1 “If in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, 2 then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities. 3 And the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke. 4 And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. 5 Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the Lord, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled. 6 And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, 7 and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. 8 Accept atonement, O Lord, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’ 9 So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord.
24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
Deuteronomy 21:1-9 governs the practice of washing hands as a sign of innocence. Things happen that we have no knowledge of. Often things happen without our knowledge at all. Our lack of knowledge of what happens is our excuse from our responsibility in bearing the burden of guilt imposed. In the case of someone slain in the open country as described in Deuteronomy 21, the ritual of washing hands must be conducted in order to proclaim the innocence of the people living the nearest of the slain body. The elders of the people are the ones representing the people and thus they would be the ones declaring innocence provided truly they know nothing of who killed the slain man. In the ritual an atonement offering must be prepared. In this case a heifer. A heifer is a female cow that has not borne a calf. The requirement is added in Deuteronomy that the heifer must be one that has never been worked and never pulled in a yoke. The heifer then must be brought to the valley with pure running waters by the elders of the city. There they have to break the neck of the heifer. Then the elders must wash their hands over the heifer whose neck is broken and declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed.” There the declaration of innocence is completed, and thus the people of the city is free of guilt.
There are some important characteristics we need to note here. In Deuteronomy 21 we notice that the act of killing has been done and the killer is unknown. The person killed has been dead for some time. The investigation of the crime must negate those who are innocent. The elders of the city must do their due diligence in that they have to make sure none in the city knows anything about it nor are they responsible for the killing. Once they are sure, then they go to the proceeding and declare that they are innocent. So the crime is already committed, the victim is slain, and the representative must be/is certain that the people are guiltless. If these requirements are in place, three things must be done: 1) break the neck of a heifer, and 2) wash hands over the heifer, and 3) testify their innocence. This regulation is set to give a way out for the innocent people so that they would not be falsely accused of things they did not do. Certainly this regulation is crucial so the investigator and the judge would not condemn the wrong person. The test of conscience and honesty is embedded in this ritual. People cannot just wash hands to declare innocence unless they are truly innocent. They must be clear of all charges. Firstly, they ought not to be the one doing the crime. For if they do they then have done two crimes, one is committing the crime itself and two they lie about it. The punishment for such crime is high and the perjury adds to its weight. And secondly, they must also be in the side of not knowing anything pertaining to the crime. Because if they do, then it means that they are witnesses of the crime. Investigators may proceed by questioning them to get their testimony of who or what or when or how the crime was committed. The washing hands ritual must not be done just to get away from responsibility. It is not a system designed to be exploited by the guilty so that they can get away with murder.
With that background in mind, we now proceed to Pilate’s washing hands over Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew records it:
“24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.””
Clearly Pilate here has a reason for washing his hands before the people. His act reminds the people of what was commanded by God through Moses regarding the ritual of washing hands in order to declare innocence. And his reason, as written by Matthew, is that nothing good comes out of his contention with the people. Pilate sees that a riot is about to happen. The demand of the people is strong. They want Jesus dead. At first Pilate wouldn’t give in. When the crowd demand that Jesus be crucified, he says in verse 23: “Why, what evil has he done?” In John 18:38, after investigating and questioning Jesus at length, Pilate says to the Jews: “I find no guilt in him.” And Luke writes:
22 A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” 23 But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. (Luke 23:22-24, cf. vv. 13-16, cf. also vv. 4-5)
Pilate doesn’t say it just one time, but three times, that Jesus is indeed innocent. For he knows (Matthew 27:18) “that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.” Pilate knows who is actually guilty. Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. Everybody knows that Jesus is innocent. Judas knew that Jesus is innocent, so he returned the blood money and then he hanged himself out of guilty feeling (Matthew 27:3-10). The criminals at the side of Jesus too knows that Jesus is innocent so he says:
“40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40-41)
Even the High Priest knows that Jesus is innocent. It is reflected in his reasoning to condemn Jesus:
47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” (John 11:47-50)
Jesus is not condemned because he is a sinner. Jesus is not condemned because he is guilty of any sin. He is condemned because the Jews are afraid the Romans would take their nation away. So the High Priest condemns Jesus for their selfish gain. They condemn Jesus so they can continue to live the way they are. They condemn Jesus to preserve their status quo. They know Jesus is innocent. They can’t prove that Jesus is guilty, for there is none. Everybody knows Jesus is innocent. Yet the condemnation is still given.
Now, Pilate knows this. He is the governor of Judea. He is the authority for that region. He is the highest judge in that area. In order to be judge, he must know all the facts. It is within the bound of his duty that he must not convict the innocent or acquit the guilty. Yet in the process of judging Jesus he is doing the two forbidden decisions a judge must not do. He convicts the innocent, Jesus, and acquits the guilty, Barabbas, and all the leaders of the Jews – the chief priests, the High Priest, the elders, the Pharisees, and the Scribes, including all the people that condemn Jesus. And if we are to be thorough, the guilty party must include Pilate himself. All because Pilate wants peace. All because Pilate wants his region to be quiet. All because Pilate does not want any riot to break out. He does not want to be perceived as incapable to keep his region under control. He is afraid that Caesar, who put him as governor of Judea, would not be pleased if he hear any of this. So even though he knows the truth, he does not act upon it. Rather he washes his hands to declare his innocence.
Pilate’s washing hands ceremony is unwarranted. If we remember about the Deuteronomy regulation regarding washing hands ritual, we should know that the crime must be committed already, the victim is dead or has suffered already, and the elders must be sure that they are innocent. Now, crime has been committed for sure, because Jesus is being chained for the false accusation, and Jesus who is innocent has suffered the pressure of the elders, the torture of the people, and the mockery of the soldiers. But the elders, including Pilate, know 100% consciously that Jesus is the one who is innocent, and they at the same time know that they are the ones guilty. For sure, Jesus is the victim – the “slain” man in this case. His justice must be straightened out. Pilate must defend him for he is innocent. As the “eldest” of the elders in that region by the ruling of Caesar, Pilate ought to refrain from washing his hands. He ought to stop the bloodshed. He ought to prevent the crime from reaching its culmination. Instead, he is allowing the crime to reach its goal, the death of Jesus. Pilate has the authority to prevent Jesus from being slain, yet he uses his authority to give in to the demand of the murderers. Pilate can only wash his hands, if he is sure that no crime is committed by the people of his region. He can only wash his hands if he has no knowledge whatsoever on how the crime is committed, or by whom, or when. But he knows all that. It is within his knowledge. Moreover, he becomes a crucial instrument for the murder of Jesus. His washing his hands is an act of excusing himself not to take the necessary steps to acquit the innocent and to condemn the guilty. In the name of justice, he is supposed to be bound to defend Jesus at all cost. It is within his authority to protect Jesus from being murdered by the envious people.
But here, in public the crime is committed, and everybody knows that a crime is committed against an innocent man. Contrary to the Deuteronomy case, where the crime was committed not in public display and unknown to the people. In plain sight, people committed the crime, and the only person that can stop it from happening is not stopping it, rather he steps back in order to allow innocent blood be shed. And he employs the washing hands ceremony as a visual and psychological aid for proclaiming his own innocence. The fact is that he is not innocent. He is as guilty as everybody else. He is even guiltier because he is supposed to be the advocate for the weak. It is right in front of his eyes that Jesus is bullied, but instead of defending him till the end, he quits and joins the bullies to finish the crime. The suffering of the only innocent man on earth is complete. He is defenseless. He is the weaker party. He has been bullied ever since he came out to public. Pilate has the opportunity to straighten what is crooked. But he chose to collaborate with the accuser.
So his washing hands ceremony is unwarranted. No matter how much he wants to cleanse his guilt, he can’t. It has stained him eternally. History records his cowardice act of saving his own life when he is tasked to defend the innocent. Today there are many Pilates in this world. Those who know that a crime is committed right in front of their eyes, yet they choose to join the bullies. Seldom we find people who would suffer with the oppressed in today’s world. At one time I witnessed a university president wept in front of his students knowing that they were mistreated by their direct administrator. Then the president promised to take care of it. In the end of his speech, he made a statement that if the students kept being mistreated even with his instruction not to, he would take the responsibility and resign from his presidency. He tried so hard to resolve the issue. But apparently he couldn’t. So in the end, he resigned from his post. Contrary to Pilate, this president did not wash his hands. He did not declare innocence and then keeping his post the way it was. He did not join in the bullying act. He opposed it and he paid a price, a hefty one. But people like him is rare. There are too many people who would just excuse themselves by washing their hands and continue keeping their posts, honors, positions, riches, the way it is. These people find justification of their act by declaring innocence, stating that nothing they can do anymore, that it is beyond their ability to do anything, all the while staying within the organization or institution or government, and continuing to stay in their posts as if nothing happens.
Someone with conscience would not be able to sleep after doing what Pilate did. There is no more story about Pilate recorded in the Scripture. But perhaps he wouldn’t worry about it as soon as he washed his hands. He would sleep soundly the same night. All he cared about was how he could control his territory so he would gain favor from the emperor, and hoping that he would be moved to Rome, closer to the center of power in the Roman Empire. This matter with Jesus is a trivial thing for him. A peasant, a Jew even, not born of nobility, not appealing in appearance, no money and all, just a commoner, a poor man, not important for the advancement of his career, so letting him be crucified would not be a negative rapport for his work in Judea. Why bother? What justice? Self-preservation is more important than fighting for justice. As long as the self is preserved, injustice may prevail any time. I bet it isn’t the first time Pilate did like what he did with Jesus. I bet he washed hands many times prior. Be it done as vivid as what he did in the case with Jesus, or behind the scene. And I bet this is not the last time he washed his hands. His political mind and aptitude would certainly dictate him to do so. He would not do any other way, even if he knew that he ought to stand up for justice. I bet he believed so adamantly that he did what he could, that he did what was right.
In the political perspective he probably could be seen as wise and doing what was right. But that’s with the corrupted politics as we know it today, as we have understood it in the corrupted world. Ethically speaking, however, what he did was far from right. Even with the first principle of ethics as coined by Immanuel Kant: “Do No Harm.” Pilate could not even pass through this gate. What he did was harmful to Jesus. He did not do justice. He did not do his duty as man. He was supposed to do justice, especially with his special privilege and honorable position. Washing his hands could not get him away from the demand of justice, from his duty as man, from his responsibility as ruler of Judea. But he’d rather satisfy the grumpy crowd rather than sacrificing himself for the sake of saving an innocent man. This mentality is adopted by many in our era. Especially with the democratic mind flowing around. The majority rules. Some even think that majority voice as the voice of God. But the voice of God was only residing with Jesus. And Jesus was minority. No one would stand side by side with him during his trials. His disciples deserted him. One of his disciples betrayed him into the hands of his enemies. The voice of the devil filled the lungs of the elders. It spread quickly to the crowd with persuasive words for the satisfaction of their bloodthirsty souls. The entire city desired for the death of an innocent man. The voice of God was spoken through one man, Jesus Christ. The voice of God was minority. It is a grief mistake to think that the majority voice is always God’s voice. Very often the voice of majority is not the voice of God at all. This principle doesn’t seem to be understood even by Christians.
In many wealthy churches somewhere in the world, pastors there were treated unfairly. The unfair treatment can manifest in many ways. It could be the stripping of the pastor’s authority, or it could be the low salary given them, or it could be the shutting up of pastor’s mouth so not to speak the truth as is. All for the sake of worldly gain. All for the sake of getting along. All for the sake of the voice of man to prevail. Let me tell you one case. A church in particular is known for being stingy toward pastors. That church is not a poor church. It’s a well to do church, with many wealthy people as members. Their yearly budget reflects how wealthy the church is. Millions of dollars yearly budget. But the salary of their pastor is around $6000 annually. Their defense is that pastors work for the Lord, they do not work for money, so they ought to be paid just the bare minimum. And this doesn’t happen 50 years ago. This happens today, in our 21st century, in the year of 2015. How could the pastor live with $500 a month? The daily grocery alone could not be covered with $500 a month. Not to mention the tuition for their kids’ school. And how about their supposedly continuous upgrade? Doesn’t it mean that they need to buy books, to go to seminars, and so on? Oh and how about their family time, are they not allowed to live normally so as to buy ice creams for their kids, cookies for snacks, fine dining once or twice a year for wedding anniversary or for birthdays? Or even for their mind relaxation, for entertainment, for their hobbies? How many of us today can live with $500 a month? Especially with the demand posed for pastors? When they visit people, no reimbursement for gas is given. They have to pay with their own money, out of their $500/month salary. Not seldom they have to drive more than 200 miles a week. If gas price is $3 a gallon, and 1 gallon is good for 5 miles, it then means that the pastor has to spend $40 a week just for their visit and church work. A month they have to take out $160 just for gas. So they are left with $340 for their family. Now, if they do not visit enough, the council complains. If their sermon is dry because they couldn’t buy new books, the council complains. Yet if they request for salary increase, they are scolded saying that the pastors work for money and not for God. They keep their pastors poor so they would depend on their mercy. Yet at the same time they build multi million dollars facilities. Their decision was done without even blinking their eyes.
This is just one case. There are many other cases. Not only about salary, but also about pastors being bridled, so they won’t be able to speak the truth anymore. They are forced to speak only what the congregation demands. If they continue to speak the truth, then the council would come to them and pressure them to obey their demand or else. Many succumb to these demands. Many then become numb. They no longer have any desire to preach God’s word. So all they preach about is motivational speech, to make people happy, to satisfy their ears, and to keep them from complaining. These things happen. Not only in church, but also in educational institutions. There are people in high position that know injustice is done, yet doing nothing. It is in front of their eyes, done every single day, yet for the sake of their own self-preservation they keep quiet, in the minds they are washing their hands and declaring innocence. By doing so, they have joined in with the oppressors. By doing nothing to defend the case of the weak, they have become contributors of the oppression. They are unwilling to put their life on the line for the sake of justice or for the oppressed. So they wash their hands in front of the crowd, in front of the oppressed, declaring that they are innocent. Yet God knows that they are not innocent!
Queen Esther was going to do what Pilate did. She was ready to wash her hands, hiding behind her inability to do anything for the situation. But Mordechai reminded her that who knows for such a time as this that she was made queen. Esther quickly realized her mistake, so she decided to stake her life for the sake of the oppressed. So she did. She broke protocols. She risked her life for the sake of the weak. She trusted God. People in high position seldom do what Esther did. They often prefer to preserve their position, even if the weak is slain right in front of their eyes. They would not budge. Their heart is set. Their mind is set. Their goal is self-preservation. Not the pursuit of justice. Not to protect the weak. So they let the oppressed die. They actually have the power to change things. They have the position to initiate change. Yet they’d rather not take it. They’d rather do what Pilate did, wash their hands.
In that wealthy church, there sit some very wealthy council members. They never ask themselves whether they could live with $500 a month, without reimbursement for gas and all, in this 21st century. I bet if they are limited to $500 a month, they wouldn’t want. They would be as angry as they could be. Yet within the power in their hands, they make a decision to keep the salary of their pastor that low. They forget what Jesus says in Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” They do injustice to others, but they wouldn’t want injustice done to them. What an injustice… Ironic, isn’t it? The world is probably fairer than in the church. Pastors in the church work like CEOs of business companies. World companies pay their CEOs very graciously. Millions of dollars, that is excluding the bonuses. Business companies value their CEOs very much, because the CEOs hold the key to the success of the companies. But when these business owners sit in the council in the church, they make a completely different judgment, they do not regard pastors as important for the success of their church, so they pay them very very low salary. No bonuses either. If they are asked about it, sometimes they answer, laughing, “Pastors’ treasures are in heaven, hahaha.” There, they have joined the abusers, or they have become one. Not few would hide behind tradition and system that has been established for a long time. There they are washing their hands, blaming it on the system or tradition.
There are more Pilates in this world than Esthers. They knowingly sign an unjust document. They knowingly let an unjust decision be made right in front of their noses. They just do not wish to fight with their families, with their friends, with the system, with the people. So they let an innocent man be slain. But know this, brothers and sisters, their washing their hands are not warranted. Washing hands ritual is only warranted when one truly knows that the people are innocent, and that they know nothing of the crime committed. Then and only then they could wash their hands declaring innocence. Pilate’s washing hands is not warranted. For he is manipulating it for the sake of his own self-preservation. He is exploiting it for the sake of saving his own life. So he let an innocent man be slain in front of him. So he helped the crime to reach its culmination, the murder of an innocent man. Are we in the position of authority? Do we know what the right thing we ought to do and are given the opportunity to do it now? Are we willing to take risks for the sake of those who are unjustly treated, of those who are oppressed, who are weak and defenseless? Or are we washing our hands? Is our washing hands warranted? May God of all wisdom who sees the deepest of your heart guides you and gives you courage to do what you must. Amen.