What Is Truth?
The religious leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s palace. It was early morning. They themselves didn’t enter the palace because they didn’t want to be disqualified from eating the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and spoke.
“What charge do you bring against this man?”
They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.”
Pilate said, “You take him. Judge him by your law.”
The religious leaders said, “We’re not allowed to kill anyone.”
Pilate went back into the palace and called for Jesus. He said, “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own, or did others say this about me?”
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?”
“My realm,” said Jesus, “doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over. But I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king.”
Pilate asked him, “So are you a king or not?”
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.”
Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
“What is truth?”
In June of 1974, an international and interfaith symposium was convened at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City. The purpose of the symposium was to confront the truth of the Holocaust in an open exchange. “Historians, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, theologians, poets, and mystics all attempted to approach the event from their perspective.” In his essay entitled “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire,” Rabbi Irving Greenberg submitted the following terrifying baseline for the symposium.
“No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”
I know this is a jarring and horrifying image to consider, but Rabbi Greenberg’s working principle is most certainly an effort to move toward pain and suffering and death to better determine what is true. The truth is that is the world in which we live—a world of suffering and death—a world where over six million Jews—including one million children were systematically murdered.
What statement, theological or otherwise, do I have to offer to burning children?
Right now, on the eve of the Passover and Good Friday, a war is being waged under the false flag of removing Nazis from Ukraine. Innocents are being murdered.
What does the faith I espouse have to say to them?
Almost 2,000 years ago, on the eve of the Passover, Jesus of Nazareth was falsely accused, wrongfully imprisoned, brutally tortured, and murdered.
How does the life I’m living include and respond to a rejected, abandoned, and murdered Messiah?
"What is truth?" John’s Gospel tells us that Pontius Pilate—the prefect of Rome—posed this question as he presided over the trial of Jesus. I would submit to you the possibility that this question is not a small, historically recorded detail but is instead placed in the mouth of Pontius Pilate to catch our attention—to provoke us to look closely at the images of truth offered in this story. The first image we’re offered seems to be of the imbalanced relationship between truth and religious institution. The leaders of the religious institution of first-century Judea are at the trial of Jesus before Pilate. In fact, they're the ones that dragged Jesus to the palace of the Roman governor for judgment. They determined the ongoing presence and teaching of Jesus was a threat to their religion. He was not following all the rules and rituals. He presumed to expand established traditions, transcend accepted truths and even worse, he was teaching others to do the same. The religious establishment could not allow it. The institution needed to protect and defend its religion. Someone had to stand up for the truth. Once they arrive at Pilate’s palace, however, the priests and religious leaders—pillars of ritual and tradition—refuse to go inside. Verse 28 states that the religious leaders don’t want to defile themselves by entering an unclean, pagan dwelling. Their scripturally based purity laws stressed the importance of remaining ritually clean before the approaching Passover holiday. To enter the palace of Pontius Pilate would go against their religious truth. It would contradict their understanding of scripture. It would break tradition and ritual—making them unclean and unable to celebrate properly. So rather than risk it, they stood outside and accused Jesus of being a criminal. In observance of their traditions and rituals, they remained clean…and in defense of their religious truth, they lied.
What is truth?
The second image we are offered as we are confronted with this question seems to be the mutually destructive relationship between truth and empire. The word “king” appears nine times during Jesus’ trial before Pilate. That’s not a coincidence. It’s not a small, historically recorded detail. It’s a clue—an indicator—a flashing light to get our attention. After going outside to hear lies from the religious establishment, Pilate withdraws into his palace and asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” On the surface, we can conclude that Pilate asks Jesus this question to determine his guilt. As a Roman subject, if Jesus claimed any kingship not bestowed upon him by Caesar, he would be guilty of treason—a crime that required a slow, public, humiliating death by crucifixion. The problem with our surface conclusion is that Jesus never claims to be a king. The first time Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, Jesus resists the question and responds, “Do you say this on your own, or did others say this about me?” When Pilate later asks again, “So are you a king or not?” Jesus responds, “You say that I am king…I came into the world to testify to the truth.” Jesus never answers Pilate in the affirmative. He never says, “Yes, I am a king.” N.T. Wright calls the question laughable and concludes Pilate knows the answer before he even finishes asking Jesus if he is a king. Wright states, “Of course, he’s not a king. Jesus was nothing like Pilate’s boss Caesar…nothing like King Herod the Great.” Pilate sees before him a poor man from the wrong part of the country…one who had a small band of followers, but they’ve all run away.” Jesus is a homeless, wandering rabbi with no palace, no throne, no armies, and no subjects.
His only crown will be a cruel and painful joke fashioned by the empire that will mock and murder him.
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