One of my personal traditions is that every year during Holy Week I reread a chapter from Mikhail Bulgakov’s work the Master and Margarita. Be forewarned if you’re looking for some light reading this is a strange book that sits somewhere between fantasy and farce, and it jumps fluidly between modern Russia and ancient Palestine. One of the chapters, however, revolves around this particular conversation between Jesus and Pilate.
In Bulgakov’s telling Pilate is fascinated by this wandering philosopher slash preacher, this man who appears to have very little interest in politics or power. He wonders how he has ended here on trial before a Roman prefect, and so interrogates him.
Why are here?
Are you a king?
Are you a threat to Rome?
Do you see yourself as opposed to us?
At one point Pilate turns to Jesus who Bulgakov refers by his Jewish name Yeshua and asks,
“Do you know a certain man named Judas and if so have you ever spoken to him about Caesar?
The prisoner affirmed readily, “Yes.”
“And is he a good man?” asked Pilate, a diabolical glitter in his eye.
“A very good man and eager to learn,” affirmed Yeshua. “He asked me for my views on the government, and the question seemed to interest him very much.”
“And what did you say?” asked Pilate, “Or are you going to reply that you have forgotten?” Already a note of hopelessness in Pilate's voice.
“I said,” continued the prisoner, “that all power exercised over people is a form of violence
and that the time will come when there will be no rule by Caesar nor any other man. For humankind will pass into the kingdom of God where no sort of violence will be needed.”
“And will this kingdom of God come?” asked Pilate.
“It will,” replied Yeshua with conviction.
“It will never come!” Pilate suddenly shouted in a voice so terrible that Yeshua staggered back. Many years ago in the Valley of the Virgins Pilate had shouted in that same voice to his horsemen: “Cut them down! Cut them down!” And now again he raised his parade-ground voice, barking out the words so that they would be heard in the garden: “Criminal!
“Do you imagine, you miserable creature, that a Roman Procurator could release a man who has said what you have said to me? I do not believe in your ideas!”
Then lowering his voice, he asked: “Do you believe in any gods?”
“God is one,” answered Yeshua. “I believe.”
“Then pray! Pray hard! However, (and at this Pilate's voice fell again) it will do you no good.”
What Bulgakov does for me in his fictional accounting of this pivotal moment is drive me headlong into the conflict that separates Jesus from those who play at king.
Jesus and his friends are no threat to the armies of Rome, especially since they refuse to defend themselves, but his ideas, his way, his path in the world, if actually followed threatens to destabilize even the empires that surround us.
Miroslav Volf once wrote that “Pilate deserves our sympathies, not because he was a good though tragically mistaken man, but because we are not much better. We may believe in Jesus, but we do not believe in his ideas, at least not his ideas about violence, truth, and justice.” (Exclusion and Embrace, 276)