For all the anecdotes recorded in the Passion chronicle, there seems a lacuna at the heart of it. Something goes missing. Something in the text lacks explication.
The politics of it are plain enough. But is there not a rupture in the psychology of the crowd, an unaccountable fickleness? Why the discontinuity between Jesus’ reception into Jerusalem and the calls to crucify him days later? Were the Jews that mercurial and unstable?
Romano Guardini anticipated the question and answered it in The Lord. A magisterial reflection on the Gospel story, the book revivifies our grasp of Jesus within the contours of his time. One chapter, “The Trial,” abolishes all thought of a breach in the behavior of the multitude. In Guardini’s retelling, those who spread their clothes under his feet and, in Luke’s words, “came early in the morning to him in the temple, for to hear him” were not the same ones who cried “Crucify him:”
Pilate is skeptical but sensitive—possibly also superstitious. He feels the mystery, fears supernatural power, and would like to free the accused. He counts upon the masses to demand Jesus’ release. There is a man in prison who has been really seditious—and in addition committed murder. His name is also Jesus, Jesus Bar-abbas.
Pilate: Whom shall I give free, Jesus the Bar-abbas, or the Jesus called Messiah?
But the Procurator has reckoned falsely. The crowd outside is no real cross-section of the masses composed in the main of serious, hard-working, long-suffering, honest men and women, but mob, plebs. The High Council has seen to that, and its agitators are busily and successfully spreading ‘public opinion’ among them. So they yell: Bar-abbas!
Pilate tries to placate them: “What then am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ?”
All: “Let him be crucified.”
It is a stunning passage. So convincing. Why did we not see it before? Through Guardini’s words we understand the complexity of pressures on Pilate. And we recognize that mob. It is the poison fruit of a political machine, one as old as politics itself. It lives among us. We meet it in the news, in our own streets.
Flash points change; sources of ignition differ with time and place. But from Sennacherib’s day to our own, the mob is the same: angry and relentless. From the banks of the Tigris to Crown Heights in 1991 or Ferguson last summer, resentments smolder, poised to catch fire. The Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day operated no differently than today’s party apparatchiks. Agitators, zealots, militants, monomaniacs, young Turks, influence peddlers, race-baiters, community organizers—plus ça change . . .
Guardini presents Pilate as a man who understood mob psychology as we do: The mob will not be satisfied until it inflicts pain. Blood must flow. Send an innocent to the flogging post, if only to quiet things down.
One might suppose that Pilate was simply without conscience. But this would not explain his behavior during Jesus’ trial. Had he really lacked integrity, he could have directed the trial or have let it direct itself so that the sentence against Jesus would have been inflicted as against a dangerous agitator. Actually, he does nothing of the sort. He insists upon the defender’s innocence—repeatedly, to the end—and then, fully conscious of the illegality of the decision, pronounces the sentence of death, and what a death! We are likely to overlook the contradiction, or to explain it away with Pilate’s ‘weakness.’ This is insufficient. The procurator is sucked into the depths of “the powers of darkness,” into a confusion so dark and deep that he is no longer sensible of the gruesome and ignominious folly he is committing.
Guardini passes on to Calvary by reminding his readers that they should not retreat “before the horrors recounted here, but should read them through, will all the concentration of his heart, remembering that they were suffered for him.”