Palm Sunday lessons from an unlikely Pontius Pilate

The story of the trial, crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth, which is recited, sung and often acted out … Continued

The story of the trial, crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth, which is recited, sung and often acted out in churches on Palm Sunday, speaks for itself. This is one reason why preachers are encouraged keep their homilies short that day. Or, as the pastor of the local Jesuit church told me, “short but not super-short.” The one thing I might add to Jesus’s story is another story, which may seem oddly lighthearted at first, but which also has a serious point.

My six-year-old nephew Matthew called me a few weeks ago. This was an event in itself, since six-year-olds generally don’t initiate phone calls. At least my nephew doesn’t. “Uncle Jim,” he said, “Guess what?” (This is his normal way of starting a conversation.)

“What?” I said.

“I’m in the Lenten pageant at church!” Despite 24 years of Jesuit training, I had no idea what that was. So I asked.

“It’s kind of like a Christmas pageant,” he said, “but it’s about the crucifixion.” Okay. “And guess who I play?”

“Jesus?” I ventured.

“No! Better than that!”

What’s better than Jesus?

“Pontius Pilate!” he said.

My nephew had been cast as the Procurator of Judea in his church’s Lenten Pageant, which my sister described a kind of tableau vivant. Or a “Living Stations of the Cross,” as the church was calling it. While I had some concerns over whether the Passion narrative was appropriate storytelling for someone so young, I figured I would give the church the benefit of the doubt. Besides, what do I know about teaching six-year-olds?

“Are you excited?” I asked.

“Well,” said Matthew, “I’m a little sad because we have to crucify my best friend. And we use a real hammer and a nail.” This gave me pause. “We paint little red tears like blood on his hand, but it’s not for real.” Who was directing this pageant–Mel Gibson? (Later conversations with my sister revealed that the hammer and nail were props, and, obviously, not used.)

View Photo Gallery: Christians around the world raised palm branches in traditional observances launching Holy Week, which for believers marks the Passion, death and ressurection of Jesus.

Over the next few days, I kept up to date about the Lenten pageant and my nephew’s passion about the play, which seemed to wax and wane. On the one hand, Matthew was disappointed when he discovered that Pontius Pilate was not, in fact, a pilot. On the other hand, last Sunday, during the recitation of the Creed, when the congregation reached the description of Jesus’s death and said, “For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate…” Matthew yelled out, “Pontius Pilate! Yay!” (Pilate normally doesn’t get shout-outs in church.)

The night after the big day, I spoke with Matthew. “So how was the pageant?”

“Well,” he said, considering things carefully, “there were three Jesuses.” (Several of his friends were enlisted to appear in several Stations of the Cross.) “But only one Pontius Pilate.” That pleased him. On the other hand, his flip-flops made his feet cold.

“And, Uncle Jim, I forgot to wash my hands!” (This was Pilate’s most famous physical act in the New Testament, betokening his attempt to disavow responsibility for the death of Jesus.) “First I was afraid I would do it early,” he said, clearly miffed. “Then I was afraid I’d do it too late. So I didn’t do it at all.”

Finally I asked, “Did the story make you sad?”

“Well,” he said, “it was a little sad. But everyone roses from the dead, and everyone lived happily ever after.”

So is such a lighthearted story inappropriate to recount on Palm Sunday? Yes and no.



A man works a palm branch for sale outside a church in Tegucigalpa March 30, 2012. Catholics around the world get ready for Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week observances.

Yes, it may be considered inappropriate because Palm Sunday invites us to meditate on the death of Jesus, perhaps the most serious topic in all Christian theology. Equally as serious are Jesus’s physical suffering on the day of his crucifixion, our own suffering, and the way in which we “participate” in Jesus’s suffering during our lives. For some people, the sufferings of Jesus allow them to identify more easily with the Son of God, who might otherwise seem far removed from such mundane concerns as physical pain. To paraphrase St. Paul, we do not have a God who does not understand us.

Thus, the model of Jesus as the man of sorrows is an important image for Christians. Not only does it reveal to us a model of suffering – that is, with forgiveness and without retribution — it also shows that God understands our struggles in the most intimate way imaginable.

But no, a lighthearted story is not inappropriate on Palm Sunday. For one thing, the day also commemorates the joyful entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, when crowds welcomed the presence of the great preacher and astonishing wonderworker by literally singing his praises. “Hosanna,” which Christians often say in muted terms during church services, is an exuberant shout of praise. During a Sunday Mass a few years ago, Matthew showed he understood this theological insight perhaps better than many in the congregation. “Hosanna in the highest,” sang the choir. “Hosanna, hosanna,” said Matthew, “Hooray!” Jesus is also the man of joys.

But there’s another, more important, reason that lightheartedness is possible on Palm Sunday. And it is this: Christ is risen! That may seem an anachronistic thing to say this time of year, but for Christians, it’s true: Christ is risen.

Some Christians tend to forget this essential truth during Lent. Sometimes we act as if Jesus were suffering and dying all over again. But for Christians, he lives every day of the year. That’s true on Easter. It’s true on Palm Sunday. It’s even true on Good Friday.

Our meditations on the suffering of Jesus, and our meditation on our own suffering, need always to be understood in light of the Resurrection. As Christians, we are never simply contemplating suffering, we are contemplating suffering with the hope of change, and with the promise new life. To look at one reality without the other makes no sense. Looking at Easter without the Passion makes no sense. That is the more common mistake. “No sacrifice, no victory,” to quote, of all things, “The Transformers.”

But looking at the Passion without Easter is equally nonsensical. In the Christian worldview, suffering is never the last word.

Because, as even a six-year-old knows, everyone roses from the dead.

James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything,” “My Life with the Saints,” and his newest book, “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Christian Life.”

James Martin SJ
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  • mikebrooks806

    Well, those NT scholars should know; they were there.

    How easy it is for academic critics together to try and destroy faith. And those who despise Christianity – usually because they don’t like what it teaches about sex and sexuality – pile on and call it “myth.”

    Why don’t they start with the easy one: that it is impossible for Jesus to have risen from the dead, because no one has done it since. Ooooh, such scholarly brilliance.

  • ccnl1

    Saving Christians from the Infamous Resurrection Con/

    From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

    Even now Catholic/Christian professors of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

    To wit;

    From a major Catholic university’s theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

    “Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
    Jesus and Mary’s bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

    Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

    Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus’ crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary’s corpse) into heaven did not take place.

    The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

    Only Luke records it. (Luke mentions it in his gospel and Acts, i.e. a single attestation and therefore historically untenable). The Assumption ties Jesus’ mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus’ followers The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary’s special role as “Christ bearer” (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus’ Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary’s assumption also shows God’s positive regard, not only for Christ’s male body, but also for female bodies.” ”

    “In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequ

  • ccnl1

    An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,


    “Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God’s hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus’ failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing.”

    p.168. by Ted Peters:

    Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. ”

    So where are the bones”? As per Professor Crossan’s analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, covered with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.


    This proves Dawkins is right. Religious indoctrination IS child abuse.

  • skybride56

    Suffering with hope… I am wondering what the stock answer is for incessant suffering that we see in so many areas of the world. Striving, working hard for goals that seems good. Suffering like can be seen not so much. My prayer at this time is for the ones who cause so much suffering to take stock of them selves just for once. And just for once contemplate changing their ways. I suppose that is too much to ask for.

  • skybride56

    Well let’s not forget they were talking to people who operated with much superstition, little education and probably a short attention span. The short attention span was probably because they mainly spent their days engaged in the heavy labour of survival which was quite rugged then and probably up until the 20th century more or less. One can opine until they are blue in the face but one cannot overlay our society on theirs and probably by converse app theirs on ours. So we get the interpreters who decide how much truth we get. Then of course we have to deal with the naysayers who refuse to realize that religion has survived for centuries with or without their permission. And so it goes….

  • Rongoklunk

    I feel for the kid. Six years old and he already believes in a God. It’s already a part of his ‘world view’ and forever will be, even if it’s not true. At this age a child hasn’t developed critical faculties and can be persuaded to believe in alien invaders, flying pigs, talking donkeys, Santa Claus, tooth fairies and the boogieman. So God fits right in there, no problem. But in reality he’s as fictional as Santa, Tinkerbell and Humpty Dumpty. And we should let our children know that.

  • ThomasBaum

    You don’t “know” that there is no God, it is merely your belief and your opinion that there is no God.

  • shilotoren

    I have serious concerns on how the Pontius Pilate and the crucifiction are portrayed. Too often and for too long these “plays” foreboded acts of violence against Jews and the suffering of many “small Jesuses” whose only crime was to believe in G-d.

  • ThomasBaum

    It wasn’t for the “crime” of believing in God that most Jews, that were crucified, were crucified for but for insurrection and crimes of that nature.

    The thing with Pontius Pilate was that he was backed into a corner, so to speak, by the “religious” of the day and to try to avoid a “mob scene riot”, he did what he did but as you may or may not know, he tried to not crucify Jesus.

    I suppose if one were to take “artistic license” with the story as presented, one could present it as you mention but the story as told, speaks for itself and “the crime” is not for believing in God.

    Even the “crime” that the “religious” wanted Jesus crucified for was not for believing in God but blasphemy and the Jews of Jesus’s day did not have the authority of their own to use capital punishment, they were an occupied country.

  • trouztrouz

    Thomas – it’s not so much a belief as a rational assessment. Although one can’t directly measure for the existance of a god or gods – or lack thereof – one can consider what would be expected of a world with and without a higher being.

    Natural disasters that strike at random. Good people falling victim to tragedy. Ongoing violence in murder in the name of a god who refuses to make himself known in the face of attrocities. These conditions are not consistent with your “there is a god” theory.


    “My prayer at this time is for the ones who cause so much suffering to take stock of them selves just for once. And just for once contemplate changing their ways.”

    The Roman Catholic Church does not make mistakes and does not change. It is infallible.

  • ccnl1

    There was no passion. Jesus caused a disturbance at the temple, he was captured and summarily crucified, died and was buried and is still a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside in Jerusalem assuming some wild dog did not eat him thereby returning him to the cycle of life a little sooner than normal. References available upon request.