"Pilate said to Jesus, 'Are you the King of the Jews?' Jesus answered, 'Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?' Pilate answered: 'Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?' " (Jn. 18:33-35).
A strange, inconclusive dialogue. Questions are met with counterquestions. The governor's question can only be asked from within the perspective of Roman politics and administration. Jesus could have answered with a straight "No": he raised no claim to authority in this area. But how could Pilate have arrived at such a question in the first place unless there were, in the background, a third factor, God's chosen people, for whom the phrase "King of the Jews" had an entirely different religious and messianic import? "Did others say it to you about me?" Is there something of their view, their problems and their questions in your question to me? For if both of you, Jew and gentile, together ask this question, it acquires a new and far greater scope. Then the whole world is asking who I am and what is my authority.
Pilate gives a strange answer. Indirectly he admits that he is not asking of his own accord: "Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me", evidently on account of the word king, which has a messianic ring as far as Jews are concerned and is meant to sound political to the gentiles. But Pilate says, "Am I a Jew?" He rejects any kind of solidarity with the Jews. He is not interested in the associations the word king has for them. He is Rome's representative. Thus he falls into the trap laid by the Jews and operates on the basis of the secular-political implications of Jesus' kingship. And after all, was that not what interested the Jews too? Anti-Roman politics? Israel's liberation struggle? What else did they want from the promised Messiah? And why had they handed Jesus over to the Roman governor? Because Jesus' whole approach was not secular, not political, not messianic enough for them. The people had long wanted to proclaim him king when he distributed bread to the multitude. Only a few days earlier, at his entry into Jerusalem, the people had greeted him with hosannas. But to the leaders' of the nation he was a maverick idealist, merely an obstacle to their realistic political goals; he came bringing ethical demands that were of no use, for he put forward no political theology of any kind. What good to them were his miracles of healing, which placed him in the line of the old prophets? Basically they needed no prophets now, only resolute, ambitious men of orthopraxy. Of course, Jesus had deeds to his credit, but as far as Israel's pundits were concerned, they were not the right ones. On the basis of his deeds they insinuated to Pilate that he was a troublemaker, stirring up the people. "What have you done?" Pilate asked him.
Jesus answered, "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world." Pilate said to him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice."When asked, "What have you done?" Jesus replies, "My kingship is not of this world. " He leaves much unsaid. He does not say that he has done nothing, nothing in this world. For he came into this world for the express purpose of doing something, something in it. His deeds are performed in this world. And they are intended for this world. The world is to see and apprehend the testimony he gives in it. We need to realize the whole tension that lies between, on the one hand, the words "not of this world" and, on the other hand, the expression "for this I was born, and for this I have come into the world" . He is not someone who happens to find himself in the world and, oppressed by its narrow confines, strives to extricate himself from it. He is not someone who flees the world. He is not a Buddhist. For him, the world is not the starting point of his yearning transcendence toward some higher life; on the contrary: "For this I have come into the world." The world is the destination of a movement, a journey. He comes from outside and from above in order to show the world something, in order to proclaim something of which it is unaware, something that is not simply a confirmation of its longing for escape. He came because he had something to do on this earth, something the Jews would gladly have exploited for political ends, something Pilate is at pains to understand and evaluate in political terms, but something that, as Jesus says, "is not of this world".
He illustrates this by referring to the fact that his servants did not fight to prevent his being arrested by the Jews. In fact his arrest did include a pusillanimous scene of political theology, namely, Peter's sword stroke, which ridiculously managed only to shear off an ear and was immediately disavowed by Jesus. For this political theology on Peter's part put him willy-nilly in solidarity with the pseudoreligious views of those Jews who wanted no other Messiah but a political one.
No. "My kingship is not of this world." And yet, Jesus has come to this world. He came to his Father's kingdom, the kingdom of God, whose King he is. He says this just once, here, as he appears before the court and faces death. His enthronement as King will be complete on the Cross, when the famous inscription is placed over his head in the three languages of the world of that time. So that everyone will understand. And now the assertion is categorical: "King of the Jews", not—as the Jews would have liked—"he called himself the King of the Jews". No. Truly King of the Jews. "For this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth." Thus, royally, he bears witness.
How strangely he speaks. What has this being a king to do with bearing witness to the truth? The two are identical. And they coincide with the assertion that "my kingship is not of this world". Why? Because the truth is that "God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son", finally and decisively, on the Cross, when he took the world's guilt upon himself and, as the Lamb, the scapegoat, bore it away. It is in carrying this guilt that he bears witness to the truth. The truth of divine love. It is the only credible testimony to this love. The world is an ocean of suffering and injustice—how can God say that he loves it?! The whole idea is laughable! But on the Cross there is no laughing; God shows that he and his love are serious: he hands over his Son. And the Son shows that he and his testimony are serious: he cries out as he undergoes that forsakenness by God that belongs to sinners. This is the most extreme, most high-profile solution imaginable, and God has carried it through. That is why, on the Cross, the world that is opposed to God and mocks God is vanquished. "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." And so he says, "Yes, I am a King." Not a king within the vanquished world but a King who sits on a throne exalted high above it. Exalted by the Cross. And naturally the vanquished world belongs to this kingdom, although the kingdom is not of this world.
Jesus does not permit the world he has conquered for God on the Cross to continue to exist as it was. He implants God's rule in it. In men's hearts. Divine love has become "at home" on the earth through him. In the hearts of the poor, of children, of the merciful, the gentle, the persecuted, in pure hearts. In canonized saints and many other saints. They do exist. Together they constitute a kingdom, and now and then we actually see or feel some small piece of this kingdom. Everyone knows that they are not interested in world conquest; they cannot even organize themselves to form a significant power in the world's terms. They have no plan to change the world so that, in subsequent generations, the greatest possible number of people may experience the greatest possible happiness. Their plan concerns the present: now, today, here, in the immediate surroundings, something of the love of God is to become reality. Some suffering is to be soothed, something of the bliss of self-giving is to be experienced. For God's love is selfless, and it can only take effect in the world when the world has accepted something of the spirit of selflessness, of giving for no reward.
One might think that this message from God comes from so far away and from such a height that man is incapable of grasping it. Christianity seems to be a teaching that is not for this world. Not realistic enough. But Jesus ends with these words: "For this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." Everyone. Not only the person who has studied theology, not even the person who has learned his catechism or has merely listened to a sermon. Everyone. This King has a way of making himself understood to everyone. Perhaps it is that, on the basis of the Cross, every human suffering has acquired a new hue, a special quality that comes from the Cross and lends wings to his voice. It is true, however, that only those who are of the truth will hear it. Anyone who, somehow or other, perhaps unconsciously, bears within him something of the mystery of divine love knows that ultimately only loving can give a meaning to existence. Everyone can hear this voice. Christians have no monopoly here; they only have a special task, namely, to carry out into the world, quite explicitly and deliberately, the testimony they have heard and experienced in their own lives. They need not be surprised to find, in many places in this world, already existing traces of the truth they are openly proclaiming. Often these traces are so clear that they put Christians to shame. For the world in its totality already belongs to the kingdom of God, which is not part of this world. The passing world in which we live is part of that vaster, abiding kingdom in which God lives, who is all in all.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Book Excerpts by Hans Urs von Balthasar:
• The Mystery at the Center of Our Faith | From To the Heart of the Mystery of Redemption
• The Conquest of the Bride | From Heart of the World
• Jesus Is Catholic | From In The Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic
• A Résumé of My Thought | From Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work
• Church Authority and the Petrine Element | From In The Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic
• The Cross–For Us | From A Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen
• A Theology of Anxiety? | The Introduction to The Christian and Anxiety
• "Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary" | From Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed
Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) was a Swiss theologian, considered to one of the most important Catholic intellectuals and writers of the twentieth century. Incredibly prolific and diverse, he wrote over one hundred books and hundreds of articles. Read more about his life and work
in the Author's Pages section of IgnatiusInsight.com.