A friend of the Emperor

February 18, 2009 | 27 comments

I’m writing about the first time I read the Bible in the book right now. I thought I’d share this reflection that came to mind as I was writing that didn’t make the cut for inclusion in the book…

When I read the Bible for the first time a few years ago, I had a hard time getting into it. With little knowledge of Christianity and no knowledge of Judaism, I often felt a great distance between me and the events depicted on the wispy pages of this brand new book. Even the New Testament seemed very strange and foreign, and it would be a long time before I was able to feel a connection to even the figure of Christ himself. But there was one exception. One event described in all four of the Gospels jumped off the page to me in its vividness, because I felt a strong familiarity with one of the main people involved:

Pontius Pilate.

When Pilate came on the scene for the first time in the Gospel of Matthew, I sat up in bed and became transfixed by what I read. For some reason I found the scenes that involved him some of the most fascinating that I’d read yet, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. As I went on to read the accounts of his actions in the books of Mark, Luke and John, however, I came to the unsettling realization of why this person had so captured my interest:

Because he reminded me of me. More than anyone else in the Bible, I saw in him someone whose pattern of actions I recognized in an intimate way.

Of course I’d heard his name before and at least knew that he was somehow involved in Jesus’ crucifixion, but I’d always pictured him to be just “the bad guy, ” depicted as a flatly evil cardboard character. But as I read of his back and forths with the crowds, saw the hesitation in his words even 2, 000 after they were spoken, I realized that he was a much different person than I’d imagined. I realized that the motives for his choices were complicated, disturbing…and familiar.

“There is nothing this man has done to deserve death.” (Luke 23:15)

Pilate said to them the third time, “But what crime has he committed?” (Luke 23:22)

“You take him, then, and crucify him. I find no reason to condemn him.” (John 19:6)

He knew what was right. He knew that this was an innocent man, and seemed to suspect that this might even be someone very special. But with the massive momentum of the crowd and his political future to consider, there was a lot of pressure to make the wrong decision. So what does someone like Pilate do when they stand in the face of some really alluring temptation to turn away from the right path? I knew it before I read it:

Pilate asked the crowd, “Which one of these two do you want me to set free for you?” (Matthew 27:21)

Pilate wanted to set him free, so he appealed to the crowd again… (Luke 23:20)

You test the water a few times. You keep flirting with the prospect of doing the right thing, hoping against hope that maybe this time it will be easy. And when you find that there is just no painless way to do what is good…

He took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd, and said, “I am not responsible for the death of this man! This is your doing!” (Matthew 27:24)

You shift the blame. You make the discomfort of doing the wrong thing comfortable again by telling yourself that you are not wrong at all. You focus on your external circumstances, listening to the noise of the crowd instead of your own inner thoughts, pointing the finger always away from and never toward yourself.

But why? What is so alluring as to make a person act in such a dishonest, cowardly way?

He tried to find a way to set Jesus free. But the crowds shouted back, “If you set him free, that means that you are not the Emperor’s friend!” (John 19:12)

When I first got to this part, even though I had never read it before, I knew what was next:

When Pilate heard these words…[he] handed Jesus over to them to be crucified. (John 19:13, 16)

I knew that the threat of losing favor with the Emperor would be more than a person like Pilate could take. I knew it would be the last straw, the spark to ignite the rationalizing and denial that would clear the way for proceeding with evil. I knew it because, at that moment, I recognized somewhere within myself my own disturbingly strong desire to be “friends with the Emperor.” My “Emperor” was something different than Pilate’s, of course: his was an actual man who had the power to make all Pilate’s wildest dreams of riches and success come true; mine was a symbolic Emperor comprised of all my desires for things like comfort and pleasure and money and control and success and acclaim, an Emperor whose friendship I sought over doing the right thing on at least a daily basis.

At the time this was all somewhat vague for me. Without the knowledge I would eventually gain through Christianity, I didn’t have a lexicon for articulating the reality of things like temptation and sin and redemption. But what I see so clearly now is that the story of Pontius Pilate’s decisions up there before the crowds resonated so deeply with me because it is the story of rationalizing sin. It is the story of trying desperately to make it comfortable to do what you know to be the right thing, and giving up when you can’t.

And, as I realized only later, Pilate’s all-to-familiar actions 2, 000 years ago are not as different in severity from mine as I might have liked to tell myself, because they both led directly to Jesus’ death on the Cross.


  1. Anonymous

    Your writting gives me food for thought. Meditation. Thanks

  2. Abigail

    Beautiful post Jen! Yet another reason why Pilate is the only sinner remembered in the 2,000 + old Creed.

  3. habemuspapa

    I grew up in a very different place than you – fundamentalism. So I always knew Pilate was a bad guy and I knew enough of the story to know why. But I can remember reading through it again when I was old enough to understand motivations and realizing that he was a coward, and that I could identify with him a lot. Great post.

  4. Anonymous

    Merciful heavens! If this didn’t make the cut I cannot imagine what incredible things did. Thank you for sharing this. The book, when its time comes, will be wonderful…

    Jane M

  5. The Zapman

    That is a beautiful post, and a great post to read and reflect on as we head into Lent.

  6. Catharina de Bononia

    Deo Gratias for the way you process things and for your willingness to spill it out here for us to read and benefit from.

    Thank you for your bravery.

    You are a big help to me–in how you put such large ideas and feelings into such discrete morsels of explanation.

  7. lj tanner

    Very true. That’s a large weight to bear, knowing that my failings alone would still have required Christ’s sacrifice to open heaven once again.

  8. Roxane B. Salonen

    Jen, thank you, again. I always look forward to your updates, and agree that if this was the “excess,” then wow…can’t imagine what is in this work of yours, and can’t wait to read it all. Keep going — you’re birthing a book and baby all at once. ūüôā In the end, what I take from this is what Teresa Tomeo said when she was in our city a couple weeks ago: the truth is written on our hearts, even when we don’t recognize it. Somehow you knew what was right even when you didn’t want to really face it, even when you couldn’t put it into words. Sharing the processing of all that these years later is the gift you are giving us.

  9. Hannah


  10. Anonymous

    I’ve never commented but I wanted to let you know that this is my favorite of all your posts.

  11. Anonymous

    Your book is going to be incredible if this didn’t make the cut. All your posts make me stop and think and want to do better.Thank you for your insightfulness. I have lots of little ones too and I have guilt that I am not examining my faith everyday like I should because of the business and noise in my house. Your blog makes it easy for me to read a post and have food for thought for the day. Thank you for that. Amy

  12. Anonymous

    I thought of Pilate a few weeks ago when the daily reading was Mark 6:14-29, the beheading of John the Baptist. Herod, unlike Pilate, was certainly not a good man, but even in his corrupted state we’re told, “yet he liked to listen to him.” Of course, he did – Truth, Goodness by definition are alluring, enticing.

    As I reflected on this, I thought of Pilate as well. They were so, so close. So close. It’s very sobering because if one takes an honest look at one’s spirtual life there are times when we’re simply admiring from a safe distance and not immersing ourselves in the Truth.

    I’ve enjoyed your blog for a few months now. Thanks for keeping it up.


  13. Anne Marie

    I’m with Jane M., and looking forward to the book.

  14. Tami Boesiger

    Ouch. It is true we all find ways to rationalize our sin. I’ve always felt sorry for Pilate, probably because I know the same temptation he faced.

    Good post, Jennifer.

  15. Jessica

    This really impacted me today:
    You test the water a few times. You keep flirting with the prospect of doing the right thing, hoping against hope that maybe this time it will be easy. And when you find that there is just no painless way to do what is good…
    Every time that I have fallen in sin, it is because I thought that doing the right thing wouldn’t come with a price, that it would be easier. Doing the right thing is never painless. I have a new identification with Pilate now, too. How many times have I “crucified” my Christ, but tried to put the blame somewhere else.

  16. Anonymous

    Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate
    was simply perfect.. and
    captured everything you mention in this post..

  17. Brother Juniper


    I really appreciated your post on Pontius Pilate. Although I never really thought of him as “the bad guy,” I used to believe that like so many other people he was just following orders. After all, he gave the people what they wanted after so much agonizing. It was only little by little that he gave way.

    I think many of us are like Pilate when we do things that we know aren’t right by following the crowd. I’ve done it so many times that I can’t count them.

    But I also think that we must be “counter-cultural” in order to be Catholics. We can’t just follow the world’s orders or be the emperor’s friends. We need to be God’s friends.

    Interestingly enough, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church canonized Pontius Pilate and his wife, Pulcheria. In some Eastern Rites, Pulcheria alone is a canonized saint.

    God bless you for your wonderful and thoughtful posts,

    Brother Juniper

  18. Janessa

    I want to thank you for writing this. I did some research a few years back and discovered that my lineage made me a relative of Pilate. I changed my last name. I always thought he was evil too and refused to tell anyone what I had discovered. Thank you Thank you Thank you. He’s not a bad man after all.

  19. Tara Sz.

    Wow. I love this blog.

  20. Anonymous

    What I see in Pilate (and in myself) is that he wanted to be liked. He would not lead, he just followed what the crowd wanted, to his own detriment. He was given signs and chances to do the right thing but he preferred to serve his need to be popular.

  21. Steve Karlen

    Unreal. I don’t get to read this blog on a regular basis, but when I read posts like this, all I can do is stop and say wow. And go immediately to tell my wife what I just read. And then spend three straight days in contemplation.

    Your writing is such a mix of simple prose and profound thought that it is clearly inspired by the Holy Spirit.

  22. conrad of piacenza

    Hi Jen,

    Could you please enlighten me on what you know about Saint Conrad of Piacenza. Today is his feast day and you mentioned him in one of your earlier posts.


  23. Kimberly

    I love it. Thanks. If I weren’t writing this with just one thumb during a midnight feed, I would say more.

  24. Child of God

    Pilate, Pelosi, Biden, Sebellius, Kennedy….

    At least Pilate didn’t pretend to be one of Jesus followers.

  25. Christopher Milton

    So wonderful! Thank you for this post!

  26. Tres Angelas

    ‘Zactly. Every politician who says “I’m personally opposed, but…” can no more wash his hands of the blood of the innocent than Pontius Pilate did.

    And as noted previously, if you’re self-editing writing like this out of the book — whoa! — this is gonna be some book.

    But trust your instincts. Too many authors don’t know what to leave out. They don’t seem to realize that sidetracks and redundancy don’t make for great reading.

  27. MamasBoy

    thanks for this post/meditation.


  1. Sunday Linkage « - [...] A Friend of the Emporer Like Pontius Pilate,¬†every christian has his own “emperor” to fear.¬†¬† Pilate’s is the story…
  2. Sunday Linkage | Rina Marie - […] A Friend of the Emporer Like Pontius Pilate,¬†every christian has his own “emperor” to fear.¬†¬† Pilate’s is the story…

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