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Gospel commentary: Listening for the tone of truth

John 18:33-37

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 actually 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 or 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 in 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 that follow: “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 the king 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 says 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.


Fr. Zuberbueler is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church.



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018