But for this red-handed man Jesus has no word. To him rare light had come and been recognized, and then had been deliberately put out beyond recall. He has gone steadily down into slimiest slush since that. Now, with studied insolence, he treats this silent man with utmost contempt. His soldiers and retainers mock and deride, dressing Him in gorgeous apparel in mockery of His kingly claims. When they weary of the sport He is again dismissed to Pilate, acquitted. It is the second mocking and the second acquittal.
Again the weary tramping of the streets, with the chief priests' rage burning to the danger point. Twice they have been foiled. Now the matter must be forced through, and quickly, too, ere the crowd that are friendly have gotten the news. They hurry Jesus along and make all haste back to Pilate. Now begins the sixth and last phase of that awful night. Things now hasten to a climax. The character of Pilate comes out plainly here. He really feared these wildly fanatical Jews whom he ruled with a contemptuous disgust undisguised. Three times since his rule began their extreme fanaticism had led to open riot and bloodshed, and once to an appeal to the emperor, by whose favor he held his position. His hold of the office was shaky indeed if the emperor must be bothered with these superstitious details about their religion. The policy he pursued here was but a piece of the whole Roman fabric. Yet had he but had the rugged strength to live up to his honest conviction -- -- . But then, that is the one question of life everywhere and always. He failed in the test, as do thousands. Unconsciously he was touching the quivering center of a whole world's life, and so his action stands out in boldest outline.
He comes out now and sums up the case. He had examined the prisoner and found no fault touching their charges of perverting the people. Herod, their own native ruler, who was supposed to know thoroughly their peculiar views, had also fully acquitted Him. Now, as a concession to them, he will disgrace this man by a public scourging and let him go as harmless. Instantly the air is filled with their fierce shrill cries, "Away with Him: Away with Him."
But Pilate seems determined to do the best he can for Jesus, without risking an actual break with these fanatical Orientals such as might endanger his own position. It was usual at feast times to release to the people some one who had been imprisoned for a political offense. The crowds, prompted by the chief priests, doubtless, begin to ask for the usual favor. Pilate brings forward a man named Barabbas, who was a robber and murderer and charged with leading an insurrection against Roman rule. Meanwhile, as he waits, a messenger comes up to him and repeats a message from his wife. She has been suffering much in dreams and urges that he have nothing to do with "that righteous man."
Apparently Pilate brings forward the two men, the one a robber and murderer, the other with purity and goodness stamped on every line of His face. It is a dramatic moment. "Which of the two will you choose?" he asks. It is the appeal of a heathen to the better nature of these Jews, called the people of God. Quick as a flash of lightning the word shot from their lips and into his face, "Barabbas!" "What, then, shall I do with Jesus, who is called Christ?" He is weakening now. His question shows it. They are keen to see it and push their advantage. Again the words shoot out as bullets from their hot lips, "Crucify Him: crucify Him." Still he withstands them. "Why? What evil has He done? I find no fault in Him. To please you I will chastise Him and release Him." But they have him on the run now. At once the air is filled with a confused jangle of loud shrill voices, "Away with Him! Give us Barabbas! Crucify! Crucify."
Apparently he yields. Barabbas is released. Jesus is led away to be scourged by the soldiers. His clothing is removed, and He is bent over, with thongs on the wrists drawn down, leaving the bare back uppermost and tense. The scourging was with bunches of leather strips with jagged pieces of bone and lead fastened in the ends. The blows meant for the back, even if laid on by a reluctant hand, would strike elsewhere, including the face. But reluctance seems absent here. Then occurs another, a third of those scenes of coarse vulgarity, horrid mockings, based on His kingly claims. The whole band of soldiers is called. Some old garments of royal purple are put upon Jesus. One man plaits a crown of the thorns that grow so large in Palestine, and with no easy gesture places it upon His head. A reed is placed in His hand. Then they bow the knee in turn, with "Hail! King of the Jews," and spit in His face, and rain blows down upon the thorn-crown. All the while their coarse jests and shouts of derisive laughter fill the air. Surely one could never tell the story were he not held in the grip of a strong purpose.
But now Pilate springs a surprise. The scourging might be preliminary to crucifixion or a substitute. Again Jesus is brought forward, as arrayed by the mocking soldiers. There must have been an unapproachable majesty in that great face, as so bedecked, with the indescribable suffering lines ever deepening, He stands before them with that wondrous calm still in those sleepless eyes. Pilate seems caught by the great spirit of Jesus dominant under such treatment. He points to Him and says, "Behold the Man!" Surely this utter humiliation will satisfy their strange hate.
Realizing that their fight is not yet won as they had thought, they make the air hideous with their shouts, "Crucify -- crucify -- crucify." Anger and disgust crowd for place in Pilate, as, with a contemptuous sneer, he says, "You crucify Him. I find no fault in Him." It would be illegal, but it would not be the first illegal thing. But these men are bound to get all they want from their weakening governor. One of the leaders sharply spoke up, "We have a law, and by our law He ought to die because He pretends to be the Son of God." The Roman custom was to respect the laws of their subject-peoples. All pretense of a political charge is now gone.
Pilate is startled. The sense of fear that has been strong with him intensifies. That face of Jesus had impressed him. His wife's message disturbed him. Now that inward feeling that this man was being wronged grips him anew. At once he has Him led into his judgment hall for another private interview. Looking into that face again with strangely mingling emotions, he puts the question, "Whence art Thou?" But those lips refuse an answer. The time for speech is past. Angered by the silence on the part of the man he had been moved to help, Pilate hotly says, "Speakest Thou not to Me? Knowest Thou not I have the power to release or to crucify?" Then this strangely masterful Man speaks in very quiet tones, as though pitying His judge, "Thou wouldst have no power against Me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered Me unto thee hath greater sin."
Again Pilate comes out to the waiting crowd more determined than ever to release Jesus. But the leaders of the mob take a new tack. They know the governor's sensitive nerve. "If thou release this man thou art not Caesar's friend. Every one that maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar." That word "Caesar" was a magic word. Its bur catches and sticks at once. It was their master-stroke. Yet it cost them dear. Pilate instantly brings Jesus out and sits down on the judgment seat. The thing must be settled now once for all. As Jesus again faces them he says, "Behold! -- your King." Again the hot shouts, "Away -- Away -- Crucify -- Crucify." And again the question. "Shall I crucify your King?"
Now comes the answer, wrung out by the bitterness of their hate, that throws aside all the traditional hopes of their nation, "We have no king but Caesar." Having forced that word from their lips, Pilate quits the prolonged duelling.
Yet to appease that inner voice that would not be stilled -- maybe, too, for his wife's sake, he indulges in more dramatics. He washes his hands in a basin of water, with the words, "I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man. See ye to it." Back come the terrible words, "His blood be on us and on our children." Surely it has been! Then Jesus is surrendered to their will. They have gotten what they asked, but at the sacrifice of their most fondly cherished national tradition and with an awful heritage. Pilate has yielded, but held them by the throat in doing it to compel words that savagely wounded their pride to utter. The savage duel is over.