friendship and favor of Caesar. Hence not to lose the friendship of the Roman Emperor, Pilate condemned our divine Lord to the death of the cross. What a sentence! what horrible perversion of judgment and justice! Innocence, virtue, religion and God are sacrificed to ambition for political dignity and power. But God Almighty is stronger than men, and in their impious and insane conflict with Him, they are invariably defeated.
Like too many earthly potentates, Pilate directed all his political sagacity and power to the perpetuation of his authority. The means he justified by the end of his ambition. He condemned to the death of the cross our innocent and most holy Lord, as a clever stroke of state policy, because he thereby expected to secure the good will of the chief priests and Jewish magistrates, and the approbation of Caesar. "But there is no wisdom, there is no prudence, there is no counsel against the Lord." (Prov. 21:26)
Pilate soon found out his terrible mistake. A short time after our Savior's resurrection, and ascension into heaven, this Roman Governor disagreed with the Jewish leaders, who turned against him with their proverbial malignity and black ingratitude; they accused him before the Roman Emperor as guilty of malversation in office, and of high treason against his imperial Majesty. He was immediately recalled to Rome, deposed from his cherished dignity, and sent into exile to France, where, in disgrace and infamy, Pilate died, broken-hearted. Behold the folly of political wisdom! Behold the swift punishment of pride, ambition, and iniquity! The Roman Governor lost his coveted dignity and power through the perverse means employed by him to preserve his authority. With some of the Fathers of the Church, we confidently trust that the punishment of Pilate, as we shall see in a subsequent chapter, was only temporary, it was, however, prompt and severe. When shall the potentates of the earth learn true wisdom from this terrible example.
"Et nunc reges intelligite; erudimini qui judicatis terram."