John 18:33-37
Listening for the tone of truth
by Rev. Matthew H. Zuberbueler
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

Home Page
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index

John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.

Pilate said to Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews?"  Jesus answered, "Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?"  Pilate answered, "I am not a Jew, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.  What have you done?"  Jesus answered, "My kingdom does not belong to this world.  If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not here."  So Pilate said to him, "Then you are a king?"  Jesus answered, "You say I am a king.  For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

In an age bombarded by information and words, it can be instructive to slow down long enough to listen - to hear the Eternal Word speak.

In the frenetic way of communicating by text and by email, there has emerged an additional kind of punctuation that includes all manner of little images (happy faces, sad faces, etc.) and gets more and more involved and detailed with each new level of technological "advancement."  These "emojis" can help if they bring some tone to a conversation.  Without the smiley face, the person on what used to be called the other end of the line might read a joking text in a very serious way;  Serious consequences can follow when there is no tone.

Pilate and Jesus have a face- to-face conversation in our Gospel passage this Sunday.  Their tone was evident and clear as they spoke to each other.  When we read it today, however, we don't have the benefit of hearing their tone.  The Scriptures bring the saving mysteries and inspiring, instructive stories to us.  By prayer and study we can learn and live the very wisdom of God.  This occurs gradually within us, especially when we are willing to spend time with the sacred texts and absorb them little by little

Was Pilate brusque and abusive when he questioned Jesus: "Are you the King of the Jews!"  Or was he more matter of fact?  Did he ask in a mocking tone?  Did their conversation begin calmly but grow into one more contentious?  It can be fruitful to pray through this exchange in a careful and attentive way, imagining each of them, their expressions and reactions, their purposes.  Of course, we can and should bring our knowledge from other contexts to our prayer about this conversation.

"I am not a Jew, am I?"  "What have you done?"  "Then you are a king?"  Each of these questions of Pilate would sound quite different based on his degree of sincere interest of his increasing, irritated impatience, for example.  Can we hear these things in his voice?  As we pray, can we see and feel and hear the response of Jesus, ever patient and compassionate?

It is interesting that the responses of Jesus strike a recognizable tone.  One might try to read something else into them but they betray a calm, confident, compassionate, humble tone.  From Jesus, who would have been justified in choosing not to dignify any question from Pilate with a response, we find an effort to plant a seed of truth.  Was Jesus leaving Pilate with the words that would save him later?

Of all the words of Jesus to this interrogating kind of conversation, only this sentence seems ambiguous in tone: "You say I am a king."  Everything else Jesus says stands clearly and hits a clear target.  This one is one that can be difficult to understand.  Was Jesus saying, "You said that, not me"? or "Even you're saying so now?"  It seems likely that the language scholars and any scholar could shed some light on it.  Meanwhile, we might pray it as Jesus' way of engaging Pilate to think about, to ponder, to be changed by the words: "For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

Jesus did not go around calling himself a king.  He did call himself "the way, the truth and the life."  Continue praying the passage beyond the part given in Mass today to find the famous words of Pilate, "What is truth?"  What was Pilate's tone in those words?  Scoffing, skeptical, curious, cynical, bored?  What was Jesus' response?  In the text, Jesus say no words at all.  In his eyes, in his manner, in Jesus' presence there was an unmistakable tone.  Did Pilate get it  Do we?  Listening to Jesus' voice - not disregarding it - means we belong to the truth, which means, of course, we belong to him.

Home Page
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index