Everyday Christian: Playing Pilate

I thought there must be room to have a joke about hand sanitiser when playing Pontius Pilate for the church Easter play. Maybe introducing a small bottle of hand sanitiser could liven up the famous hand-washing scene. Just like modern versions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas get “improved’ with current cultural references. It was a natural, I felt. It would be a surefire laugh.

“No,” I was told, “you have to play it straight.”

So that idea did not make it out the front gate – it was censored in my household.

It turns out that just like the original Pontius P’s household, the wife was the right one. Because she was right. It was Good Friday, after all. A day for solemnity, if ever there was one. And being in the action on stage did bring the grimness of the process to life – not the best metaphor – for me.

The political nature of the process that led to Jesus’ death is laid bare in the events around Pilate. The temple leadership have found a charge they think the Roman system will buy that will mean the death penalty. They know the evidence is slight, but it is all they can come up with.

Herod has sent Jesus to Pilate – a buck-passing move. The Jewish leaders need to whip up the crowd to manipulate Pilate to make sure the plot works.

Pilate tries to offer a scapegoat – Barabbas. It’s a clever move. Surely, Pilate calculates, the Jewish leaders won’t take the risk of urging freedom for a terrorist. But they are locked in – they want to be rid of Jesus – and the crowd sticks to the script. Were agitators spread through the crowd? It is not hard to imagine.

Pilate tries hard. He tells the crowd there’s no basis for the charges. There are no grounds for the death penalty. He has three goes – and these are the lines I had to learn. And then he gives in.

I have to say it was unnerving to be heckled so defiantly. “Crucify him!”

“Crucify him!”
“Crucify him!”

I felt a little of Pilate’s desperation. His trapped feeling. His weakness. And in all political intrigue, there is one person who sees through everything: Pilate’s wife. Talk about speaking truth to power.

All these stages of political compromise play out in some form today. In our election campaign. In business. In war. I don’t know how the crowd at church experienced it, but getting into the character certainly made Easter alive for me.

Somebody wise once said the gospels smell like journalism – of eyewitnesses. The Pilate story is convincing. It could happen today. It happened then.

And after all, the script we used left out the hand-washing scene. So hamming it up was never a goer.