In our scripture for today, as we continue to explore the surprising saints on Jesus’ journey to the cross, we find an unnamed woman, which is not unusual when reading the Bible. The majority of women mentioned in the Bible are unnamed. The woman from today’s scripture is mentioned in only one verse in the whole Bible and she is identified only by her relationship to her husband. We know her as Pilate’s wife and we know of her existence only because she had a disturbing dream that caused her to try to save Jesus’ life.
Like the quote at the top of your bulletin says, what we don’t know about Pilate’s wife we have chosen to make up. Origen, a third century Christian scholar wrote that the wife of Pilate became a Christian after Jesus’ crucifixion. In early apocryphal writing Pilate’s wife is given a name – Claudia or Procla or Claudia Procla, which connects her to the Proculi family of wealthy Roman knights. One of these early writings also claims that Pilate himself converted to Christianity after this experience and was later condemned to death by Nero.
But it is Pilate’s wife who has captured the imagination of artists and theologians for centuries now. She is depicted in sculpture, paintings, poetry, stories and plays. Emillia Lanier of the 17th century, the first woman to claim herself a professional poet, wrote a poem about Pilate’s wife asserting that she broke the curse of Eve. Lanier’s argument was that Adam sinned because he listened to his spouse and Pilate sinned because he didn’t….therefore the curse on women was broken.
Charlotte Bronte wrote a long poem called “Pilate’s Wife’s Dream.” Medieval playwrights often depict Pilate and his wife (who I’m going to refer to as Claudia from now on) as two lovebirds. Tell us any Bible story and we will try to make it into a love story…so much easier to read that way.
Our fascination with Claudia continues to our time period. Hilda Doolittle wrote a book in the 20th century called Pilate’s Wife. Angela Lansbury played her in The Greatest Story Ever Told and John Case played her in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Some depictions of Claudia credit her dream to Satan because had she succeeded in saving Jesus’ life their argument was that the message of God’s love for us would have been thwarted. There is another story told of Claudia’s life in which she meets Jesus before her disturbing dream and he healed her of some affliction. In the movie The Passion of Christ, Claudia is portrayed as comforting Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdelene by handing them towels to clean up the blood on Jesus after he endured the 39 lashes.
While it is impossible for us to really know the historical woman who was married to Pilate, it is intriguing that Pilate’s wife had accompanied him to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. Early in the imperial period, Roman governors were not allowed to take their wives with them when they are stationed somewhere. The idea was that wives were high maintenance and distracting. But by 21 AD the rule prohibiting wives from accompanying their husbands was removed. It was likely that Pilate and his wife spent much of their time in Caesarea Maritima, which was a lovely seaside city with all the amenities. Jerusalem was considered a dangerous place, especially during festivals like Passover when revolution was in the air. It seems odd that Claudia would even been in Jerusalem on this fateful day. Maybe, the relationship between Pilate and Claudia was a love story.
I grew up in the sixties on sitcoms, like the Beverly Hillbillies, in which a professional man is busy dealing with important and touchy things at work when his secretary lets him know his wife is on the phone…..again. It seemed like, as a little girl, my television viewing was filled with images of important men having to deal with wives who had nothing better to do with their time except insert themselves in their husband’s business. I am guessing that is how Claudia’s dream was treated in the first century when she sent her message to Pilate.
Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat in the place of justice where no woman was allowed. It was early on the Friday morning we call Good Friday. The religious leaders had brought a bound Jesus to stand before Pilate for judgment. They had already judged him themselves but they were not allowed to impose the death penalty and that is what they wanted for Jesus. Pilate was constantly walking the tightrope between the empire and the Jewish religious leaders.
Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” This question has special significance in the Gospel of Matthew because in the second chapter of this gospel the magi traveled to Jerusalem in search of the King of the Jews. In just a few short hours a sign with the words “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” will be tacked onto the cross that holds his bloody, fragile body….placed there to show the irony of this title for this condemned man.
Jesus knows what a loaded question it is when Pilate asks him if he is the King of the Jews. If he says, “Yes” he is confessing to a crime against the empire. He simply says to Pilate, “You say so” which makes Pilate the confessor. This answer so infuriates the religious leaders that they start hurling accusations at Jesus but he goes radio silent. Pilate says, “Don’t you hear all the things they are saying about you?” Jesus stays absolutely still.
Pilate is not sure what to do. So he abdicates his power and decides to let the crowd decide. There is another Jesus who is on death row on this Friday, Jesus Barabbas. Pilate offers the crowd a choice. “I will release one of these men – Jesus Barabbas or the one called Jesus the Christ. You choose.” He knew the religious leaders had handed over Jesus the Christ to them because they were jealous of his followers’ devotion and growing numbers.
Perhaps, Pilate thought the crowd would choose Jesus the Christ and he could be done with this silly masquerade. Pilate calls out, “Which would you like me to release for Passover? Jesus Barabbas or Jesus called the Christ?” While he is sitting there listening to them chant “Barabbas” a note arrives from his wife. Not allowed into the place of justice, Claudia must send her husband a note by messenger: “Have nothing to do with this innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” The reason the note specifies that the dream happened today was that Romans believed that dreams that came after midnight were the ones that came true.
Have you ever had a dream that was so disturbing you couldn’t shake it…so unsettling it woke you from a deep sleep? I once had a dream in which my spouse behaved poorly and it was so vivid that when the dream woke me up I was furious. I woke him up and told him off. In his dazed condition he just kept saying, “But it was a dream, Susan.”
All of us dream but few of us remember our dreams. How many of you remember what you dreamed last night? The dreams we do remember are often ones that frighten us or cause us anxiety. Those kinds of dreams take on a more vivid, memorable quality. I can tell you in utter detail the dreams I have had in which I showed up on Sunday morning having either forgotten to write my sermon or in which I showed up with my skirt tucked into my underwear.
In the Bible, dreams are vehicles for divine revelation and the author of the Gospel of Matthew loved dreams. In the first couple chapters of Matthew there are multiple dreams that keep Jesus safe…Joseph has a dream to take Mary as his wife; the magi have a dream that Herod wants the baby Jesus dead and so they go home by a different route; Joseph has a dream to get Mary and the baby safely to Egypt; and then Joseph has a dream that the coast was clear and they could come back home.
Then here, in the final chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, there is another dream about Jesus’ safety and it comes to an unlikely person….a woman and a Gentile…and, surprise, surprise…her dream goes unheeded.
When we think of God-given dreams we don’t usually think of dreams that disturb us…not in this era of the prosperity gospel. We want our God-given dreams to be filled with love and light and promises of blessings. Tom Sine writes that what we see in many of our churches these days is “the American dream with a little Jesus overlay.”
But think of the dreams of the magi and Claudia and the Apostle Paul. Their God-given dreams were all disturbing. Each of their dreams made them change their direction…to not try to please the empire but instead live in God’s kingdom.
As we continue on this journey of Lent…this journey towards Jerusalem….we must ask ourselves, what would it look like we if let Jesus run loose in our dreams? Would they be dreams of comfort and blessing? Sorry to say, but I don’t think so. I think if we let Jesus run loose in our dreams it would change the way we look at the world; the way we choose to respond to the empire and the way we go about our days. I think, like Claudia, we would suffer a great deal from those dreams….at least until we let those God-given dreams run loose in our lives. Then I think those disturbing dreams would translate into bold, joyful, courageous living. Amen.