Stunned by Silence

I’m reading the end of Mark’s biography of Jesus. In Mark 15, Jesus goes on trial before Pilate. The scene unfolds like this, “Then the leading priests kept accusing him of many crimes, and Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer them? What about all these charges they are bringing against you?” But Jesus said nothing, much to Pilate’s surprise.

Why is Pilate stunned by Jesus’ silence?

Because Pilate is the top of the food chain in Roman occupied Jerusalem. People who come before Pilate for capital crimes are either desperate or defiant. They enter groveling; pleading for mercy. Or they come challenging Pilate’s authority and the legitimacy of Rome. Apparently, Barabbas is there too. Here's a revolutionary who killed someone in an uprising. If people like Barabbas are prepared to kill and die for their cause, then they’ll leverage the audience they have with Pilate for a dramatic, final statement.

Jesus won’t do either. He doesn’t beg for mercy, refuses to argue his case and declines the opportunity to make a statement. This rattles Pilate; he hasn’t seen it before.

If you listened to Jesus’ teaching up until this moment, however, you shouldn’t be surprised by his response, or lack thereof.

Jesus told his audience in his Sermon on the Mount, “do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too … love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.”

This is a “turn the other cheek, love your enemy, pray for those who oppress you” moment for Jesus. I always wondered what his face looked like in this moment.

He’s exhausted and coming off a night of being pummeled by guards. Does he have a black eye? Two? His cheeks are red and puffy? Is there dried blood on his nose? The corners of his mouth?
What’s in his eyes? Pity? Disappointment? 
Or is it, my personal favorite, compassionate defiance?

When Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate, he’s rejecting the power dynamics Pilate, Rome and humanity have put in place. Jesus doesn’t simply change the boundaries and rules of the game; he transcends the game altogether. And everyone, including Pilate - the ultimate power broker here - gets caught off balance.

Silence is usually a more challenging option. 
But sometimes to say nothing, and say it loudly, is incredibly empowering.

Craig Custance