Some of the most compelling dramas on television are based in courtrooms. Legal fantasies which walk viewers through the world of jury selection, evidence gathering, and cross examination dominate the broadcast schedule of networks and cable television alike. However, most lawyers say, “It’s never like it’s depicted on television.” Nothing ever is, really.
For centuries, people who claim to be in the know have referred to this encounter between Jesus of Nazareth and Pontius Pilate as a “trial”. It’s really not a trial, even in the 1st century, Greco-Roman sense of the word. If it’s anything, it’s a trial the way William Shakespeare might have imagined two rivals meeting to discuss a moment of moral profundity in Act III of a tragedy. Others will say, “Pilate is the one who is really on trial here.” Yeah, ok. I see the point. But it’s not a trial.
The word trial leaves open the possibility that the outcome might not be set in stone. Trials, in our minds, are the result of a fair assessment of facts by a jury or judge. The decisions, in theory, are never foregone conclusions. Jesus is guilty as charged. He doesn’t need a trial. Jesus is guilty of being himself. He will die. We know this to be true. Jesus knows who he is and that his death is imminent. To call Jesus’ meeting with Pilate a trial, leads one to believe he might have the opportunity to be found not guilty and released to continue his ministry. We know this isn’t true and is never going to happen. No, this is not a trial. This is a conversation between two men. At times it is awkward, uncomfortable, and one-sided. Yet in this conversation we learn who the early church understood Jesus to be. Our challenge, within this brief encounter, is not to miss the most important things said and left unsaid by both Jesus and Pontius Pilate.