Pontius Pilate's Reprise: Henry II (Luke13:1-9)
A Mysterious Event
The passage from the Gospel of Luke that's read on the Third Sunday of Lent has a very curious beginning. We hear about an episode involving Pontius Pilate that is not recounted in any of the other Gospels. It says Pontius Pilate mingled the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices. (Luke 13:1-9) My initial thought was that Pilate had used the blood of Galilean criminals in an offering to the Roman gods, but this was not the case. We know very little about the story, but it would seem that it was an event which would share many similarities with a martyrdom that took place 1100 years later.
A Sympathetic Character?
Pontius Pilate is often looked on with some sympathy. In The Passion of the Christ Pilate is depicted as a man not grounded in principles. Quid est veritas? He is caught between warring factions and ultimately decides to keep his personal beliefs and opinions out of politics. But the reality of this situation probably speaks more to the power of being in Christ's presence than it does to his moral ambiguity.
It is hinted at in Luke 13 that Pilate was not just an innocent bystander caught up in local affairs. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus give an account of a separate disruption brutally put down by Pontius Pilate that shows just how dictatorial he really was. As prefect, he had control of the military as well as major building projects. Using funds from the sacred treasury, Pilate had plans to construct a large aqueduct to bring water to Jerusalem. The Jews were outraged and staged a large protest. Pilate immediately dispatched his troops to stop the rebellion, but instead of sending them out as soldiers, he sent them out in disguise, dressed like the Jews. When the riot was at its peak, the soldiers uncovered their weapons and attacked both the protestors and the bystanders, slaughtering many.
The bloodshed of the Galileans in the Gospel of Luke was probably meant to send a similar message to any group thinking of challenging Roman authority. Whether these Galileans were guilty of a crime is unknown, but it is probable that they had taken part in some conspiracy against the government. We know that Galilee was a center of violence and dissent and it was home to the Zealots, a group that used guerrilla warfare against the Romans in retaliation for the heavy taxes imposed upon them by the Empire. This passage indicates that Roman soldiers entered the Temple and killed this group of Galileans while they were offering their sacrifices.
Another Man Makes the Same Mistake
Clearly, Pontius Pilate did not have respect for Jewish religious practices. If it were not for his equivocal actions at the Passion, he would probably be remembered as a ruthless tyrant instead of the victim that he is often portrayed as. A thousand years later in 1170AD, the king of England, bent on eradicating dissent, had his soldiers commit a similar sacrilege in a holy place. Henry II had St. Thomas Becket executed in Canterbury Cathedral for threatening to undermine the king's authority. For both of these leaders, the consequences of disobedience had to be swift and final. The motives of the guilty were inconsequential and the location of execution immaterial.
The effects murder and sacrilege had on Henry II were immediate and his grief crippled him as a leader. The remaining twenty years of his life were spent regretting the martyrdom of his former friend. For Pontius Pilate though, the atrocities in the Temple rendered no instant change of heart to the prefect. He continued consolidating power until shorty after he allowed Our Lord to be crucified.
Continued conflicts with the Zealots and fiascoes like the Passion soured Pilate's reputation The Emperor Caligula banished Pilate to Gaul and legend has it that he committed suicide in present-day Vienna.
Wrath of God?
It is tempting to say that Pontius Pilate and Henry II were cursed for their evil deeds. There are consequences to pay for sin, but the rest of Luke 13 has to first be considered because Pilate's deeds were brought up precisely so that Jesus could answer the question, “If a man suffers misfortune, is it because he's evil?”
Our Lord answers with an emphatic, “No”. The misfortunes of others are not necessarily the result of sin, but we should look on their misfortune as a warning. The time for repentance is now because there might not be a later. That being said, there will undoubtedly come a time when those are unrepentant will be held responsible for their sins.
Parable of the Fig
Jesus continues the discussion with a parable about a vine that has produced no fruit for three years. When the owner asked that the vinedresser cut it down, the servant said he would do all he could to make it bear fruit but that if it failed he would cut it down in a year's time. Perhaps Pilate's encounter with Jesus marked his final chance to repent. The choice he made certainly caused him a great deal of consternation that appears to be out of character for Pilate. Henry II also had the opportunity to make a choice that would either renew his relationship with the God or set him on a road of destruction. But in the end both men seem to have been cut down; sacrificed by their own bad choices.