Blaming Pontius Pilate


By Dan Ebener

Do you ever wonder why Pontius Pilate gets a mention in the Nicene Creed? Or, why he gets even more airtime in the Passion story? I think there is a leadership message here.


In the Nicene Creed that we profess every Sunday, five names are singled out in this order: (1) “one God the Father, Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth;” (2) “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God;” (3) “the Virgin Mary;” (4) “Pontius Pilate;” and (5) “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

When professing these words, I often wonder: How did Pontius Pilate get into such revered company? What is it about Pilate that has allowed his name to be spoken for more than 2,000 years and his name proclaimed every Sunday by millions of Christians?


Pilate’s infamous sentence in the Nicene Creed comes in the middle of the paragraph about Jesus. The Creed states, “For our sake, He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

My question about Pilate is underscored each year on Palm Sunday, when we read the Passion of our Lord. We learn that Pilate was the Roman governor, the unjust judge, the skeptic who seems to find Jesus innocent of the charges brought against him but washes his hands of the crucifixion that he orders.

Research shows that, generally speaking, people in authority usually receive too much credit for the good things that happen under their rule and too much blame for the bad things that happen.

Governors today are blamed for higher COVID-19 rates. Mayors are blamed for police brutality. Coaches are blamed for team losses. Bishops are blamed for fewer vocations.

In reality, everyone bears some responsibility for cultural changes occurring in the church and society. It is easier to blame our presidents for the conditions of immigrants at our borders than it is to do something about it. It is easier to blame our pastors for the fact that fewer people attend Mass than it is to go out and evangelize.

The more we blame those in authority for our woes, the more we continue to be disappointed. As a layperson, I realize we can ask only so much of our clergy. If we really want to see change, we must lead it. Ironically, when we wash our hands of our responsibility to lead the change the church and the world need, we act just like Pilate.

The beauty of servant leadership is that anyone can practice it, with or without positional authority. The next time you say the name of Pontius Pilate in the Creed, remember that, yes, he was the face of evil in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. He gets the blame, but plenty of others could be blamed as well. As the people of God, we can do better than look to those in authority to blame for our woes. We can lead the change we want to see.

(Dan Ebener is director of parish planning for the Diocese of Davenport.)

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