“What planet are you on?”
I wonder how often you’ve thought or even said that, perhaps in the heat of an argument. “What planet are you on that you could say that or do that?” Or perhaps you’ve said it as you’ve watched the news. “What planet is the person on who can abuse a child, or scam a vulnerable person, or watch a police officer be beaten up and decide to film it on their phone and share it on Youtube rather than helping? What planet are they on? ”
It’s the question that lies beneath the story we heard in today’s Gospel reading, for this feast of Christ the King. Pontius Pilate and Jesus are, to all intents and purposes on different planets as they meet in the story we heard. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, was appointed to rule the troublesome province of Judea by the Emperor Tiberius. Here he stands face to face with Jesus who had been arrested by the Jewish Temple guard, interrogated through the night by the High Priests and beaten by the soldiers. And now he has been dragged before Pilate, who alone has the power to order his crucifixion or to pardon him. The charge against Jesus is that he’s claimed to be the Messiah, God’s anointed one. People thought this Messiah would be like their ancient king, David, a military leader who would throw out the Romans. You might think that the Jewish authorities would be glad to acclaim him, then, but in many ways it was in their interest to maintain the status quo. “What had the Romans ever done for them?” Well, quite a lot, actually, and they didn’t want to bring down the wrath of Rome because of this jumped up carpenter’s son.
So Jesus and Pilate find themselves face to face, but on different planets. Planet Pilate, if we can call it that, is one where Rome rules, where might is right, where you make decisions based on what will keep the emperor happy, even if it is plainly unjust. On Planet Pilate Kings wear crowns and command armies, and generally throw their weight around. Pilate is baffled at the sight of this battered, bedraggled man standing in front of him. “Are you the King of the Jews?” The order of the Greek words has that emphasis. “What, you – a carpenter’s son, a man of no account, a man who has no armies, no weapons, no one fighting for you at all, a man who doesn’t even seem to be fighting for himself? What planet are you on? How can someone like you ever think you could be a king?” On Planet Pilate, Jesus seems about as unkingly as it’s possible to be.
But Jesus is looking at the world from a completely different viewpoint. As he says, his kingdom – his planet - “is not from this world”, the world that Pilate inhabits, that world of power and self-interest.
This isn’t about the physical world and the spiritual world. Jesus isn’t talking about this live versus the life to come either. Jesus is deeply committed to the physical reality around him, the nitty gritty of ordinary life. His whole ministry shows it. He feeds people. He heals people. He preaches about politics and economics and relationships – the material things that make or mar our lives. John calls him the Word made flesh, not the word made spirit. He cares about the world he is part of. It’s Pilate’s world view he’s rejecting, Pilate’s values and priorities – Planet Pilate. He invites us instead to come and live on Planet Jesus, or, as he calls it, the Kingdom of God, and that’s a very different place from the kind of kingdoms Pilate has in his mind.
The poet R.S Thomas put it better than I ever could in his poem “The Kingdom”:
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
That’s Planet Jesus, but Pilate is a million miles away from it, and he shows it in the way he deals with the demands of the Jewish authorities for Jesus’ death. Pilate doesn’t actually think that Jesus deserves execution. He doesn’t think Jesus is guilty, but he can see that if he gets on the wrong side of the Jewish leaders, if he refuses to crucify Jesus, he risks a revolt, and if there is a revolt, the Emperor Tiberius is not going to be pleased, and if the Emperor Tiberius is not pleased, then Pilate’s life – if he gets to keep it – won’t be worth living. So whether Jesus is guilty or not, he is going to be condemned.
Pilate’s is a world of fake news, a world where things are real because you want them to be, and not if you don’t. It’s a world ruled by what I like to call Tinkerbell philosophy. You know that moment in Peter Pan when Tinkerbell is dying, and Peter appeals to the audience. “Every time a child says they don’t believe in fairies, a fairy dies. So if you want Tinkerbell to live, you all have to believe in fairies. Do you believe in fairies? – clap if you do!” And everybody does, of course, and Tinkerbell revives. That’s fine in a story, but it’s dangerous when we apply it to real life. Climate change denial is the fruit of Tinkerbell philosophy. Climate change frightens us. It demands sacrifices from us that we don’t want to make. It feels much easier to deny that it’s real, as if that will make the rising sea levels and extreme weather events vanish. Unfortunately, of course, in the end reality will always win. It’s like deciding that we don’t believe in the law of gravity. It’s fine until you step off a tall building expecting to be able to fly. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve discovered you’re wrong it’s too late, and you’re hurtling towards the ground.
“I came into the world to testify to the truth,” says Jesus. And in our first reading, he is described as the “faithful witness”. He’s the one who tells it like it is, the one who enables people to face reality. For some, that is a joyful experience. Jesus bears “faithful witness” to the presence of God work in them, even if they can’t see it themselves. He sees potential in ordinary fishermen and despised tax-collectors and prostitutes, potential that they’d never imagined. He calls people into friendship with him who’ve been rejected by their society. “Come and see a man who told me all I ever did” says one excited Samaritan woman to her neighbours (John 4). He’d met her by a well in the heat of the day, collecting water on her own, and somehow he’d known that she was a woman who had been divorced by five husbands, cast off by them like rubbish, her self-esteem sinking with each rejection. But Jesus saw the person inside and honoured her, took her seriously, talked theology with her – a Samaritan woman who everyone else steered clear of - and that transformed her. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” says Jesus.
Truth-telling and truth-hearing can be liberating experiences, but bearing faithful witness can also be dangerous, as whistle blowers have found throughout the ages. Jesus’ truth-telling makes him a threat to those who have something to hide, something to lose, people like Pilate.
Pilate is an interesting figure. We know a bit about him from other historical sources than the Bible. The writer Philo describes him as “inflexible, stubborn and cruel” (Philo 41 AD). He seems to have blown hot and cold in his relationship with the Jewish leaders, flip-flopping between giving in to them and brutally putting them down. The stories in the Gospels about him seem entirely in character then. He’s painted in the Bible as a man who, just for a moment, toys with the idea of sticking up for Jesus, but then almost instantly reverts to business as usual, goes with the flow, bends with the wind. What’s one more crucified man on his conscience? He’s probably killed hundreds.
We don’t know for sure how Pilate’s story ended, but we do know that he was eventually summoned back to Rome to answer to the Emperor after he’d mishandled some other trouble in Judea, and then seems to have fallen out of favour, when he backed the wrong man in an Imperial power struggle. You’ve got to be very clever, and very lucky, if you want to live by the rules of Rome, and it seems that Pilate wasn’t quite clever or lucky enough.
I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him, a man whom history has only really remembered for this one cowardly capitulation to the plots of powerful people, but this is a story which invites us to ask ourselves what planet we are on? And why we choose to live there. Do we prefer to live on our own planets, in our own bubbles of self-interest and self-delusion, or do we dare to live on Planet Jesus, a place of integrity, a place where we are honest with ourselves and honest with each other, where ? Do we dare to live in the place where “the poor man/ Is king and the consumptive is/ Healed; mirrors in which the blind look/ At themselves and love looks at them/ Back; and industry is for mending/ The bent bones and the minds fractured/ By life.”
It takes courage to decide to live there, and work, but it is the place where ultimately we will find we – and all God’s children - are most truly loved, and most truly free. Amen