Do you ever feel like the smallest cog in a machine? I sometimes wonder if what I do for a living actually makes any difference at all. Do you know what I mean? I’m envious of people who have something tangible to show for a day’s work. Like they’ve fixed a car, or removed someone’s appendix – something concrete. But me, I talk to some people, maybe pray with them, try to write something helpful, a sermon or an article. My friends with children do the washing and go to ‘gym mini’s’ and students? Well – all that time in the library (or pub) what is it achieving in the long run? How much of it will you actually remember?
And sure, I buy my coffee and mangoes fair-trade, and recycle. But honestly, my car is much more convenient than the bus, I like to wallow in a bath of steaming water and I own more clothes than I need. Am I really making any significant difference or will what I consume outweigh what I achieve with my life? Is my carbon footprint all I’ll actually leave behind?
It all seems a bit futile some days.
Matt 27; 19-20
“While he [Pilate] was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of him.’ But the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death.”
Pilate’s wife, not a lady we know much about (including her name). And these events are only recorded in Matthew’s gospel. Like so many biblical heroines she only gets a passing mention. How is it useful on our pessimistic ‘why do I bother?’ days?
Let’s ponder. This encounter is part of the passion narrative, and a crucial part at that.
The Jewish authorities don’t have the power to execute him and so have had to get the Roman legal system involved. And Pilate (lucky winner – not!) is the man faced with the trial.
This and other gospel narratives make it clear that Pilate knew full well that Jesus was innocent. He also knew that he was likely to have a riot on his hands if he didn’t give the Jewish religious authorities what they wanted. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Pilate finds himself with the power to decide Jesus’ fate, but not the guts to do the right thing!
And into this situation comes a message from his wife.
We need to make some assumptions here I think. Given that she was married to a Roman politician I think it’s safe to assume she was a Gentile rather than a Jew. She would also have been wealthy, powerful herself – even if only because she had her husband’s ear. This is confirmed by the fact that he received her message at this critical time. Had she been of no consequence other than as the manager of his household we can hardly imagine him accepting a messenger at the point when the city was on the verge of uproar and his decision was the pivotal factor! (‘What do you fancy for dinner dear?’ Probably wouldn’t have been all that helpful.)
And her message is quite illuminating -even if it is brief. She has had a dream – which caused her to ‘suffer greatly’. Sounds like a nightmare, and it’s a nightmare about Jesus.
She calls him ‘that righteous man’. Ok, so not ‘Messiah’ she’s not seeing Jesus in those terms, but she knows he is not a criminal. Moreover she is concerned that he is facing a miscarriage of justice, and wants her husband to steer clear of the whole thing. She doesn’t want him involved. Ultimately Pilate partly follows her advice, but plays it the way the crowds demand. He publicly washes his hands – acknowledging the injustice of the execution, but he doesn’t do the honourable thing of saving Jesus. He takes a cowardly middle line, but also acknowledges the corruption of the system.
As the prophets had forseen. As Jesus knew.
So, what about this woman? She has a nightmare, offers advice that is partly ignored and disappears from the pages of scripture. An inspiration for us – how? Well, here’s a thought:
Despite the fact that she is not a Jew or a follower of Jesus, she sees an injustice, dreams about it even. That suggests to me that it had been playing on her waking mind too. I guess she has heard stories of miracles, of powerful teaching. She knows that this man is a good man, an honourable man. He is being stitched up.
I think that too often we can start to believe that only Christians have values, morals, or can hear God. That only those who have overtly given their life to follow Christ can catch God’s heart.That is simply not true. People’s motives may not have the same religious basis if they are not Christians, but that doesn’t mean that the social justice they pursue is not God’s passion too. Surely we don’t seriously believe that Ghandi, Bob Geldof or Greenpeace activists have not carried something God cared about? Political oppression in India; trade injustice and starvation; the planet and its non-human population.
Pilate’s wife somehow knew that. Not only did she know it, but in the way that she could, she tried to exert pressure to bring about justice. It may not have been successful, but she still tried. She was only one voice trying to counteract that of a baying mob, but she could have sat quietly at home and minded her own business; kept out of the politics.
What difference would it make to her after all - the death of an innocent Galilean carpenter? Human rights weren’t exactly the Roman Empire’s strong point!
Well, here’s a thought…
Forgive me if that’s not true of you, if you are part of a political party or an ardent activist of some sort, but if you are, you are really in the minority amongst Christians. (Or the population at large, come to that!)
I have, over the years, become something of a ranter about politics. I’m not a party member, nor am I about to tell you how to vote. We Brits like to keep our politics and religion separate on the whole. But what I’ve ranted about is how few of us take our right to vote, or to speak, or to write to our MP’s seriously. A lot of students have told me that they couldn’t really be bothered to vote – ‘it doesn’t make any difference anyway’. And so they don’t. Not out of a sense of conviction, but of apathy. One group got a good long lecture about the lengths the suffragettes went to, to get us girls the right to vote at all; About Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, I ‘guilted’ them into voting in some council election or other.
I grew up in constituency that was a political ‘safe seat’. I remember my father complaining that however he voted made no difference. He still did, but I understand his frustration. So often in life we try to make the little contribution we can but really can’t see how it is going to make a difference in the great scheme of things.
Be it politics, or which companies we do or don’t buy from. Trying to save water or electricity. Recycling plastic bags & buying humanely reared chickens. It’s so easy to feel that it’s pointless. What can we do as individuals? Honestly?
She was married to a politician; she knew the rules of the game. But it didn’t stop her trying. And it did encourage Pilate to make the public step of distancing himself from this legal travesty.
Tradition has it that ultimately she became a follower of Jesus. She couldn’t save his life, but she gave hers to him. She didn’t save him. But she did the right thing.
She was honourable where other, more allegedly godly people, were not. She spoke as a lone voice against religious leaders, violent mobs, Roman soldiers – even her husband.
To look and listen for those, be they Christian or not, who have caught something of God’s heart and to participate in and encourage that.
She also encourages me that, regardless of the outcome, I need to try.
To do my little bit, because it’s the right thing to do; because God would be pleased that I tried whether it changes the world or not. “Well done good and faithful servant” (Matt 25.22) isn’t “well done effective, successful, target achieving servant”. It’s “I’m proud of you for being faithful, for trying, for doing what you knew I wanted, regardless of the outcome.” In our achievement oriented society that’s no mean feat!
I still think it’s what godly women and men are meant to do. Modelled for us by a woman who wasn’t one of God’s children… She just had something of his heart.
© Ruth Perrin 2009. Last revised on 20 February 2009
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Cloud of Witnesses is a series of Bible studies on the men and women of scripture. You'll find everyone from Gideon and Andrew through to Tamar and Tabitha.
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Ruth Perrin, the author, is on staff at King's Church Durham and holds an MA in Theology and Ministry.
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