Washing Guilty Hands

Dr. Ray Pritchard
Dr. Ray Pritchard
2016 18 Mar

"Pilate Washing His Hands," Mattia Preti, 1663

“When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that a riot was starting instead, he took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd, and said, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood’” (Matthew 27:24).

This is our final visit with Pilate.

Let me summarize the case as I see it. Pilate never understood Jesus, but he never wanted to put him to death either. He knew Jesus was innocent. He said so over and over again.

Fundamentally, it came down to this: Pilate wanted to release Jesus but without any cost to him personally. He wanted to let him go, but without having to take a stand. He admired Jesus in a way, but not enough to believe in him. He yielded finally to private blackmail and public pressure. So he sentenced Jesus to die.

But in the final act of a tortured conscience, he took a bowl of water and washed his hands. It was an act the Jews would understand because Deuteronomy 21 prescribes a ceremony for the case of an unsolved death. It involved washing your hands over a heifer whose neck had been broken. The ceremony meant, “I am innocent of this man’s death.”

Now Pilate basically does the same thing. There is only one problem. Pilate is guilty. Not all the water in a thousand Niagaras could wash his guilt away.

No, Pilate, it won’t work. Look, look, look at your hands. They are covered with innocent blood.  You crucified Jesus by your indecision, your vacillation, your cowardice, your selfishness. This memory will haunt you forever. The screams from Golgotha will ring in your ears until the day you die.

He washed his hands but the blood wouldn’t come off. He passed the buck but it came back to him. He tried to make a deal but the deal fell through. He tried to compromise and ended up being blackmailed. In the end, Pilate seems pitiful, frightened, weak, unable to do what he knows is right.

Pilate, what did you say to your wife that night? How did you explain what you did? Did you wash your hands in front of her?

Pilate’s final question to the crowd still rings across the centuries: “What shall I do with Jesus?” It the question of the ages and every person must eventually give an answer. There are only two possible answers. I can crown him or I can crucify him. There is nothing else, no middle ground. 

Let’s turn the question around and make it more personal: “What will you do with Jesus?” If he is the Son of God, then crown him the Lord of your life and give your heart to him. If he is a fraud, then by all means send him off to be crucified.

I ask the question once more: What will you do with Jesus? Pilate washed his hands, but he could never wash away his guilt. An old gospel song puts it this way:

What will you do with Jesus?
Neutral you cannot be.
Someday your heart will be asking,
“What will he do with me?”

Lord, may we not delay but gladly say, “Jesus, I come to you!” Amen.

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