CHAPTER VIII. JESUS CHRIST PROCLAIMED KING OF THE JEWS BY PILATE
WE have said that Jesus Christ surrendered Himself to death to bear witness to the truth not only of His divinity but also of His regal power over all mankind. But as the Jews deemed that the question of His royal dignity would alone arouse interest in the mind of the Governor, they laid stress on this rather than on the question of His divinity. We must now follow attentively the course of the sorrowful passion of Our Lord in its last phase, in order to see how this attribute of royalty which Jesus vindicated for Himself finally constituted the determining motive of His opprobrious condemnation.
When Pilate, wishing to free the Saviour from the Jews' hands, offered the people their choice, Jesus or Barabbas, he used these words: "But you have a custom that I should release one unto you at the Pasch. Will you, there fore, that I release unto you the King of the Jews?" (John XVIII, 39.) This means that Pilate well remembered that the Jews' accusation against Jesus consisted in His having called Himself Christ the King. (Luke XXIII, 2.) He had also understood from Our Saviour Himself that this kingdom of His would cast no shadow on that of Caesar; for the Saviour had said explicitly that his kingdom was not of this world. Hence, it was not in derision, but quite seriously that Pilate called Jesus "King of the Jews." He thought, and with reason, that if Jesus were guilty, His guilt had nothing to do with State matters, but was an affair of religion, He having explained that His kingdom was not of this world, but a spiritual kingdom. "The, conviction that Jesus was King of the Jews, could not be uprooted from Pilate's heart" says St. Augustine: "just as if that same truth, about whose nature he had made inquiry, had as unalterably writ ten it there as later it wrote, it on the title of the cross"
Further, if we consider the insults inflicted on Jesus by the servants of Pilate after His scourging, the most striking is certainly the reproach made to Him of His having called Himself King of the Jews. This is, as it were, the sum of all the outrages heaped upon Him, and it throws into clear relief the nature of the process brought against Him and the reason of the popular excitement. In fact, the evangelist says: "And they began to salute him: Hail, King of the Jews." See here under what guise Jesus is known even by the vile soldiery. See the character under which He is to suffer such cruel torments. See the attribute which will speedily determine His condemnation to a shameful death.
Following the course of the sacred narrative, we find that the popular fury, egged on by the hatred and malice of the chief priests, after having preferred Barabbas to Jesus, demanded His crucifixion with diabolic persistence. Pilate, then, having again and again attested the Saviour's innocence, made every possible effort to set Him free. The Jews understood this; and in their determination to prevent His being set at liberty, they once more had recourse to the accusation that Jesus had made Himself Bang.
Heedless of His declaration that His kingdom was not of this world, they took up anew the charge they had already brought against Him, of His pretensions to royal dignity, rep resenting Him as guilty of outrage against Caesar and of posing as his rival: "lf thou re lease this man, thou art not Caesar's friend. For whosoever maketh himself a king, speaketh against Caesar" (John XIX, 12.) Pilate then sat in the tribunal in a place called "Lithostrotos" in Hebrew "Gabbatha" (John XIX, 13.) and the evangelist moreover remarks that it was on the day of the Pasch, about the sixth hour. Then Pilate said to the Jews: "'Behold your King." (John XIX, 14.)
Here, then, is a pagan Governor, seated with all solemnity on his tribunal, who having heard from the very mouth of Jesus of Nazareth that He was King but that His kingdom was not of this world, publicly announced in the chief city of Judaism and proclaimed on the most solemn feast of the year, at full mid day, to the high priest, the successor of Aaron, and to the whole priestly and levitical order, to the whole Sanhedrin and to an immense crowd from the two provinces of Judea and Galilee, to Gentiles from various nations also there present—that Jesus was their King: "Ecce Rex vester" (John XIX, 14.)
It is evident that, in proclaiming Jesus King of the Jews, Pilate did not use ambiguous phrases, nor did he utter these words in a tone of irony, as some might suppose. Neither did he so speak in the name of his master Tiberius or the Roman rulers of Judea. But what he said he said, as it were, in the name of the whole human race, with all solemnity, as if he had been then representing all the nations of the earth, as a heaven-sent ambassador proclaiming to all the world the royal dignity of Jesus: "Ecce. Rex vester." We must indeed recognize here the hidden power of the Godhead which guided Pilate's tongue and made it serve the glorification of the incarnate Word.
Now, see how the rejecting of Jesus Christ as King implies the rejecting of all the advantages which spring from the Redemption. At the people's cry: "Away with Him: Away with Him: Crucify Him" (John XIX, 15.) behold Pilate insists again: "Shall I crucify your King?" (John XIX, 15.) And the priests, with one voice, in the name of the whole Synagogue, protest that they have no other king but Caesar, renouncing in the same breath the promises God had made to the patriarchs of old, to Abraham, Moses and David. In the end, they go so far as to utter a profession of apostasy. In fact, by saying: Jesus of Nazareth is not our King, they repudiate the hope of Israel; they dis own the Saviour promised by God, while they reply with one voice: "We have no king but Caesar." (John XIX, 15.) For it was impossible that the promised Messias should not be a king; hence there was no other alternative save either to admit the Messias promised by God and recognize His regal dignity, or to reject Him as a king and, in so doing, renounce all the benefits of the Incarnation and the Redemption. The Jews took up the second attitude. Unlike the Jews, let us recognize Jesus and venerate Him as both true King and true Messias, given by God to the world for the salvation of mankind. And let us beseech Him to allow us to share all the graces which He has brought with Him. May He rule, as the true Sovereign that He is, over all our affections, over all the impulses of our hearts.