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I Had No Choice!
April 8, 1979

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

MATTHEW 17:11-26

We have a guest speaker this morning who really wants to talk to you. I had this terrific sermon ready for you, but this fellow is quite insistent that I let him speak from the pulpit this morning. He says he has come a long way to speak, and has something he really must say. I'll let him introduce himself. 

Good morning. My name is Pontius Pilate. That's right. I was Governor of Judea when Jesus died. That fellow over there read in that book about the incident. I've always felt sorry about the trial. Jesus never really was convicted. He was sentenced and crucified, but not really convicted. I feel sorry about the whole thing, but what could I do? I had no choice. 

I've been misjudged by the church for almost 2,000 years. I've been maligned, criticized, held up to contempt, called weak, but what could I do? That hurts. Would you have acted differently? Be honest now. I want to tell my side--my story. I asked the pastor here if I could talk to you. I've heard that you are an understanding congregation. I've heard that you are not judgmental, but will give me a hearing. I've grown desperate for a hearing. May I tell you my side? 

I've even had my wife on my case. She interrupted me (just like a wife) right during the trial with a message saying she had a dream and that I should have nothing to do with this man, Jesus, because he was good and just. What did she expect me to do? What a dream! I'm the governor. I had to deal with the case. I did the best I could, didn't I? I mean, I had no choice! 

Of course I knew the charges were false. It was so blatantly obvious they were just out to get him. Evidently he had been stirring up the people. They were beginning to believe he was the Messiah. That wasn't so bad in itself, but he was criticizing the Jewish leaders. I could see that. The Sanhedrin--the council of the religious leaders-­- had convicted him of blasphemy. They said he was claiming to be equal with God. Evidently that was really a challenge to their authority, so they tried to get rid of him, but of course they couldn't execute him. 

Maybe you don't understand how the courts worked. The Roman Empire was in control of Judea; it was a province within the Empire, but Rome wanted the local people to cooperate so they let the local folks have as much power as seemed wise. They didn't want to antagonize them any more than was absolutely necessary. Especially in Judea we let the religious leaders rule their people in religious matters, but Rome would not allow the local leaders to use the death penalty. That was too serious. So they had to bring Jesus to me, the Roman Gover­nor, for sentencing. 

They brought him to me with the accusation that he was encouraging the people not to pay taxes, and claiming to be King of the Jews. They tried to make me believe that he was a revolutionary trying to overthrow the Roman government. I knew the charges were trumped up just to get me to do their evil work for them, but what could I do? They had the people on their side. 

Have you ever tried to make a decision that was counter to what a mob of angry citizens wanted? I mean, they were angry, loud, demanding. It just wasn't worth the effort to argue with them. They demanded that I crucify this Jesus. They were so sure he was an enemy to the state and an enemy to their religion. I was quite sure they were acting out of jealousy and fear, but I wasn't that sure. I mean, how could I be sure? Maybe he was guilty. Maybe they were right. Why take the risk they were wrong and go against them? I believe in doing what is the easier, what requires the least amount of risk. You can understand that, can't you? I had no choice. 

Look at it this way. I had to think of my career. I was busy trying to make a name for myself. I wanted advancement. I was young. Do you think I could take a chance and make a bad name for myself back in Rome? Do you think I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Judea, in Jerusalem? No one wanted to be the governor in Jerusalem. Oh,
you took the job if you had to, if you wanted to use it as a stepping stone to a better position. Judea was a hot, dry, dirty country, the armpit of the Roman Empire! Oh, I understand the nation Israel now has really turned that country around. I understand they are irrigating, growing crops, making people proud of their country. But, at the time I lived, it was the pits. Not only was it an awful place to live, but the people were something else. They had these crazy religious ideas—you couldn't eat this, you couldn't work on Saturday. If you said the wrong thing, you were accused of being a blasphemer. Really weird people. 

Besides that, things were always tense. It was a hotbed of dis­content. Revolution was a common household word. They were ready to overthrow the Roman government at any time. I hadsoldiers ready to go on alert at any time. Fanatics called Zealots were alway stirring things up. 

Who would want to be governor in such a place? I wanted to go to Alexandria, or Athens, or back to Rome and work in a nice, easy govern­ment job, perhaps in the Pentagon, or the State Department. You probably think I had some other options. You probably think I could have acted differently and saved him. You probably think I could have handled the crowd and the Sanhedrin and released Jesus. But, I had no choice. I had to keep things quiet. That was my primary task—to keep things calm and peaceful. Would you have wanted letters going to the Emperor from the local leaders criticizing your actions? 

Oh, he was innocent. But, what is one man? Innocent people are getting hurt all the time, caught in the crunch. Someone is always going to get hurt. What else could I do? What would you have done? How many innocent people have you taken risks for? How many protests have you led about something wrong and evil? Weren’t  you afraid of the consequences?

How did I know he was so special? I ask you, did I know he was special? Did I know a whole movement would grow up in his name, and people even 2,000 years later gather in a beautiful building in his honor? Did I know he was special? Did I know I would be castigated for centuries? Why blame me? 

After all, I did give them a choice. I gave the crowd and the leaders a chance. I'm not inhuman. I knew he was innocent. I didn't enjoy seeing him crucified. So I looked for a loophole. It was the custom each spring for the governor to release someone from prison. Usually it was a political prisoner, someone who had been stirring things up and was popular with the people. So I thought they would choose Jesus, but they didn't. Is that my fault? I gave them a chance. I found a loophole. I always look for loopholes. The first lesson in leadership is to avoid making a direct decision. Find a loophole if you can. Let someone else take the blame. Don't be decisive and assert leadership. You might get hurt. I suppose I could have opposed the crowd and the leaders if I had been decisive and asserted leadership as the governor of the province, but, that
is neither here nor there. I tried. You must give me credit for having tried.

I even washed my hands of the whole affair. I thought that would be a dramatic touch to get them to come to their senses. I had a bowl of water brought. I washed my hands and said, "The blood of this innocent man is on your heads." I absolved myself of the responsibility. Yet, people for centuries have insisted that I should have accepted the responsibility and acted responsibly just because I was the governor, just because I could have been more courageous and assertive! 

Listen, I was a typical administrator, a typical politician, a typical chairman. Don't rock the boat. I mean, is your President standing up to the oil companies and the unions? No, he doesn’t want to rock any boats, take any risks. That is the mark of an effective politician. I know you did have one feisty president who stood up to the big guys. I heard how he stood up to the steel companies and spoke his mind, but you must admit, he was rare.  Don't blame me so hard. I was political. What if a few innocent
people get hurt? What could I do? I had no choice! 

You that criticize me, you that say I had other options, you that say I should have been more courageous, more assertive, more responsible, I ask you, what would you have done? 

Do you stand up for people who are victimized? Do you stand by the accused? If you had been a German under Hitler, and saw Jews being herded out of their houses onto trains, taken to be slaughtered, would you have done anything? 

Do you stand by Jesus? Do you like to get involved? Do you call the police when you know the neighbors are beating their children? Do you call the police when you see something suspicious, like a robbery? Aren't you afraid of getting involved? Aren't you afraid of retaliation? How long would there be crime if people were neighborly and got involved? 

You talk of responsibility. You accuse me of being irresponsible? Do you take your responsibilities seriously? Do you take the responsibility for being a Christian—a church member? What would you have done? I ask you, how do you live now? Do you act on your responsibility? 

I had no choice! Did I? I wish I could sleep at night. I wish I could look at myself in the mirror without feeling guilty, dirty, weak. I wish I could find peace. I just walk around, trying to convince people., I had no choice? Did I? Do you? 

© 1979 Douglas I. Norris