This is my homily for Nov. 22, 2009, Feast of Christ the King. Feel free to respond with comments. View readings of Mass at: www.ussccb.org/nab/readings/112209.sthml.
This reading from the Gospel of John (John 18:33-37) is a courtroom scene. Courtrooms are usually part of a larger mystery. This is no exception, a trial –Pilate v. Jesus –a legal and spiritual thriller.
In mysteries and courtrooms, evidence is very important. What is the evidence here?
First, we see adversarial conflict manifest in the defendant (Jesus), the accusers (the chief priests), and judge (Pontius Pilate).
Conflict has arisen because Jesus has done miracles on the Sabbath and deviated from accepted ritual practices of his day in other ways. Jesus has suggested that tax collectors, prostitutes, and other publicly known sinners have a chance at salvation. And, he is the Son of God. Case closed, apparently.
The Lord’s statements and actions seem threatening. And, his connections to people outside the usual Temple-religious circles make him more suspicious.
Jesus has powerful enemies with a case against him. Is the evidence, however, enough for a real case? We might call it circumstantial.
At this point in the mystery and investigation, the chief priests hardly have enough for a search warrant or a real indictment.
The district attorneys on Law & Order or CSI would want something more specific. They want DNA, blood, hair samples. I’m just saying; this is what they go for.
Ultimately, the crowd and priests push this legal case along quite quickly, persuading Pilate that Jesus is a threat. So, Pilate’s vulnerability and pride are also entered into evidence.
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This case – Pilate v. Jesus – does provide some more detailed evidence. We have a case. And we can look at the same place the detectives look: the hand.
Detectives are always looking at the arrested suspect’s hands, aren’t they? For the DNA.
What evidence do we have in this case?
First, we have the hands of Jesus tied behind his back, evidence that he has done something wrong, or has he?
Secondly, we have the hands of Pilate, powerful hands. But, ultimately, Pilate’s hands turn out to be incriminating. They show us his pride and selfishness.
Pilate ends up handcuffed by the Temple officials and the mob. Feeling his own hands tied by the crowd, Pilate backs down. He could have - but does not - wave the accused out of the courtroom and on to the street.
Rather, Pilate listens to the accusers and their trumped up case. A select group of priests wants Jesus arrested and crucified. Pilate, meanwhile, wants a compromise. Just give the Nazarene a scourging, a few lashes and release him on his own recognizance. No true judge could find Jesus guilty. Pilate knows this.
Sensing that the case is not going their way, the crowd steps up the pressure, shouting, “Crucify him, crucify him.”
Feeling trapped, Pilate does not speak up but throws in the towel. Or, rather, Pilate dries his hands with that towel. Pilate cannot prevail over the crowd and Temple officials. So, he takes water and washes his hands before the people, and washes his hands of the whole affair… saying: "I am innocent of the blood of this just man." (cf., Matthew 27:24)
The hands of Pilate show us one who will not take responsibility against injustice. We are called to do more with our hands than he does.
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In courtrooms, ceremony and protocol are important. And, these rules govern communication and identification. If you want to be known in a courtroom, use both your voice and your hand.
For example, place one hand on the Bible, swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
In the courtroom of life, all of us are called to work out our salvation, sometimes as a confrontation, sometimes as a trial. And, trials mean we are going to be sworn in and involved. Raise your right hand. Swear an oath. Make a promise.
This Sunday is the Feast of Jesus Christ the King, a feast when we recall the trial of Jesus, our king in heaven, who saves us by his own effort, taking up the cross with both hands.
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We do not need DNA and detectives to remind us that our hands tell a story. They reveal something. From the time we are small, we are told about politeness and etiquette with our hands.
Children who are fighting are told, “keep your hands to yourselves.” And, we are aware that our hands can give away nervousness such as in a job interview. This is evidence of both hidden character and emotion.
And, in the age of H1N1, we receive the help of countless hand sanitizers. This is evidence of good health.
Every day, we are tested in the use of our hands. Will we raise them? Or keep them to ourselves when we might speak up? The Lord is calling on you and me to respond. Yet, this is not a classroom or courtroom where we literally raise our hands. This is a relationship where we place our hand in his.
This is real life where we are called to take up our cross with our hands to follow Jesus Christ the King.
As a government official, Pilate has power in his hands. You and I also do, we use the power in hands, for example…
IN ACADEMIC STUDY -- This means writing, editing, rewriting, typing and putting ourselves into the academic process. It also mans using hands and minds honestly. The availability of so much information presents many temptations to dishonesty at our fingertips. Remember our hands can keep -- or break -- promises also on the mouse and keyboard.
AT HOME -- This means, for example, using our hands to help at home, to help someone at the table, to clear the table, to help someone who needs it. Our hands keep promises when we reach out in generosity.
Our hands can give us away. In actual criminal cases, the suspect is well aware of this. Jesus is the arrested suspect who has nothing to hide. Nor do we when we follow him.
Our fingerprints need not be the sign of crime but rather of service.
Our hands give us away. They tell the truth. And, Pilate’s hands also reveal a truth. Washing his hands of the affair, Pilate demonstrates his guilt. But this is guilt which cannot be washed away with water, but only with repentance for sin.
The same is true for us that we come to Christ to be washed with his blood.
What about your hands, your unique fingerprint, your unique gift to God? We are invited to open our hands – even to difficulties – to what God may be offering us. We are invited to se the power of free will at our fingertips for good. And, this means listening to the Lord, handsfree. It means presenting the truth our lives to him in prayer so that we might follow him more closely.