Gospel of Matthew: a commentary & meditation 
Pilate asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

Gospel reading: Matthew 27:11-31
11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You have said so." 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?" 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge; so that the governor wondered greatly. 15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. 16 And they had then a notorious prisoner, called Barab'bas.17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Barab'bas or Jesus who is called Christ?" 18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.19 Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have  suffered much over him today in a dream." 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Barab'bas and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barab'bas." 22 Pilate said to them, "Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" They all said, "Let him be crucified." 23 And he said, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified." 24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the  crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." 25 And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" 26 Then he released for them Barab'bas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the praetorium, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. 28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe upon him, 29 and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on his head, and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" 30 And they spat upon him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him.

Meditation: The religious leaders charged Jesus with blasphemy because he called himself the Son of God.  But since they did not have the power to put him to death, they brought him to the Roman authorities to have him tried and executed.  The charge they brought before Pilate, however, was political rather than religious.  Luke tells us that three false accusations were leveled against Jesus (Luke 23:1-2):  First, that Jesus agitated sedition.   Second, they said that he encouraged people to not pay taxes to Caesar.  And third, he assumed the title king.   We know from the gospel accounts that Pilate made no less than four attempts to avoid condemning Jesus.  He told the Jewish leaders to take Jesus and settle the matter themselves (John 19:6-7).  He tried to refer the case to Herod.  He tried to get the Jewish leaders to receive Jesus as a prisoner who was granted release at Passover time (Mark 15:6).  And then he tried to compromise by offering to scourge Jesus and then release him.  The Romans were noted for their impartial justice.

Why did the crowd want Barabbas released rather than Jesus?  This was not likely the same crowd, who a week earlier, had hailed Jesus' entry into Jerusalem.  Barabbas was a bandit known for violence.  Jerusalem was filled with insurrectionists.  That's why there were so many Roman forces in Jerusalem at this time of high tension and religious fervor. He was probably part of a nationalist's group known for murder and assassination. This crowd was very likely supporters of Barabbas who came on this occasion because they believed that Pilate would offer his release at the feast.

What finally coerced Pilate to sentence a just man to death?  Blackmail!  John's gospel records that the Jewish leaders told Pilate: "If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend; everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar."  The last thing Pilate wanted was a report back to Rome that he supported a dangerous man who was inciting the people to accept him as their king and to revolt against Roman authority.  The last thing Rome would accept was civil disorder.  So Pilate relented to avoid having a charge brought against him to Rome.  Pilate was a ruthless leader, but he lacked one important quality, the courage to do the right thing.  He sacrificed justice to save his face and his job.  Are you willing to sacrifice reputation and position for truth and justice?

The Romans treated condemned prisoners with great cruelty. They were first scourged and then had to carry their cross to the place of execution.  The prisoner was bound and bent so his back was exposed.  Long leather whips tied with pieces of sharp iron and bones were used for ripping apart a man's back. Some died from the whipping alone, some were made unconscious, and some went mad. Pilate had Jesus scourged in the typical Roman fashion.  Jesus was led into the Praetorium, a large hall where the whole company of soldiers could gather and watch. After they scourged him, they robed him in purple, the color for kingly garb, crowned him with thorns, beat him with a reed, and mocked him for his claim to kingship. This scourging, crowning with thorns, and beating greatly weakened Jesus and made it difficult for him to carry his cross to the place of execution. While crucified men have been known to have lasted for several days on a cross before expiring, Jesus died within three hours on the cross, no doubt because he had been nearly scourged to death beforehand. The prophet Isaiah foretold what the 'Suffering Servant" would undergo for our sake: "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;  yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities;  upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed." (Isaiah 53:4-5) Jesus' suffering and death freed us from slavery to sin and won for us pardon and the hope of eternal life. Are you ready to suffer for your faith and to carry  your cross for Jesus' sake?

"Lord Jesus, you suffered injustice and abuse for our sake.  By your cross you have redeemed the world and won for us pardon and reconciliation.  Give me courage to always choose what is right and to avoid what is evil."

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 (c) 2002-2005 Don Schwager