Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The voice of Pilate's wife

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal in a dream today because of him.” Matthew 27:19

“That innocent man” is, of course, Jesus.

He is standing before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, the man who has power of life and death over him. The Jewish authorities have brought him before Pilate, and they want him executed.

By all accounts Pilate was a seriously not nice man. Philo, a well-known Jewish writer of the time, describes him as “by nature rigid and stubbornly harsh…”, guilty of “bribes, acts of pride, acts of violence, outrages, cases of spiteful treatment, constant murders without trial, ceaseless and most grievous brutality…” Pilate is a man with blood-red hands.

He operates according to no real principles – all he cares about is getting his own way as easily as possible. He knows Jesus is innocent of any crime, but the best he can do is “wash his hands” of him, saying in effect, “All right, I’ll crucify him if that’s what you really want, but don’t hold me responsible” (verses 24-26). (If only we could shuffle off our responsibilities as easily as that…)

Picture, then, the moment the message from his wife reaches Pilate. He is sitting there on his judge’s seat, at a loss to know what to make of this strange character Jesus. He, Jesus, professes to be a king, though anyone less king-like it’s hard to imagine. But even a brutal man like Pilate senses there is something strangely impressive about him, so he hesitates to put him to death.

Then the messenger arrives – let’s say with a written note. Pilate glances at it, knowing instinctively that what his wife says is true. Which means he has a decision to make: should he, in spite of the inconvenience, do what is right and just? or should he go for the easy option?

Well, we all know which course he took. A decision which literally changed the course of history. A decision in which he revealed his true self and condemned himself.

I believe the voice of Pilate’s wife, so to speak, can come to us too, though no doubt in different forms. I find two main challenges.

First, it is the voice of conscience

What else does conscience do but (a) tell us the truth (especially the truth we don’t want to hear), and (b) urge us to make a decision (though probably a decision we don’t want to make)?

I don’t doubt for a moment that there had been many times in the past when Pilate had drowned the voice of his conscience. And, of course, every time he – or we – do that, our consciences become that little bit more calloused and insensitive. We are in the process of slowly hardening and destroying our own souls.

Here’s a question to put to ourselves: At what points in my life have I taken this decision to silence the God-given voice of good and truth within me? It may have become a settled habit with me, so much so that I really don’t notice any more that I’m doing it.

If that is the case, the sooner I wind back the reel of my life and start to put it right the better. However far gone I may be, God is gracious and will delight to pluck me off the road to destruction and set me right. But I must have the willingness, and the humility, to ask.

Second, the voice of Pilate’s wife can be a voice of hope.

How so? Well, it’s worth noticing that even in a dark place like Pontius Pilate’s palace a glimmer of light was shining. Somebody there had seen the truth. Somebody there had spoken the truth. Somebody there was concerned to see justice done.

In that situation God used a dream to communicate. (And why shouldn’t the same be true today?) But God is not limited in the means he uses.

So I dare to hope that somewhere in the dark places of our troubled word – the inner counsels of Isis or Boko Haram, the governments of godless nations, the board-rooms of corrupt business empires – that in these dark places the voice of truth is being heard, and the light of goodness is shining, however feebly.

Pray – pray hard! – that those who speak those words and shine those lights will get ever stronger until they prevail.

Lord God, thank you that the light of love and goodness cannot be ultimately extinguished. Give courage and strength to those who speak truth to power, and bring the day when they will prevail. Amen.

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