It’s unfortunate that today’s Gospel reading was edited to include only verses 33b through 37 of the eighteenth chapter of John’s Gospel. The editors obviously wanted to keep the reading manageably short; as a consequence, we don’t get to hear Pontius Pilate’s famous question, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38)
The conversation in today’s Gospel reading takes place between Jesus and Pilate during Jesus’ trial for sedition. Pilate asked Jesus if the trumped-up charges of pretending to be the Messiah were true. Jesus responds first by saying, “I came into the world to testify to the truth.” (Jn. 18:37) Later during the trial, Jesus tells Pilate that he is not a king in the political sense of the word.
Two opposing ideas vie for supremacy in the conversation between Jesus and Pilate. Pilate represents the unbelieving world, those people who don’t perceive the truth; Jesus represents the truth of salvation spoken to the world by God. Earlier in the Gospel, these two competing concepts are described as darkness and light. The Prologue of John’s Gospel says, “the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness does not comprehend it.” (Jn. 1:5)
Pilate embodies darkness’ lack of comprehension when he asks, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38) One wonders what might have been behind Pilate’s question. Was it an expression of cynicism born from serving multiple Emperors, each of whom considered himself to have been the only legitimate ruler ever to govern the Roman Empire? Or did Pilate feel the cognitive dissonance of seeing competing truth claims from various groups, factions, and religions? Perhaps, his life was so busied with the affairs of office that he had little time to consider weightier questions like the nature of truth. Regardless of the source of the question, it remains as pertinent today as it was at Jesus’ trial.
A popular form of religion today is something I call, for lack of a better term, the Religion of Personal Benefits. The Religion of Personal Benefits takes many forms and crosses denominational lines. Televangelists and mega-churches preach a version of the Religion of Personal Benefits; they promise miracle cures, wealth, and complete satisfaction in life, often in exchange for a hefty contribution to their organization.
Catholicism has its own version of the Religion of Personal Benefits. The price attached to Catholicism’s version of the Religion of Personal Benefits is rarely monetary; most often, it is paid in ego validation given to the advocate of a particular devotional practice. Catholicism’s Religion of Personal Benefits offers its adherents various benefits. Some versions offer increased self-esteem or guaranteed self-help results; other versions offer God’s mercy, or graces, or some other intangible reward.
The Religion of Personal Benefits is a perversion of the Gospel message, regardless of the effects that it promises. The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe lays bare the deception that it at the center of the Religion of Personal Benefits.
Following his trial before Pilate, Jesus was beaten, mistreated, and executed as a criminal. The Cross reveals the “truth” to which Jesus came to testify. (Jn 18:37) In the death of Jesus on the Cross, God’s humility is manifest in the most unequivocal fashion imaginable: suffering and death. Jesus preached and practiced a religion of obedience to God and self-sacrifice for others. It is a gross misunderstanding to interpret Jesus’ self-sacrifice for the sake of humanity as permission for self-indulgence, an inflated sense of entitlement, or infantile neediness. Jesus’s self-sacrifice is not merely to be admired; it is to be imitated.
The Religion of Personal Benefits preaches self-satisfaction and self-enrichment. The Gospels preach authentic religion, one that requires acceptance of human spiritual poverty, obedience to God’s will, and self-sacrifice for others. Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (Jn. 18:37) Jesus’ voice is the one that calls us to repent of our self-concern and follow him to the Cross.