Dealing with Guilt God's Way (and Pilate)

Matthew 27:11-26 Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. 12 When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. 15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. 19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” 20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. 21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered. 22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” 23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” 24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” 25 All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

“But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer, ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep in the affliction of these terrible dreams that shake us nightly. Better be the dead, whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, than on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave. After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.” Yeah, I know Shakespeare can be tough to understand, but did you hear his golden phrases in there? The affliction of these terrible dreams… Better be the dead… After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well. Do you know what Macbeth was talking about? He was talking about what guilt feels like when it rests on our souls. It’s one of the reasons that people have described William Shakespeare as one of history’s most brilliant psychotherapists who never once treated a patient. Shakespeare understood the power of guilt in our lives like few people do.

Even when people don’t quite have a Shakespearean grasp on guilt, everybody agrees that something has to be done with guilt. Nobody believes it’s ok to walk around with it. Even totally secular people see and understand the damage that’s done when we deny, repress, or suppress it. Guilt needs to be confronted clearly and dealt with honestly. Shakespeare understood the consequences of not doing so… the feeling of wishing to be dead… the terrible dreams… and the fitful fever that life becomes. Guilt needs to be dealt with.

And God knows that better than anybody else. That’s one of the reasons he spends so much time telling us about Pilate. And he does spend a lot of time on him. The amount of history and material on Pilate just in Matthew’s Gospel is significant. This section is a full sixteen verses long. That’s a big deal. And from beginning to end, it’s a story of Pilate’s rising guilt. Just look at how it begins. We’re told Pilate’s the guy in charge, the governor. He’s the only one who can legally pull the trigger on Jesus’ crucifixion. And from the very beginning it’s crystal clear to him that Jesus doesn’t deserve this.

The chief priests and elders dragged Jesus to him and immediately started lobbing legal grenades at both him and Jesus. And this is where we can give Pilate a little historical credit. There’s a reason why he rose to the governorship in this turbulent, tough to govern part of this world. He not only saw people. He saw behind people. And he certainly gets this gig too. Matthew makes sure we know this about Pilate, “For he (Pilate) knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.” (v. 18) In other words, Pilate knew better. He really did. This wasn’t a case of a witless guy caught up in a bad historical riptide. Pilate was tuned in. He understood what was going on.

What made it worse was that Jesus was - well - so amazing. Pilate had sat over hundreds of cases and he had never, ever seen anything like Jesus. The legal grenades fell right on top of him and he never once flinched. Pilate never saw a contemptuous or spiteful look cross his face or even an ounce of hateful body language. Jesus sat there silently. He had never seen anything like it - a man so perfectly at ease with his innocence and simultaneously perfectly willing to accept every false accusation thrown his way. Not even Pilate’s verbal jab, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” (v. 13) got any reaction. Jesus calmly sat there and said nothing. Pilate totally understood the otherness of Jesus. We know this from the historical record. “But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.” (v. 14) Pilate was seeing his potential guilt rising sky-high minute by excruciating minute.

To make matters worse, Pilate’s wife piled on too. He was sitting there on his judge’s seat when she sent him a message. It must’ve been so out of the blue and out of character for her because it lands here in the Bible. The Holy Spirit isn’t prone to recording cases of lonely women who are trying to get the attention of their busy husbands. The Holy Spirit is in the business of telling us about incredibly important historical moments, of which this is one. This was a dream that had Pilate’s wife tied up in knots and desperately trying to get her husband to do the right thing. Her message said, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (v. 19) All of this was incredibly problematic for Pilate. Pilate was generally used to offing folks who mostly or totally deserved it. What he wasn’t used to doing was taking out a harmless, amazing person. This was plowing new soil for him. He could feel the guilt rising.

He had just one great hope left. He had put into motion a political play that he hoped would work. Every year he told the Jews, “I’ll let a prisoner go. And you get to pick who it is.” It was his way of trying to make nice with them. But this year, he decided he needed to leverage this for himself. So he narrowed down their choices to two. He said, “I’ll let Jesus go or Barabbas go. You can pick.” Now we have to understand something here. Barabbas was one doozy of a bad guy. Not even the worst gangsters wanted to see him back on the streets. He was an FBI top ten most wanted type. Matthew calls him, “notorious,” for a reason. He was one bad dude and everybody knew it. Pilate was hoping and maybe even praying that when he came back to them and asked them, “Which of these two do you want?” that they’d answer as any thinking, life loving human might, “We’ll take Jesus.” When they didn’t, he was crushed and immediately started backpedaling. He asked, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Christ?” (v. 22) By then, he had lost control. The people started yelling, “Crucify him.” And Pilate realized that if he didn’t comply quickly that he’d have a full-blown riot on his hands.

And that’s when Pilate makes his play. It’s when he makes his attempt to deal with all the guilt that he knew he was about to incur. And he did know that. He saw past the grandstanding of the Jewish leaders. He saw the special otherness of this totally harmless and amazing man. He had even heard from his wife. He also was smart enough to know that soon the riot would calm down and it wouldn’t be long before the people would all go away. And he knew that in quiet moments to come and, finally, in some eternal moment before God he would have to face up to what he had decided to do. So Pilate makes his play. He makes his attempt to deal with guilt. Just watch him. “He took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’” (v. 24) Tell me that what he does here isn’t curious. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never seen anybody do a washing in a court of law. Nor have I ever heard of anybody publically trying to transfer responsibility for guilt to other people in such a loud and ceremonial way. You can only imagine the frantic guilt that drove Pilate to do this.

Have you ever known that kind of gut wrenching guilt? The kind that makes you want to take a shower because you just feel the grime crawling through your skin. The kind that makes your conscience scream and you look for any excuse to say, “It wasn’t my fault. I was egged on to it.” I remember my first experience with guilt like that. My parents had told my friends and I not to play baseball in the street. They said, “You could break a window.” So, of course, me being the intelligent and wise child that I was I played baseball in the street. I still remember getting a hold of a pitch and watching the ball take off about 90 degrees in the wrong direction from my bat. I remember watching it sail - I can still see it in slow motion in my head - toward my neighbor’s big, gorgeous bay window. I remember hearing the crash and the tinkle of glass falling. And I remember the instant guilt. I ran behind my house and hid behind a bush. Literally I did. I ran. I hid and I hoped against hope that all of it was just a bad dream.

 It’s tough to look back at life like that – to take the time to do a moral inventory of our lives. It’s important to do that so we can deal with every kind of guilt God’s way. There are terrible consequences to not doing so. It can give us ulcers. It can put us into relationships where we rely too much on people or are too standoffish. It can keep us focused on the rearview mirror. Worse yet, it can destroy our confidence that God loves us. There’s a story about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that he sent a note to five prominent men in England that simply said, “All is out. Flee at once.” And as the story goes, all five men left the country within 24 hours. We need to frame our lives and our guilt God’s way. It isn’t God’s way to hide from that one Friday night back in college. It isn’t his idea that we suppress that sin that changed the trajectory of another person’s life. It isn’t his way that we emotional duck the guilt about that one decision made at work that still keeps you up at night. God’s way is so much different. And better!

In a way, it’s Pilate who shows us the way. Here he was ordering God’s death even though he knew so much better. He had mind numbing and soul killing blood and guilt on his hands. Did you notice what he did about it? He washed his hands. You know why? He decided he wasn’t capable of carrying that guilt. He saw he couldn’t move forward in public or private life with this hanging over him. He just couldn’t so he washed his hands of it. And then he transferred responsibility for it. At least, he tried to. He realized that washing his hands wasn’t going to do it. Pilate realized that he needed to transfer the responsibility for guilt. He had to set it squarely on someone else, which is exactly what he did. Or, at least, he tried to.

Think about that. He wasn’t as far off as we might think. It may surprise you to hear me say that about a man who is rightly demonized for his role in Jesus’ death, but he’s not as far off as we might think. He’s right. There’s no moving forward with guilt hanging over us. We must be rid of it. He’s also right that that only gets done by transfer. You know where he got it wrong? He transferred responsibility to the wrong place. Pilate tried to set the guilt squarely on the shoulders of the crowd saying, “It’s your responsibility.” And he did that despite the fact that the right place was right there in front of his nose.

He didn’t know that that’s why Jesus was there. He didn’t know that that’s why Jesus stayed regally silent about the accusations everyone lobbed at him. He didn’t understand that Jesus was literally there to take them, to finish out a divine strategy to carry all guilt. He didn’t understand that Jesus was there to walk toward sin, to bear it, to carry it, to finally and eternally bury it. Pilate didn’t understand that Jesus was there so the spiritual transfer of guilt from us to him could be completed so that while he was tacked to a cross for it, we could move on and forward. He didn’t see that Jesus was there to receive, to take, and to forgive guilt so we wouldn’t have to hide, to repress, and to suppress it. He couldn’t grasp that Jesus was there so we could say out loud, “Jesus, it’s your responsibility.” And walk away and never feel responsible again.

But that’s why we’re not called Pilatians, after Pilate. We’re called Christians. We’re people who believe that God has piled all the responsibility for guilt on Christ. And we’re so excited about that stunning turn of spiritual events that we define ourselves and call ourselves by history’s guilt bearer, the Christ. We’re Christians. We’re the people who don’t live life in Shakespeare’s fitful fever. We don’t drink guilt away. We don’t deny it, run from it, or hide from it. We deal with it the only way that guilt can effectively be dealt with. We believe that it’s been transferred to the God-man who silently let all the accusations stick to him.

Sometimes I wish Shakespeare had captured what living the guilt free life looks like with his genius pen. I’m not sure why he didn’t. Maybe it’s because he couldn’t fathom that the gospel was so freeing or so pure. At any rate, he never did. Not in Macbeth. Not anywhere else either. Here’s what I say about that. That means we have our chance, our opportunity to make our lives something greater than a Shakespearean masterpiece. To live with joy. To live with great peace. To live gorgeous, guilt free lives in Christ. And to become (Picture it!) God’s masterpiece of peace. Amen.

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