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Pilate’s Wife

April 15, 2011

On Sunday we’ll be looking at John 19, which includes Jesus interchanges with Pilate’s wife. If you’ve never read Piper’s poem on “Pilate’s Wife” that he wrote for his church’s advent services in 2002, it is well worth the time to look at John 19 afresh. I could link to it, but I’ll post it here for easier reading (and I don’t have confidence that some of you will follow the links, but you might read a bit if it’s here–at least if you’re anything like me!).

Pilate’s Wife
The wife of Pontius Pilate hid
Her trembling hands and did
What she had done a dozen times
Before. Her husband’s deadly crimes
Against the Jews had made her face
Well known and hated every place
Where she might go in Palestine.
And so she wore a veil. The fine
Apparel of the court she laid
Aside and wore the common grade
Of clothing women wore who worked
In shops. And there, unseen, she lurked
Around the edges of the crowd,
And put her hands beneath the shroud
That lay across her face and fell
In simple folds. No one could tell
She trembled there, or that behind
The veil stood Claudia, the kind
And gentle wife of Pilate, bold
And daring, if she might behold,
Perhaps, the Teacher of the Jews
Once more, and hear from him some news
To still her fearful heart.
This time,
Because of Pilate’s gruesome crime,
There was a tension in the air,
And people wondered if and where
The Lord would speak his mind about
It. Claudia had gone without
Her royal meals three days, and kept
A secret vigil as she wept
Herself to sleep each night since she
Had heard of the atrocity.
As much now as she feared to hear
What he might say, she lingered near
Enough to listen if he spoke.
At last, one voice dared speak, and broke
The angry silence of the crowd:
“Good Teacher, some of us have vowed
Revenge on Pilate, and we do
Believe it is with justice too.
My brother and his wife three days
Ago were slaughtered by the craze
Of Pilate’s bloody power. And they
Were not the only ones. Like clay,
He trampled them beneath a horde
Of soldiers, slit their throats, and poured
Their blood in mockery upon
The altar of our God. We don
Therefore ourselves with robes of truth
And righteousness, and pledge our youth
And zeal to overthrow this pawn
Of Rome and sweep away, like dawn
The dark of night, his house. Tell us,
Should we now fear Tiberius,
And all the wrath of Rome? What do
You make of men who make a brew
Of sheep and human blood and pour
It out to God like holy gore?
Or do you think, Good Master, that
These Galileans’ sin was at
The root of their demise and brought
All this from God that Pilate wrought?”
She stood like stone, and listened to
Her own death sentence there, and knew
That he was right – that Pilate killed
The Galilean flock and spilled
Their blood for nothing but his own
Disgust for Jewish flesh and bone.
But Claudia was stunned to hear
The man ask Jesus if the mere
Sin of his family had brought
All this from God – as if the thought
That God could possibly ordain
Such things was thinkable – the pain,
The grief, the wickedness! And so
She waited for the Lord to show
The truth that surely God cannot
Be found behind a wicked plot,
As if the sin of Pilate could
Be punishment from God or would
Be more than Pilate’s own design.
She watched to see the Lord assign
A proper guilt, and say, “Go fight
The man, for your revenge is right.”

The silence lengthened as the Lord
Looked out upon the crowd, and t’ward
The place where Claudia stood by.
For one brief instant, eye to eye,
They met, at least it seemed to her
That he could see as if there were
No veil at all. And then he said,
“Do you think these who now lay dead,
Worse sinners, since they suffered so,
And died this way? I tell you, no.
But you, unless you will repent,
Must suffer to the same extent.”
These words struck Pilate’s wife with such
A moral force, she lost all touch
With crowd and time and Christ. She felt
As if a world, where Jesus dwelt,
Had opened, shocking, to her eyes,
And God till now was in disguise,
And sin was small and self was great,
And justice was a balanced hate.
But now, there lodged this arrow in
Her soul from Jesus’ bow: “Begin,”
He seemed to say, “with this: The lot
At which to be amazed is not
That some have died in pain and shed
Their blood, but that you are not dead.
Let wonder fill you daily that
The judgment has not lingered at
Your door. You take another breath,
A gift you don’t deserve, and death
Delays its final blow. At this,
Now marvel, Claudia, and kiss
The mercy of each passing hour
While you escape his raging power.
All sin is serious, not small,
And, yes, the Lord God governs all.”
How much time passed she didn’t know.
The sun had set; a golden glow
Made all the rocks burn orange on
The western side. The crowd was gone.
She sat in peace, though all her world
Had been thrown down, and kindly hurled
Into the sea by Jesus’ word
Of truth. Then, suddenly, she heard
A motion, turned, and saw the Lord.
His face was peaceful now. The sword
That shattered all before was gone.
Then Jesus spoke: “You are no pawn
Of Rome, whatever Pilate is,
Good Claudia. Though you be his
By marriage, here today by grace
You have become my own. My face
You will not see again until
The night before I die. He will
Once more, make Jewish blood to flow
And then no more. He does not know
The greatness of God’s work, and this
Through all his sin and cowardice.
But you, be strong. Your holy dreams
Are not in vain. And though it seems
You will have lost your husband and
Your Lord, trust in the unseen hand
Of God. I now declare by oath,
And blood, that you will have them both.
Come, children, take your fire, and light
This advent candle one. For bright
And blazing is our hope and deep
Desire that all the world would leap
To know the truth that Christ destroys
False worlds that he might fill with joys.
To know the truth that massacres
Might be forgiv’n and one who errs
A thousand times may find at last
That all his horrid sins are cast
Into the deep, and Christ, by grace,

Has made his massacre a place
Of life where even those who scorned
His face, may be with life adorned.
She knew that he was teaching in
The Temple court all week. There’d been
Reports to Pilate that the crowds
Were seething with unrest, and clouds
Of rage were gathering among
The Pharisees and scribes. His tongue
Was like a trumpet of a long
Forgotten truth, an ancient song
Of mercy well concealed within
The ordered sounds that Scribes had been
Arranging from the rubble of
God’s holy masterpiece, the love
Song of the centuries. She heard
The precious fragments of his word,
And savored every piece, and prayed
That Pilate would be moved, and made
Awake from all his slumbers of
Conceit; from putting peace above
The truth, and fearing ev’ry face
That seemed displeased, as if his place
As Procurator of the state
Hung by a thread, and all the weight
Of truth a threat. With all her heart
She prayed that somehow even part
Of Jesus’ words would penetrate
Her husband’s soul, and there create
A noble ruler, strong and free,
A man of truth and bravery.
O how she wanted to admire
The man that once held her desire.
The sixth day of the week her sleep
Was fitful. Pilate rose to keep,
She thought, some early rendezvous
With Jewish men who chose to do
Their Roman business in the dark.
If Pilate ever leaves a mark,
She mused, it will, if I am right,
Be how he governed in the night.
At last she slept. And in her sleep
She saw, as in a dream, a sheep,
With eyes as deep as ocean caves,
And caught in thorns among the graves.
It made no effort to escape,
And all the others watched agape,
While cruel winds turned thorns to spikes
With force, the way a soldier strikes,
And all its spotless wool was made
Like scarlet with its wounds all laid
In order, as if by design,
And far beyond the meadow line
There stood a shepherd named I AM,
Whose back was turned against the lamb.
She woke with sudden fear that it
Was Jesus in the dream. She split
The curtains in her room, and there,
With torches all around, a pair
Of soldiers stood on either side
Of Jesus. Pilate sat, legs wide,
Like Roman Caesars, splayed before
Some victim who might now implore
For mercy and bestow on small
And anxious governors the all-
Important look of regal pow’r
As stable as a summer flow’r.
She knew this look on Pilate’s face
And that the time was short. Her pace
Was quick. She took a charcoal shard
And scribbled on a board. “Look hard,
At what you are about to do,
My husband and my head. Are you
About to judge a man for fear
Of his accusers? Pray, give ear,
O Pilate, I have suffered much
This night because of him. O touch
Not any hair upon his head,
For none in all your realm has spread
More good than he. I have it in
A dream that he will bear the sin
Of wicked men, and is the Lamb
Of God. But how will God not damn
The man that puts his Son to death?”
She rang the servant, took a breath,
And said, “Take this at once and give
It to the governor. I live
And by my life do swear no harm
Will come to you. Let no alarm
Upon his face deter you from
This charge. Now go, and bring me some
Reply from Pilate’s lips.” She took
The servant’s arm, and whispered, “Look
Into his eye when he has read the board,
And say, ‘The Mistress calls him Lord.'”
She knelt and prayed, “O God, if it
Is possible that Pilate quit
His cowardice, and risk his throne
To speak the truth and stand alone
Against the enemies of Christ,
And not one good be sacrificed,
Then grant him courage, Lord, to stand.
If not, then, do what you have planned.”
In half an hour he returned,
“My Mistress, Pilate said, ‘I learned
Some twenty years ago how much
To listen to my wife, and such
Fond counsel is the reason I
Am deaf to her desires. Tell my
Good wife that dreams are fickle things,
And if her mind again sprouts wings
And flies away from reason, then
Perhaps she should perch like a wren
Among the branches of a tree
And chirp her little prophecy
Into the wind where it belongs.'”
With tears she smiled and said, “The wrongs
You carry are well said, good friend.
I thank you. You may go. And tend
Your marriage well. You see where it
Can end.”
When he was gone, she split
Her royal gown in two and fell
In sobs upon her bed, “So well
Do you reward me! Twenty years
Of marriage, Pontius Pilate. Tears,
My daily tears, you feed me, lest
I thirst for something sweet, some blest
Embrace. It is a strange device
For keeping me. And such a price
We pay! I thought perhaps the Lord
Had meant that we would be restored
Tonight. I thought that was his oath.
But now, it seems, I lose you both.”
Then suddenly there was a great
Commotion in the hall. And hate
Spilled into the Praetorium.
Six hundred soldiers pressed to come
Into the great hall just outside
The room where Claudia had tried
To save the Christ. She tied her gown,
Ran through the door and started down
The stairs, but stopped as Pilate grabbed
Her by the arm. “Let go,” she jabbed
Him in the side. “What’s going on
Down there? Let go!” she screamed. “It’s gone
Beyond what you would want to see.
It’s not for women. Come with me.”
She jerked free from his hold and ran
Down to the floor, and saw the man
She knew was Jesus, but would not
Have recognized. The air was hot
With sweat and breath, and soldiers roared
With laughter every time the Lord
Was struck. His eyes were swollen shut,
He couldn’t see from where the butt
Of one spear or the next would come
To crush his rib or smash his thumb
Or knock his breath away. His hair
Was matted scarlet, woven there
Among the thorns half sunk inside
His head from being struck. She spied
At last his back, and almost fell
Faint to the floor. What means in hell
Had they devised to grind his flesh
Like that? And now, as if to thresh
His skin were not enough, they made
Sport of his holy soul, and flayed
His tender heart with blasphemies.
“We hear you are a prophet. Please,
Make known from whom this message comes
And what’s the point and if it plumbs
The depths of God.” A soldier stood
Behind, and sank the sharpened wood
Tip of his javelin the length
Of one long finger in the strength
Remaining in the Savior’s thigh.
He gasped and fell. The woman’s cry
Made every soldier turn. She rushed
Between the ranks, and as they hushed,
She fell beside the body of
The Lord and wept the tears of love
That she had held so long, and laid
His head upon her lap, and made
A bow as if to kiss. But no,
She stopped, and listened to the low
And almost breathless words. And then
She laid his head down once again
Upon the marble floor, stood, turned,
And climbed the steps where Pilate burned
With rage. “Well, what sweet nothings did
Your Jesus say, my dear? I bid
You, tell me what he whispered there.”
His blood-stained wife paused on the stair
And looked in Pilate’s shallow eyes,
And said to him, “When Jesus dies
Today, the world we know will be
No more. Now wait and you will see.
And I will tell you what he said
When he’s long risen from the dead.”
The light of candle two is dim
Like love and hope in many grim
And dying marriages. What light
Lay on the floor that awful night
In the Praetorium? Was it
The final spark of life once lit
By love, now gone? Or was it more?
Let ev’ry husband ask therefore,
And ev’ry wife, which is the true
And faithful view: Is candle two
The fading light of day withdrawn,
Or is this flame the light of dawn?
Six years had passed since Pilate sold
His soul for Caesar’s praise, and told
The crowds, “I find no fault in this
Strange man, and therefore I dismiss
My right to kill, and I retire
From petty quarrels. Do your desire,
Jerusalem, I take no side,
Let him be flogged and crucified.”
The contradictions of his mind
Had multiplied, and now, more blind
Than ever to his madness, he
Was driven, like a raging sea,
To swallow up the Jewish race
With hate, who threatened to disgrace
His rule as treacherous before
The emperor. It wasn’t more
Than two months after Pilate dipped
His hands in royal water, ripped
The truth in shreds, and mocked his wife,
That by his foolishness fresh strife
Had filled the city. Pilate set
Five famous shields – a silhouette
On each of Caesar – in the court
Of Herod’s palace for the sport
Of seeing Jewish purists rage.
And then, as if there were no sage
Among his many counselors,
To aggravate the Jews, the stores
Of treasured offerings that filled
The Temple vault, he took to build
A Roman viaduct, and set
The city in a roar. He let
The frenzy gather force, then just
When crowds crossed into mobs, he thrust
His Roman power brutally,
And cut the branch of mutiny.
But not the root.
At last, six years
From when he doomed the Christ, his fears
Were filled, and he was ousted by
Vitellius, the Roman high
Command based in the region of
Samaria. For there, above
The Jordan plains high in the Mount
Called Gerizim – so the account
That reached the Roman legate in
The town of Shechem went – a thin
And wild-eyed prophet, crying from
The eastern wilderness, had come
And gathered thousands in the hills
With his apocalyptic skills.
And Pilate saw another chance
To strike the Jews and to enhance
His reputation with the head
Of Rome. His soldiers left for dead
A thousand simple people on
The hills of Gerizim. And dawn
Brought down the wrath of Rome. How wrong
Was Pilate to assume that long
And hostile conflict with the Jews
Was how a petty ruler woos
The tribute of Vitellius.
Such blindness bred by hate! And thus
The Procurator Pilate fell
From his small height, and found the spell
He thought he cast ten years, now chained
Around his neck. What pride remained
Gave him the nerve to make appeal
To Rome. And so with charge and seal,
And ten sad years of discontent
And crime, to Caesar he was sent.
For six years Pilate’s wife held fast
To Christ. She knew that he had passed
From death to life, and that the skin,
Which once had torn and bloody been,
Was raised in glory from the dead.
She spoke with him upon her bed
As Pilate fitful lay beside
Her through the night. She often cried
Herself to sleep with prayers that Christ
Would keep her true and unenticed
From better men. She wept for all
The Jews that he had killed, the fall
Of every woman, man and child,
And would have died when he reviled
The Lord, except that Jesus came
Each time, and by his word and name,
Embraced her heaving soul and fed
Her hungry heart with truth and said,
“I made and rule the world dear one,
And all my perfect plans are done.
I do not call you slave but friend;
I will be with you to the end.
And not one vow that I have made
Will waver or remain unpaid.”
With this before her ev’ry day
She kept her covenant to stay
With Pilate and his loveless sin
Till death; and be his wife, and win,
She hoped and prayed, his twisted mind,
And hateful heart, and eyes so blind
They could not tell the difference
Between the night and day.
“What sense,”
The women used to say, “is there
In living with this man? We dare
You, Claudia, though he be rich
And powerful, there is no hitch
Unbreakable, and this one has
Been broken just as surely as
The man has failed in ev’ry vow
He made. You are not bound to plow
For this man like a heifer now,
Nor lie beneath him like a sow
To satisfy the lust of swine.
No Roman law has this design,
Nor any Jewish ordinance,
That you should keep your vow. So whence
This foolish faithfulness that keeps
You in the bed where Pilate sleeps?”
And Claudia would answer them,
“O women of Jerusalem,
You speak as if there were no God.
As if there were no tender rod
To comfort me and lead me through
The darkest valley of my few
And painful years, as if there’s not
Nor should be higher aims than what
You’ve dreamed for man and wife, as if
The path were safe nor any cliff
Be close or any bitter wind
Be in my face, nor I be sinned
Against, or feel this constant grief
So long, my death would be relief.
How many women do you give
Such shallow counsel? As I live,
O, women of Jerusalem
Who counsel thus, I pity them.
As for myself, there is one love,
One covenant, one vow above
All married bliss or pain, and I
Once held the bloody price on my
Own lap, and heard him, dying, say
To me enough to show the way
A covenant is kept. Now go,
And learn what God designs to show
When Pilate crucifies his wife
And she is faithful all her life.”
“Tomorrow I will leave for Rome,”
He said, “And you may stay at home.”
“I want to go along,” she said.
“What, do you want to see the head
Of Pilate on a platter in
The Roman court? Do you begin
To dream of my complete demise
In Rome and there to find a prize
When I am gone?” She listened, then
She said, “I would be present when,
And if, they take your life, and I
Would gladly hold your head on my
Own lap, not on a platter in
The Roman court. It’s never been
Once in my mind to profit through
Your death. But I have reason to
Believe that you will gain far more
In Rome than some new, brutal corps
Of soldiers to command. May I
Please come with you?” Not knowing why,
He gave consent. “Tomorrow we
Will reach the coast, and then by sea
Make journey to the Roman court,
And there Tiberius exhort
To overturn the ruling of
Vitellius, and put above
That legate all his royal pow’r.
Then we will stand and watch him cow’r.”
Before they reached the western side
Of Rome, Tiberius had died.
Caligula ruled in his place,
A madman who once set his face
T’ward Spain, and made his soldiers fill
With seashells all their helmets till
The boats were full. Then he proclaimed
A triumph over Neptune, shamed
By mortal man, brought to his knees,
Though he be great, the god of seas.
Caligula had set a snare
At ports and every thoroughfare
To Rome, lest any chief or shrewd
Pretender to his pow’r intrude
And threaten his authority.
So Pilate, without bond or plea,
Was seized at Puteoli when
His ship put in, and Caesar’s men
With bludgeons boarded it and took
The Procurator bound with hook
And leather cord, then paused and said,
With threat’ning voice, “Is any led
By this man here? Is anyone
A faithful subject to this son
Of Caesar’s wrath? Is any man
Or woman here a fool, a fan
Of Pontius Pilate. Speak if you
Are loyal to the man. Be true
And perish with your little king.”
The servants all stood shuddering
And looking at the deck. “I am.”
The voice was Claudia’s. “What, Ma’am?”
The soldier asked, amazed. “I said,
I am. You asked, ‘Is any led
By him? Is any loyal to
This king?’ I am.” He grinned, “Then you
Shall go and die with him.” They bound
Her at his side and put around
Their throbbing wrists a single cord
And led them under chain and sword
To wait the whim of Caesar for
Their fate.
And there on dungeon floor,
In stench and darkness Pilate spoke,
“You didn’t have to bear this yoke.
You could be free – from prison and
From me. Why did you speak, and stand
There fearless like a queen?” “Because
I’m married to a king.” The pause
That followed lengthened into hours
And Pilate pondered all his pow’rs
Compared to hers. Then quietly
At first, the end of cruelty
Ran down his craggy face in tears,
And then the cold and loveless years
With Claudia broke open like
A flood, and through the shattered dike
Of pride, with shaking sobs, there flowed
A reservoir of hate, the load
And weight of joyless arrogance,
Until the stones were wet. Then once
He caught his breath, he said,
“I’m sorry, Claudia.” He fled
Back on the wings of memory
Six years and saw her tenderly
Lay Jesus’ bloody head again
Upon the palace floor, and then
Ascend the stairs. And so once more
He asked, “When he was on the floor,
What did he say, the one whose head
Lay in your lap, the Christ?” “He said,
‘No, Claudia, you may not kiss
Me now. It is not pure. Save this
For him, and love him as I love
You now. One covenant above
All others here I make with you
Today, and show you what a true
And faithful marriage is, and how
Till death, to keep a sacred vow.
You think you’ve lost your husband and
Your Lord? Not even death can stand
Against my Father’s pow’r. Now go,
And learn what God designs to show
When Pilate crucifies his wife
And she is faithful all her life.
Go, Claudia, and keep your troth.
Remember, I have made an oath.'”

The dungeon door groaned, opening,
And Pilate heard a voice, “The king
Is eager for a head of state.
Is Pilate ready for the date?”
They stood together and embraced,
The first unhurried love, and chaste,
That they had known for twenty years.
She looked into his eyes through tears,
And saw them deep as ocean caves.
“Dear Claudia,” he said, “the graves
Where I have lived, and caused your pains
Are gone. And only one remains.
I yield to this. You sacrificed
Your life. And I have seen the Christ.
I know now what our marriage meant.
Farewell, your life has been well spent.”
O blazing candle three, come shine
Your burning light on God’s design
For grief and pain in holding fast
The covenant. And prove how vast
The power of such faithfulness
To show the suffering Christ, and bless
The married blind until they see
What married love was meant to be,
When they have learned to keep their troth,
And measure love by blood and oath.

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