A Good Authority

By James Cornwell

Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 27:24-31

24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. 27Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.


The gospel reading today shows how authority and power diverge when there is a refusal to exercise authority. Pontius Pilate has determined that there is no fault in Jesus, and, according to other gospel writers, actually seeks to release him. But when he meets resistance, instead of doing justly, he asks the crowd to exercise his authority for him: Should he release Jesus, or Barabbas? The crowd chooses Barabbas. Pilate washes his hands of the whole thing and delivers an innocent man to death.

Having set aside the responsibility of executing justice, does Pilate then set aside his power? Does he abdicate or resign his position, finding that he cannot, in good conscience, fulfill its obligations? No. He essentially tells the mob to take his scepter (the symbol of authority), but that he is keeping his crown (the symbol of power).

One message from the gospel today is that it’s no use blaming the mob. There is only one man in the story who has the earthly authority to stop the madness, and he walks away to hide in the comfort of his palace, voicing platitudinous paeans to some abstract notion of justice. This inaction, this refusal to use one’s authority to do justice without also abdicating power, is scandalously wrong. Yet we also see a painful irony: only one with power has the power to walk away from a desperate situation — even make it worse — and remain unscathed.

We’re not all put into grand positions of authority like Pilate, but we are called to do justly with the authority that we are given. To fail to do so would be an act of great irresponsibility in which we put ourselves first, and we follow a God who has proclaimed that the first shall be last.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.

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