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A Tale of Two Basins

Will we choose the basin of service or the basin of power, we can only choose one.

The entire story of Holy Week can be told with two basins. And maybe the entire story of your life, and my life, can be told with two basins.

Here is that tale.

It was still dark, the sunrise barely visible in the Eastern sky, as Pilate walked across the pavement to the double-arched gateway. Accompanied, as always, by two soldiers. The red, imperial plumes on their helmets bobbing a little as they walked.

Pilate resented being summoned for any meeting at 6am. The high priest had said it was an emergency. But “To the Jews,” he muttered to himself, “everything is an emergency.”

If there was one thing Pilate had learned in his three years as governor of this backwater province, it’s that Jews are fierce about their religion. They cannot be reasoned with.

Pilate resented that he had to be here at all. “I could be at my palace on the Mediterranean coast,” he thought, picturing those shimmering blue waters. “But at Passover, you can almost plan on some crazy religious riot starting. Better to be here.”

Almost to reassure himself, he looked up at the four giant columns, each one 14 stories high, surrounding him. Here in this fortress called Antonia, 600 soldiers stood on duty at all times, to make sure no Jew got any ideas of becoming independent again.

Pilate kept under lock and key the ceremonial robes of the Jewish High Priest. He didn’t want a would-be messiah to don that deep blue robe, with its fringe of gold bells, and declare a religious state.

Still, at Passover, the robe was released for the High Priest’s use. If trouble was going to start, it would be right now.

A crowd was filling the gateway as Pilate got there. He saw the high priest, members of the Great Sanhedrin, scribes, some Temple police. They were packed together, but none would take even one step into the fortress, so they wouldn’t be “defiled.”

Pilate resented that too. Why did the Jews look down on him and everyone else? Why couldn’t they come inside, like normal people?

“Good morning, honorable Procurator,” the High Priest began. “I am sorry to bother you so early, but this could not wait. This man”— And he motioned behind him, until a man with hands tied behind his back was thrust forward so Pilate could see him. “This man claims he’s a king. He won’t let us pay our tribute taxes to Caesar.”

Pilate looked him over. The prisoner was 30, Pilate guessed—about his own age. But they looked nothing alike. Whoever this was had bruises darkening his face along the cheekbones. Swelling around the eyes. He was in a rough, country robe, worn in places.

Pilate didn’t mean to boast, but he did know how to dress: A fine linen tunic, with embroidered patterns on the sleeves. A toga draped over his shoulder, with reddish-purple bands along the edges.

He looked the prisoner in the eyes. “DO you claim to be King of the Jews?” The prisoner spoke quietly: “So you say.” What did that mean? It certainly wasn’t defiance.

Pilate looked at the priests as if to say, “You got me up for this?” They started accusing the prisoner of crimes: he broke their Sabbath; he claimed he would tear down the Temple and rebuild it.

Pilate asked the prisoner, “Aren’t you going to defend yourself? How do you answer these charges?” But the prisoner looked down. Silent. “He’s unusual, I’ll say that,” Pilate thought, “but I know criminals, and this isn’t one.”

Pilate’s political mind kicked in, and he now saw clearly what was going on: this poor rabbi had gotten too popular. He’d been dragged here by the high priests for the crime of provoking their envy.

Pilate looked at the crowd and was blunt: “I find nothing wrong with this man.” They raised their hands in protest. “But he’s causing riots wherever he goes—all over Judea, from Galilee to Jerusalem!” “Oh, he’s from Galilee?” Pilate asked. “Then take him to Herod; that’s his jurisdiction.”

He turned and walked away, feeling satisfaction. He’d needed a way to scuttle this, and they’d just handed him one. But 90 minutes later, they were back.

Herod’s message was simple: “Thanks for the fun.” The prisoner was now wrapped in a purple cloak—it didn’t fit, and it hung from his narrow frame. Pilate could imagine the rest. Herod’s guards had made their point. And Herod had come to the same conclusion he had, that this prisoner was harmless.

“Herod found him not guilty,” Pilate told the priests. “I’d already found him not guilty. You take him and try him in your religious court.” “But only Romans can inflict the death penalty, and by our law, he has to die, because he claimed to be god!”

“A god?” Pilate was little unnerved. He needed to probe this. So Pilate motioned, and the prisoner was brought under guard, into the giant courtyard—26,000 square feet of polished stone.

“Where are you from?” Pilate asked the prisoner. No answer. “You don’t wanna talk?” Pilate demanded. “Don’t you know I have the power to release you or crucify you?”

Finally the prisoner spoke: “You would have no power over me, unless it were given to you from above. So the one who handed me over to you Is guilty of a greater sin.”

Pilate was getting disoriented. What was happening here? This was his judicial seat, his fortress. He had all the power. But it didn’t feel like it.

He knew what he could do, and he announced it to the high priests: “I will have him flogged.” Then he climbed the steps to his seat of honor and sat down. Marble lions flanked him on either side. Here, Pilate was surrounded by soldiers, officials, and slaves, but even sitting, his head would be the highest.

He was tired of getting pushed around. So the soldiers took him into the garrison. Pilate knew what would happen: how the lead-tipped whip would snap in the air before it bit into the skin.

While he waited for the flogging to end, he got a note from his wife, Claudia. “I had a terrible dream last night about an innocent man. Be careful what you do with this one.”

The prisoner was finally marched back—he now had to be held up on each side. He had the purple robe back on him, but Pilate’s troops had added the finishing touch: a crown, made out of branches with thorns.

It was 8:30 now, and the Mediterranean sun was already getting hot. Pilate wiped his brow—being careful not to move the laurel wreath that showed who was in charge here.

Then he issued his judgment. “Here’s your man. I have investigated him thoroughly, and he has done nothing deserving of death. Therefore, I have had him flogged.”

“No! That’s not what we want!” they said. “Crucify him!”

“Why? For what crime?” Pilate said, his voice rising. “I told you, I’ve decided to release him.”

“But if you release this man, you are no ‘friend of Caesar.’ Anyone who declares himself a king is a rebel against Caesar.”

Pilate’s face went white. “I don’t want this coming back on me,” he thought. “I’ve been reprimanded by Rome once, and I’m never going to let that happen again.”

Pilate gripped each marble armrest. This was not turning out as he’d thought. He looked at the prisoner, his hands hanging limp at his sides. There was something on his face that Pilate couldn’t read. Was it—certainty? Calm? He couldn’t make it out. It was almost like all this was turning out exactly as this prisoner had known.

Pilate finally motioned for a slave nearby and told him, “Get me a basin of water.”

Jesus realized he wasn’t thinking clearly. But when he heard the word “basin,” it made him think of the night before. He’d had nothing to eat since dinner, and nothing to drink. He thought back to the bread, the wine, the sweetness of the Passover.

They’d met upstairs in a borrowed room with borrowed tables. Since no one was hosting, there was no one to greet them, no slave to wash their feet.

Jesus had seen the looks his friends had darted at each other, like “Who’s going to wash our feet? Don’t think it’s going to be me!”

So Jesus had gotten up from the table and laid his robe aside. He wrapped a towel around his waist. Then he found a simple pottery basin and poured in water. He got down on his knees and worked his way around the table, washing each one’s feet, and drying them with the towel at his waist.

He had to lower his head; sometimes his hair brushed the floor. Inside, he felt at peace. He knew that the Father had given him authority over everything. There was nothing to prove, nothing to push for. Just the freedom to serve.

He held a little longer the feet of the one who could no longer look him in the face. The one who would sell him out. Who would get rich as an informant.

“Treason,” Pilate said, and Jesus snapped back to where he was. “The verdict is treason against the Emperor of Rome, and the penalty to be crucified until dead.”

Sandals snapped on the stone pavement, and the slave came back, carrying a labrum filled with water. It wasn’t cheap clay like the one Jesus had carried; this basin was polished bronze. The slave got down on his knees, though, just as Jesus had. He lifted the basin above his head, so it was in easy reach for the governor.

Pilate sunk his hands into the water and held them there for a moment. He was going to make sure no one missed this action. It would be slow and carefully choreographed. As he finally dried his hands, Pilate spat out his words: “I am innocent of this man’s blood. This is YOUR responsibility!”

The people shouted back, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”

Pilate looked down at the water, and it seemed to him like a mirror, reflecting back to him who he was.

The entire story of Holy Week can be told with two basins. And the entire story of your life, and my life, can be told with 2 basins. Will we choose the basin of Service, or the basin of Power?Will we take responsibility or abdicate it? Get dirty or ignore the need?

There are two basins. But we can choose only one.

Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,

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