“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” – Matthew 27:22-25
Here at the end of the book of Matthew we see water being used in a less than admirable way by the Roman Governor Pontious Pilate. This man of decision has a sticky problem on his hands and as we will see he wants nothing more than to simply wash his hands of it. The people (religious leaders) want Jesus crucified, Pilate wants to find a way out of this decision. He must know in his heart that Jesus is innocent, he wants desperately to wash his hands of the whole affair. Ultimately I think Pilate is thinking about how he can please the most people with his decision. He likely places his trust in the Roman system of government rather than God.
The expression to “wash our hands” of something has become a common way to talk about ridding ourselves of responsibility for a complex or hard issue in our lives. This is the opposite of what Jesus did. He took on hard issues like lepers, paralytics, blind, and deaf people without giving up. All of these messy people with physical flaws were precious to Him. Pontious Pilate clearly does not want to get his hands dirty with this seemingly messy man and his followers.
It is reassuring that Jesus took on messy people and problems because although we may not all have obvious physical flaws we are all flawed followers in need of a savior. I think deep down Pilate realizes that he is flawed too, but he is too cowardly to admit it to this unruly crowd. Lest we all look down our nose too hard at Pilate I think we may need to look in a mirror and be honest about ways that we are unwilling to stand up for Jesus and the messy people He championed. I know I have averted my eyes as I walk past a homeless person or person in need to avoid getting mired in their messiness.
I have failed to champion the weak when I should have been standing up for them and doing what I could to care for them. Why is it so easy to walk on by and “wash our hands” of these people and problems? I think it is because the solutions are often complex, unclear and hard. What is the solution to a homeless, drug-addicted, person living in a tent under a highway bridge? I think Jesus’ answer would be simple, love and care for them, full stop.
I think part of the confusion complexity, and difficulty comes from knowing what “loving and caring” look like. This is something many of Jesus’ early followers struggled with too. Perhaps if we start with prayerful loving and caring some of the other problems may solve themselves? I do not know.
Pilate’s answer of a little hand washing to keep people’s messiness from getting all over us is clearly not the line that God would have us choose. I hope as I get older and wiser I am able to get more comfortable with a little messiness. Maybe the only way to get clean is to become more comfortable with a little dirt now and then without feeling compelled to wash our hands.
Prayer: God help us to learn how to help those in need without feeling the need to wash our hands afterwards.