Pontius Pilate was a Roman Governor. A tough guy: no pushover. His job was to keep peace in Palestine, period. He had no qualms about having someone killed -- anyone -- in the course of his job. All sorts of Judeans got the axe (so to speak) just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when trouble was happening and Pilate needed to make a point.
And he hated the Jews. He didn't even live in Jerusalem, the "power seat" of the locals; the only reason he was in Jerusalem this week was because of this huge Jewish festival, Passover, when messianic hopes tended to get riled up and passionate Jewish folks tended to get out of hand. He was there to keep a lid on trouble, and that was his ONLY reason for being in town.
So, when Caiaphas and the other Jewish religious leaders threw this man Jesus of Nazareth into his courtyard calling him a troublemaker, this should have been a no-brainer for him. Troublemaker: get rid of him. Crucifixions are already scheduled for today. Sentence delivered. Go to breakfast.
But that's not what happened. Pontius Pilate spent all morning trying to let this man go, or at the very least to wash his own hands of him. First, he sent him to Herod, the "king" of the region Jesus was from, hoping Herod would take care of the issue. No such luck. Herod had some fun with him and sent him back.
He did the offer thing. It's Passover; I'll release one prisoner to you filthy Jews out of the goodness of my heart. Here -- you can have this beaten, weak, useless crazy man who claims to be your king . . . or you can have a violent, murdering insurrectionist. You want crazy man, right? Right? Wrong. They wanted the murderer. That plan was foiled.
He had the Nazarene beaten and scourged. Do you know what's involved in a Roman scourging? Look it up; it's gruesome. He had him dressed up in a purple robe and a crown of thorns put on his head. See? He's a joke, right? I get it -- I'm laughing with you. Ha, ha! So, he's clearly no threat . . . half-dead already . . . shall I just let him go now? Nope. Crucify him, the crowd shouted.
Why in the world did this powerful Roman ruler spend his time and energy trying to figure out what to do with this man from Galilee? Why didn't he just kill him already?
It could be because his wife urged him to not kill an innocent man today after the nightmare she had about it the night before. But powerful Roman rulers aren't known to bend to their wives' silly dreams (witness Calpurnia's fruitless pleading to Julius Caesar not to go to the Senate).
It could be because of his hatred for the Jewish religious leaders who he could clearly see were just envious of Jesus. But again, the man avoided these dirty Judeans like the plague whenever he could. It doesn't seem logical that he'd go to this much trouble just to thumb his nose in the face of some men he already had under that thumb.
I can't help but think that he struggled with this man Jesus because this man Jesus was clearly no ordinary man. He didn't act like other men. He didn't talk like other men. Pilate was amazed by him, scripture tells us several times. Something was different here, and he couldn't bring himself to throw the guy under the bus. He had no peace about it all. I find no basis for a charge in him, he said over and over. That didn't matter with other people he'd had killed. Why did it matter now?
In the end, he did sentence Jesus to death. What was the final straw? "If you set him free, you are no friend of the Emperor!" the Jewish leaders shouted. "Anyone who claims to be a king is an enemy of the Emperor!" Well, crap. Can't get on Caesar's bad side -- I'll lose my job. Maybe my head.
He came face to face with God in the flesh . . . he knew there was something going on here, something that made him afraid to be his usual hard Roman self . . . but in the end, he let his fear of man conquer his fear of God.
Lord, grant us the grace to never let the fear of man -- fear of his limited power and his foolish opinions -- keep us from doing business with God-in-the-flesh.