Empire and kingdom

Pontius Pilate likely considered himself the most powerful, most in-control person in Jerusalem. He was the local representative of Rome, the greatest power in the mediterranean world. In 26 AD, emperor Tiberius had appointed him governor over Judea, a remote but strategically important  corner of the empire, and he ruled the province with an iron fist. He was known to be a ruthless overlord; a contemporary of his described him as “rigid and stubbornly harsh, wrathful and of spiteful disposition,” and that his rule was marked by corruption and “the ceaseless and most grievous brutality.”[1] Whoever raised their head too high or their voice too much, risked being disposed of as a threat to Rome’s dominance.

Pilate had heard things, rumors mostly about a Galilean the crowd had greeted at the city gate as king of Israel.[2] “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked Jesus when the temple authorities brought him to his headquarters. Pilate looked at the handcuffed man in front of him the way he looked at the whole world: through the eyes of those who had the power to advance his career or terminate it. He played the empire’s game, and he knew that if he didn’t handle matters in Jerusalem to Rome’s liking, his next appointment would not be a move up.

I wonder if he lay awake sometimes at night when troubling thoughts arose in the quiet and the dark. Did he wonder sometimes if he really was in control of his life and career, or if he was just another chess piece in a game that wasn’t his? Was taking care of Rome’s dirty business what he was meant to do? Was he who he was meant to be or was he living somebody else’s life?

Parker Palmer is one of the great teachers of our time. He paid close attention during moments when it was clear to him that the life he was living was not the same as the life that wanted to live in him. And he wrote about it.

I was in my early thirties when I began, literally, to wake up to questions about my vocation. By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances. Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own. Fearful that I was doing just that – but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach – I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling. Then I ran across the old Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.”[3]

He was encouraged by those words and thought he knew what they meant: he lined up the loftiest ideals he could find and set out to achieve them. He wanted his life to speak only of the highest truths and values. It took him a while to realize that the words meant something quite different,

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.[4]

Let your life speak and listen.

When Pontius Pilate met Jesus, their lives embodied two very different realities: the empire and the kingdom. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked Jesus rather routinely, to see if the Galilean had any revolutionary ambitions. And Jesus responded with a question, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Whose question are you asking? Is it your own or is it just another one from the manual of power politics or counter insurgency? What is it you want to know?  Are you open to hear the truth that doesn’t fit your political calculations? Can you imagine a king who has no ambition to sit on the Emperor’s throne?

The issue of Jesus’ kingship had been raised before. He had fed thousands by the lake, and when he realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he went away.[5] The empire, of course, knows how to manipulate the masses with bread and circuses, but the kingdom is a very different story.

This king doesn’t command an army of followers who fight to keep him in power. This king doesn’t live in a palace behind high walls and guarded gates. This king bows to wash the feet of his friends. This king tells his companion who still carries a sword to put it back into its sheath. This king insists that should any blood be shed, it would be his own.

“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus told Pilate – but it is for this world and in this world and for the life of the world, and it is for you. “So you are a king?” Pilate asked. This is where I imagine a mass choir of all the followers of Jesus shouting, “Yes he is! Hallelujah! King of kings and Lord of lords!” Only Pilate doesn’t hear a thing.

Delores Williams remembers Sunday mornings from her childhood when the minister shouted out, “Who is Jesus?” And the choir responded in voices loud and strong, “King of kings and Lord Almighty!” And then little Miss Huff, in a voice so fragile and soft you could hardly hear her, would sing her own answer, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” Back and forth they sang. “King of kings” the choir thundered, and Miss Huff sang softly, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” “King of kings” cannot be the answer without seeing “poor little Mary’s boy.”[6]

Jesus turned that word “king” on its head, and Pilate didn’t see or hear a thing because his imagination had been entirely shaped by the empire. He simply couldn’t imagine a king who had no imperial aspirations and who refused to rule with coercion. Many of Jesus’ own followers over the centuries have had trouble with this, and they did choose conquest and control to spread what they perceived to be his kingdom, and it never occurred to them that they lived as disciples of Pilate rather than Jesus.  But by the grace of God there were also those who knew and trusted the power of the kingdom, and who honored the king by serving with honesty, compassion and humility. They were free citizens of a kingdom not from this world, but for this world and very much in this world, like yeast in a batch of dough.

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.

In the encounter between Pontius Pilate and Jesus, one embodies the logic of the empire which is control and the other embodies the kingdom of God. Jesus knows what his life intends to do with him, because he is fully in tune with the giver of life.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And the truth is God’s love for the world, this world, mired in power struggles and deadly competition as it is – the truth is God’s love for us and for all. The truth about God is God’s love for the world, and the truth about the world is God’s love for it. The testimony of Jesus reveals love as the power at the heart of the universe, love that calls and waits, love that serves and does not overwhelm.

In Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, Melchior, one of the three kings says, “The child we seek doesn’t need our gold. On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom. His pierced hand will hold no scepter. His haloed head will wear no crown. His might will not be built on your toil. Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us. He will bring us new life and receive our death, and the keys to his city belong to the poor.”

It is a powerful thing to be able to say, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world.” As followers of Jesus we never stop to listen for our life to tell us what it intends to do with us. We never stop to listen for the voice of God amid the many voices that vie for our attention.  And we give thanks to God for Jesus and his kingdom; he frees us from the love of power and calls us to live in the power of love.


[1] Philo of Alexandria

[2] John 12:13

[3] Parker J. Palmer. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Kindle Locations 53-59). Kindle Edition.

[4] Parker J. Palmer. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Kindle Locations 66-67). Kindle Edition.

[5] John 6:1-15

[6] See Barbara Lundblad http://odysseynetworks.org/news/onscripture-the-bible-john-18-33-37