David Bowie was my favorite Pontius Pilate.
Bowie played the Roman governor as a weary bureaucrat in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ. We find Pilate distracted by the neighing of the horse he wants to ride once he escapes an interview he doesn’t want to have with another Jewish revolutionary. This wasn’t a glam, androgynous Pilate. Bowie’s Pilate is a man bored to despair, and his performance is wonderfully restrained. Still, Scorsese didn’t cast David Bowie by accident. The audience sees the man beneath the performance. Simply being Bowie brings a whiff of worldliness and a hint of joyful decadence. Pilate is a man of the world who enjoys the luxuries his position brings him, and he is hopelessly bewildered in this encounter.
Scorsese’s brilliant stroke of casting underscores the tragedy at work in Pilate’s encounter with Jesus. Desperate to leave the room, Pilate has no idea he has just done the only thing history will remember about him. It’s just another day at the office. And, it only is because Pilate cannot do what Scorsese’s audience does while they watch Bowie. He cannot see who really is in front of him.
Kings have kingdoms, and those kingdoms are real places we can visit. In this week’s Gospel, Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom “is not here.” The reading cuts off before Pilate reacts, but the story is familiar. “I find no guilt in him.” Pilate as much as tells the crowd that they should not have brought Jesus to him. A kingdom of truth is not a Roman governor’s problem. The crowd cries out for Barabbas, and Pilate condemns Jesus. When it is over, we are left to ponder the puzzle of Jesus’s kingship with poor Pilate.
The history of how Christians have interpreted Jesus’s kingship is not entirely lovely. The church spent centuries seeking a kind of kingship on earth that Pilate would have understood easily. As recently as 1925, Pope Pius XI urged “the rulers of nations” to remember their “public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ.” That was the church’s claim to political power. We mostly have abandoned those ambitions now. But the riddle of this kingdom we cannot see, and its king whose power lies in the truth still sits there in Scripture and our tradition, challenging us and our worldly expectations as much as it challenged a Roman governor 2,000 years ago.
It is fortunate that the liturgical year ends with this celebration of kingship, only to deliver us directly into Advent and Christmas when Jesus comes as a helpless baby. That’s a useful reminder of how this analogy of kingship only tries to express in human language a reality that is beyond human experience. Christ’s kingship is real. But the truth of the kingdom is God’s love for all of us, which we must share with each other.
It is right there in front of us if we look for it.