This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Breakfast Show with Zoe Ball:

I had a chat with a mate recently when he was facing a hard choice. In the end I said: “Well, it’s in your hands, isn’t it?” I doubt if this statement of the obvious was very helpful.

But, when I rang off what stuck in my mind was the phrase about hands. Don’t ask me why – it just did.

Now, I’m rubbish at remembering poetry or quotes from Shakespeare; but, I’ll never forget doing Macbeth at school and being shocked by Lady Macbeth murdering the King of Scotland and then going mad trying to wash her hands of the guilt. “Out, damned spot!” she cries as her life disintegrates and she finds that all the hand washing in the world won’t rid her of her guilt.

And that takes me to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate who also tried to wash his hands of responsibility for chickening out of setting Jesus free when the crowd wanted blood.

In other words, hand washing hasn’t had a great press, has it?

Well, as things seem to be closing down again in pandemic Britain, hands are making a big new appearance. Our hands hold a key to learning to live with a virus that isn’t going to go away – how we behave is literally in our hands; I am responsible for how I decide to love my neighbour by being responsible for their safety. Secondly, washing my hands might seem insignificant, but it isn’t. It’s the small steps that make the biggest difference.

As a Christian, of course, hands make another appearance in my memory. And, for me, this is the answer to both Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate. When the friends of Jesus meet him after the resurrection, he shows them his hands and, shockingly, they still have the wound marks of crucifixion. He is not ashamed to show the world the marks of loss and hurt and pain. And healing does not simply wipe away the wounds – the scars remain.

So, today I want to put my hands up. No need to hide the pain or the failures. How I love my neighbour actually lies in my hands.

 

 

Yesterday saw a group of people discovering that they weren’t as big as they thought they were. James and John, preoccupied with their own status have gone. Peter (or ‘Rocky’ to his friends) has contradicted every pretension and disowned his friend. And Pontius Pilate, a man with only the vocabulary of violence and power, of threat and of fear, stands in feeble judgement on the man who, silently refusing to play the Empire’s games on its own terms, stands in judgement on him. That was yesterday – the day hope lay bleeding in the dirt of Calvary.

Today is empty. The end of the story is unknown. A world has collapsed and only darkness beckons. Maybe Pilate was right: only power, domination, violence, destruction, threat, fear and death actually do matter in the real world we all know.

But, this will not be the final word.

Tonight, with the fires lit and the candles burning, we will be surprised – a surprise bigger than the Bradford West by-election result. Good Friday and bleak Saturday have been an experience of crisis (literally, from the Greek meaning ‘judgement’). We all – along with Pilate and the Empire – stand judged by the tortured man who looked to have been getting it all wrong, missing the point about real power. Surely God should look a bit bigger and a bit stronger than this man from the hill country of Galilee? Surely the ‘liberator of his people’ should make a bit more noise and, at least, collect around him some powerful people? But, Jesus collects around him a ragbag of ordinary people who, most of the time, have little idea of where this is all heading. He takes people like us and through them changes the world.

This Easter we face huge challenges in our own society. Economic struggle is accompanied by fear for the future… which looks uncertain for many people. Many people question the basis on which we are building our common future – a moment of crisis, a moment in which we are being judged according to what truly drives us. But, even in this context, the surprising Easter message is one of challenge and encouragement:

  • On the cross Jesus opens his arms, embracing the world, absorbing all that we can throw at him and not throwing it back at us.
  • Death, violence and destruction do not have the final word: God does – and that word will be ‘resurrection’.
  • God is in the business of bringing new life out of what is dead.
  • In the empty tomb God quietly points to the power of love and hope and new life.

God has come among us, as one of us, and nothing in this world holds any surprise for God; the world might be wobbly, but God calls his people to hold those who wobble; we are loved to death and beyond.

No wonder the risen Christ says to his frightened friends: ‘Do not be afraid.’

Call it coincidence, but planning a look at Pontius Pilate on Good Friday got interrupted by watching Alan Bennett’s History Boys (again) with American friends who are staying with us. Out of the blue comes the question – in relation to literature and history – about truth: “What’s truth got to do with it?”

Good question. In the film (about education and learning and poetry and identity) truth is irrelevant to playing the right game and getting the exam results you need to get into the university of your choice – box ticking does the job nicely. And Pilate – though obviously not terribly preoccupied with the sort of educational sausage-machine nonsense we have had to put up with from successive governments in England – is puzzled by the same conundrum: not only is truth questionable, but it also isn’t clear what truth looks like or whether it matters.

Pilate, faced by one in whom the truth about God, the world and us is embodied, is rendered impotent. The judge stands judged; the powerful is neutered. All he has left is violence and populism. But, truth isn’t shaped by either of these.

Later in the film Hector, the teacher who inflames the imagination of his students, is being told to resign by the philistine snob of a headteacher who just ‘doesn’t get it’. Hector starts to quote poetry. The boss stops him, spitting out: “This is no time for poetry.” Yet, Hector has been trying to tell his students that poetry gives us a language – a vocabulary – for expressing an understanding of experience. Poetry learned and absorbed now gives us a language later when we do experience the things represented in memorable and imaginative language.

Perhaps Pilate might have fared better if he had learned a bit more poetry. Perhaps, if he had been teased by the parables of Jesus, he might have been driven by less functionalism. Maybe.