Gospel Story of the Week
Jesus’ Passion and Death (Matthew 26:14-27:66)
“Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so’ . . . Then Pilate said to him, ‘Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?’ But he gave no answer, not even to a single charge, so the governor was greatly amazed.” (Matthew 27:11-14)
When Jesus appears before Pilate, integrity and truth hang in the balance. Jesus stays faithful to his mission even when the cost is death. Pilate, by contrast, makes an expedient compromise in a cowardly attempt to salve his conscience and appease the crowd.
Jesus isn’t the first person Pilate has tried for treason. He governs a volatile territory where various factions advocate the overthrow of Rome. Pilate comes to the trial experienced in dealing with revolutionaries, and he expects to dispatch the matter quickly. From the first moment, however, Pilate’s encounter with Jesus is anything but typical. In Pilate’s experience revolutionaries come in two sizes. Most are “little ones” who lose their bravado as soon as they are arrested. By the time they appear before him, they grovel in an attempt to make any deal that will spare their miserable lives. A few “big ones” remain defiant, at least until the beatings start. Both are sentenced quickly and without incident.
To Pilate’s surprise, Jesus doesn’t fit either mold. What first gets his attention is Jesus’ composure. It’s more than a steeled will refusing to let a volcano of emotions erupt. It’s deeper than resignation to his fate. What Pilate senses – whether he can name it or not – is the inner peace that Jesus possesses. There’s something more, too. Pilate sees in Jesus’ eyes something he has never seen before in the eyes of an accused man: a forgiving love. Ironically, it is the depth of Jesus’ composure that most unnerves Pilate. As he confronts the calm of Jesus’ love, he is shaken to the core.
Integrity hangs in the balance during Pilate’s encounter with Jesus. The accused stays true to his identity, willing to pay the ransom evil demands. Jesus refuses to deny his relationship with God or compromise his mission in order to save his skin. The judge, by contrast, is caught between the rock of his conscience and the hard place of a demanding crowd.
Jesus’ appearance before Pilate demonstrates the price of integrity. He stays true to his identity as the Son of God even when the cost is suffering. He remains faithful to his mission of redemption even when the price is death. I know something of the price of integrity and I bet you do, too. Sometimes I’ve been willing to pay it, and other times I’ve failed to ante up. Pilate’s behavior – and the ways my own is similar – reminds me of a piece of wisdom from my Uncle Mert: people are like electrons; they follow the path of least resistance. During Jesus’ trial, Pilate is an electron desperate to find an easier way, and he chooses the path of expedience. When integrity and responsibility are at stake, Jesus makes it clear that we have a choice. We are called to be more than electrons – even when the price of that choice leads to the cross.
The stage play Les Misérables provides a dramatic example of choosing integrity over expedience. The main character is Jean Valjean, escaped prisoner 24601. Transformed by a generous act of mercy, Valjean has lived an exemplary life for years. All that time, a police lieutenant named Javier has continued to pursue him. At one point, Valjean learns that a man believed to be prisoner 24601 is on trial, threatened with being returned to prison. If this man is found guilty, Valjean’s freedom is assured. He could choose the path of least resistance, keep his mouth shut and let the other man go to prison in his place. Valjean decides to be more than an electron, he chooses the way of integrity and voluntarily reveals that he is prisoner 24601 in order to free the other man.
Some years ago, the consulting industry I work in experienced a significant downturn. During those “bad times,” I had a new client whose business was growing rapidly. Early in the consulting engagement, however, I learned that my new client had questionable business practices. As I was thinking through whether to resign the account, I sought the advice of a friend whom I trust for both his moral sense and his business judgment.
After listening to my story, he summed up my dilemma in one sentence: “So you’re asking me if the shaky financial condition of your company is sufficient justification for you to continue to do business with a client that compromises your integrity?” I laughed out loud, knowing that the summation was exactly right. Every one of my rationalizations hedged the issue; he had cut to the core of it. I responded with a feeble “not if you put it like that…” He paused for a minute to let me think. Then with genuine compassion he asked, “How else would you put it?”
Thoreau once wrote, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” My colleague’s key moral sense and his detachment from the situation gave him the perspective to strike at the root. His bald framing of the issue made the answer clear, and it helped me quit hacking at the branches. I resigned the account.
As our Lenten journey continues, Jesus’ encounter with Pilate encourages us to examine how we handle the choice between expedience and integrity. It gives us the moral compass we need to recognize the situations that put our integrity at risk. Choosing integrity takes the kind of courage that Jean Valjean demonstrates by risking imprisonment to spare another man. It takes accepting responsibility for our actions rather than adopting Pilate’s attempt to wash the guilt from his hands and blame someone else. Choosing integrity takes the kind of prayerful surrender to God’s will that Jesus demonstrates – trusting that no amount of suffering or even death has the power to separate us from the love of God.
Questions to Ponder
- When have you faced an ethical dilemma that forced you to make a difficult choice?
- When you need a moral compass, who are the people in your life that you trust enough to consult for ethical guidance?
- When have you paid a price for maintaining your integrity and accepting responsibility?
Invitation to Prayer
Father, you know my heart. You know all the ways that I struggle with difficult choices and all the ways that I’m tempted to rationalize difficult decisions. Give me the insight to think clearly about the difficult choices in my life. Gift me with the courage to pay the necessary price of being your disciple. In my need I turn to you.