What is a king?

The encounter between Pilate and the King of Kings

John 18:33-37; Daniel 7:9-10,13-14

To hear the sermon as you read:

Kings are two a penny. They may be called Procurators or Tetrachs or even ethnarchs, but they still think they’re kings. Give a man a bit of power and he’s king over his own little kingdom and expects to be obeyed. Even I am a king in my way – a king of ink and parchment, empowered by my ability to write. “Fetch me a new quill!” – “Get this to Tiberius at once!” O yes – we’re all kings in our own patch, aren’t we?

Kings are two a penny. I should know, I’ve served enough of them. A skilled and trustworthy scribe can always find an employer, even though most of them aren’t worth serving. That’s how I came to be chief recorder for procurator Pontius Pilate, whose thankless task it was to try to keep some kind of peace in the turbulent border province of Judea. What a place! A seething hotbed of rebellion fuelled by a fanatical determination not to see anyone else’s point of view. We Greeks like a democratic argument, but you can’t argue with the Jews. They are the most single-minded and stubborn race in the whole Roman Empire, and to cap it all, they are convinced that they are the only ones who know anything about God. They make the most tremendous fuss about everything from the coinage to who can call themselves a king. Only God appoints kings, apparently – it’s got nothing to do with who actually conquered the country. It was enough to try the patience of a much less saintly man than Pilate.

Passover was the worst time. Jerusalem was bursting at the seams with pilgrims, pious no doubt, but perfect cover for agitators, fanatics and would-be martyrs. Pilate had no option but to make his presence felt. If he didn’t, the Jewish authorities would be only too quick to upset the precarious balance of power into which he had cajoled, bribed and threatened them. The trouble was that Pilate was only a second class king – he had the legate of Syria breathing down his neck, and he didn’t even have absolute power to do his own job. He had to get the hated taxes collected, and he had unlimited legal and military power, but he didn’t actually run the country. The Jewish authorities did all the day-to-day stuff, which meant that if you wanted anything done you either had to use brute force, or keep on the right side of them. Pilate was pretty good at brute force, but it doesn’t always pay – the powers that be don’t like subordinates over-using the military option, it might give you ideas above your station. So nailing up rebel leaders was the only viable alternative to wiping out whole sections of the population.

So there we were. Jerusalem. Another Passover. Another power struggle. Another prisoner. This one was dragged in at some unearthly hour in the morning. It had been a rough night too – Pilate’s wife having nightmares again – and he was not best pleased when the Jews expected him to go out to the gateway so that they wouldn’t get their feet dirty on our foreign floor tiles. Scuttling after him, I shouted for someone to fetch pen and ink – he’d want the charges written down. I clutched my cloak round me in the chill pre-dawn wind, and wished I’d put some sandals on.

There was a huge crowd outside. Ugly too, in that sullen shifting silence that can explode into violence at the least wrong word. There seemed to be some confusion about the exact charge, and Pilate told them shortly to go away and stop bothering him.  

“Who’s the prisoner?” I asked the gate-guard, anxious to get the right information down.

He shrugged, “Some wandering teacher, a Galilean.”

“You’re kidding?” I said. “Their rabbis are always talking. It never comes to anything.”

He shrugged again. “This one’s got a big following. Huge procession brought him into city the other day. Shouting and waving. Something about blessed be the king.” Then he laughed. “Riding on a donkey, he was. Some king!”

Rabbis? Donkeys? Kings? It didn’t make sense. Then Pilate came storming back, looking in a mood to start nailing people to things – including inefficient scribes. I scrambled to my place on the steps of the judgement seat. Someone yelled for the prisoner to be brought in. He wasn’t given any option about what he walked on. I must have missed something, because Pilate began with the charge straight away. “Are - you - the king - of the Jews?” I wrote down.

Looking at him, it didn’t seem likely. He was pretty ordinary. Just another young Jew – average height, average weight, no distinguishing marks except the usual bruises.  Until he opened his mouth. He had the cheek to ask Pilate where he got his information! I closed my eyes, and waited for the explosion. But it never came. When Pilate did speak, he sounded confused and impatient, wanting the prisoner to clarify the charges against him. This was different. I opened my eyes cautiously and took another look.

He was standing quite still, his eyes fixed on Pilate’s. Not in awe or fear of the man who could put him to death. But patiently. As if he had all the time in the world. For all the world like a good teacher guiding a pupil through a difficult piece of knowledge.  What do you know about kings? he was asking. Can you capture a king without a battle? You know there has been no fighting. Work it out for yourself. What kind of a king am I?

It must have been the early hour, all the rush and fuss on an empty stomach, because I felt suddenly dizzy, had a sensation of falling, as though the bottom had suddenly dropped out of my world. My legs were trembling so much that I found I was kneeling, bowing low to touch my forehead to the cold tiles, my pen and parchment quite forgotten. But it wasn’t the hour or the rush. It was the presence of the King.

How can I tell you what that presence was like? If his clothing had been white as snow, if fire had flamed from his hand, and tens of thousands had bowed before him, it could not have been clearer. Before him Pilate was revealed in his scheming, bureaucratic tyranny. A man caught in the trap of his own fear and cruelty. The judge judged as the prisoner looked at him. Such a look. A look of total knowledge, a look of utter truth - yet a look of understanding. A look of love.

But the prisoner had not changed. He still stood patiently. An ordinary human being, beaten and betrayed, yet clear-edged, sharp and precise against the clouds of glory behind him. Work out the truth for yourself, he said. Then decide what to do.

I decided then and there. To hell with Pilate! And my job. I was going to give it all up and fight for him. I was going to tell the world what a real king was. I was going to work and fight and struggle for his kingdom, and down with the Romans, the Jews, the Greeks, the whole lot of them! For the first time in my life, I had found someone worth serving.  No way was I going to let Pilate crucify him.

I dared to raise my head. Just at that moment, the prisoner’s gaze shifted for a fraction of a second. The corner of his mouth lifted in the beginnings of a smile, as his eyes met mine.  But he shook his head ever so slightly. For a split second I though he was rejecting me, but in my heart I knew he was not. He was showing me the truth. I knew my great ideas for what they were – grandiose dreams with no roots in reality. How could an insignificant clerk serve and obey him? What use was a scribe when he needed an army?

I’m recruiting my army, his eyes seemed to be saying. “I was born into the world to witness to the truth. Everyone must chose whether or not they will declare that truth.” Then I understood what he wanted me to do. I couldn’t fight for him, but I could stay there and do my job. My job was recording. Recording the truth. That was how I could obey him. I would record for all times and for all people that this was not just the king of the Jews, but the King above all kings. For kings like this are not two a penny and his are all kingdoms, all powers and all glory. Amen