Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you 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?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ 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.’ (NRSV)
Sometimes speaking truth costs.
Our conversation occurs, importantly, in the context of a court. Jesus is before Pilate and on trial. It is a time to talk carefully, answer conservatively, say as little as possible. Before one who commands life and death the stakes are high.
Talk of a rival kingdom could find a safer context.
Then again with Pilate opening the conversation with the question: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus may have felt the conversation heading in this direction from the beginning.
It sounds like crazy talk but Jesus clearly does believe his rightful place is enthroned and ruling over a kingdom.
But this does not look like Pilate imagines. His assumption that Jesus is guilty of some kind of power play is insightful. The Jewish authorities do not come out in force for nothing. They are here because Jesus is a threat to their established order. It may be that Rome overshadows them but they will still align themselves with their arch-rivals if it means denying Jesus the same opportunity. They put this question in Pilate’s mouth.
Jesus insists that he leads a kingdom beyond thrones, armies, and authority. His disciples have not really grasped this radical dimension to Jesus’ call. The expectation the Pilate might understand in a single conversation asks a lot. Jesus is simply not here to take power in the same way as Rome or the religious leaders.
The very essence of God’s kingdom is different to any Pilate has known. The defining characteristic of Jesus’ kingdom is not on an ability to attack and defend. It puts this kingdom in another dimension.
In fact, Jesus seems to understand this kingdom to be so different there is a reluctance to accept the parallel of king at all. His reply to the direct question: ‘So you are a king?’ may be a concession to the fact that Pilate really has no other thought categories in which to discuss power. He is an experienced enough politician to be unable to imagine – much less comprehend – a kingdom of truth.
Jesus and Pilate are both use kingdom terminology. The overlap, however, is alarmingly minimal. The perspective of Rome does not offer Pilate a perspective on heaven.
Importantly all this does not imply that God’s kingdom is a spiritual pie-in-the-sky concept unrelated to earth. Indeed everything Jesus has done and taught has been unavoidably grounded in the mess of everyday life. Little could be more relevant or radical than Jesus’ consistent call to love both neighbour and enemy.
Our conversation is not so much over spiritual and unspiritual. Rather it is the coming together of two visions for earth – one stuck in violence and power and the other moulded by love.
There is very little overlap between the two.