This brief exchange between Jesus and Pilate in the gospel for Sunday November 21st, (John 18:33-37) was a small scene from the life of Jesus, but it holds rich meaning. Here is the gospel in its entirety.
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
A simple interpretation of the dialogue is that Pilate is confused about the claims of kingship that the priests allege about Jesus. From his appearance Jesus did not look like a threat to the Roman empire. He had been up all night after the Passover meal, praying in the garden, captured and taken to the home of the chief priests where he was questioned and hit then dragged to see Pilate. To Pilate, nothing in Jesus’ manner threatened insurrection. Jesus’ answers only confused him further.
On a different level, we can read this gospel as being rich in its implications. The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth is a central message of the whole gospel.
John uses the word truth more often in his gospel and the book of Revelation than all the other evangelists combined. The richness of the use and the contexts give us a greater sense of Jesus’ meaning. Scripture scholars have considered these uses, their contexts and found a set of interlocking meanings and interpretations. Here is a snapshot of some of the discussion.
The root meaning of the Greek word for truth is 'non-concealment'; that is, 'the full or real state of affairs'. The evening before his conversation with Pilate, at the Last Supper, while informing his disciples that he would be leaving them, Jesus reassured them by saying, I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.. John 14:16-17 The Spirit of Truth would reveal the full state of hidden reality.
In his conversation with Pilate one could also understand the truth as referring to the Father, himself, and to his character as the ultimate reality. Jesus used the word to describe connotations of 'trustworthiness' or 'steadfastness' as an attribute of God elsewhere. In Revelation, in particular, John uses the word true, to describe God’s character often as in Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the nations. (Rev 15:3)
Jesus also used the word as a historian would, to refer to real events as opposed to myths. Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? (John 8:46)
There is also a sense of looking forward to the end times, and the coming kingdom of God. Truth is accessible only when human limitations are transcended by ecstasy, revelation or death. In this sense truth has an end-times meaning: a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. John 4:23
Most profoundly, Jesus used truth as a relational concept arising from his own character: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6
Truth is factual. It is a statement about the way things were, are or will be. But truth is not just a fact. It speaks of a relationship with the ultimate reality: God. That message of alignment with God’s love was the essence of Jesus’ ministry and the concluding words in this morning’s gospel.
Some truths are self-evident. Gravity, for instance, is an obvious physical truth and one ignores or denies it at the risk of falling down. Most of us live this truth about gravity unconsciously every moment of the day, but particularly when moving around. Nevertheless, as a truth, it governs our relationships in a particular way.
In a slightly more abstract manner… and in a way that is consistent with Jesus’ life and teaching…we accept it as true that a loving family is important for a person to develop a sense of self-esteem and healthy relationships. We live out this truth in a more nuanced way, often cuddling or verbally expressing our love, but at times, disciplining the child and having them do things… eat brussels sprouts… that they don’t want to. This truth sometimes provides us with disciple when we are tired or frustrated by other events in our lives. Despite these constraints we act in a way that is consistent with this truth about love.
As Jesus’ exchange with Pilate concluded, Jesus invited him to pay attention to the truth by saying everyone on the side of truth listens to me. A paraphrase might be, ‘If you are really interested in the truth, then pay attention to what I say.’ The verb listens indicates a continuous process. In a sense, Jesus was looking past Pilate and speaking to the rest of us to remind us of his continuing presence in our lives.
I find it interesting, as the church year comes to an end, that this gospel, with its reference to being born, in the phrase…The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth… also nods to the seasons of Advent and Christmas when we hear scripture readings about the time of hope and longing for the Messiah by the Jewish people.