"Sarcasm on Golgotha" - Dr. K. Schilder

From Clarion, Vol. 46, No. 6, March 21, 1997

By K. Schilder
Translated by John Smith

"Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews'."'  John 19:19

Irony and sarcasm are not the same. An ironic word is born; a sarcastic one is made. Irony is expressed spontaneousiy; sarcasm can reflect upon its words. Irony sees the caricature and expresses it simply. Sarcasm sees the caricature too, and passionately reinforces it. Irony is lofty, and it exalts; sarcasm is low, and it abases. Irony attends the wounded, but sarcasm, as they say, is biting. One is gripped by irony, but one grasps at sarcasm. Irony observes something comical, but from a height which the "comedian" cannot reach; sarcasm sees something comical too, but from so low a level that the "comedian," the clown, is safely out of reach; it cannot even dress itself in the harlequin's outfit, for sarcasm can only weave transparent robes.

Irony is the strength of the weak; sarcasm is the weakness of the strong. Irony can also be without sin; sarcasm is itself a form of sin. Irony and sarcasm both see imbalance in the world; yet the balance is kept by the former, but disturbed by the latter. And when the man of irony and the man of sarcasm both view the world through the windows of the soul, then the ironic one is calm and can see through his windows so that he can win even the objective hindrance over to his point of view. But the sarcastic person can never do so: sarcasm is found in unrest, and its passion is the hot breath that fogs the windows and thus subjectively impedes clear perception. Irony is always a certain triumph. But sarcasm means certain defeat, having only the gesture of a victor.

That is why there is always such a depth of heavenly thought in the passion narrative. For when the proceedings begin, then irony is found with Jesus in Gethsemane: (he says] "Sleep on now, and take your rest!" And when the trial has come to an end, then sarcasm is found with Pilate, who composes an inscription - actually it says "a title" - for the crucified Nazarene that gives the passerby the impression: "Here hangs the King of the Jews. Here he hangs - in a pillory."

Pilate writes that sarcastic inscription before he withdraws in bitterness to his private quarters. He wants to snicker at it, for he knows that he has been beaten by those nasty Jews. That is why that inscription above Jesus' cross is his defeat, for had he not lost in the trial, in other words, if he had really found Jesus guilty, he would have written differently. But in the present circumstances, he does not want to do otherwise. Oh, he is well aware that a judge should be precise, that he should be accurate. And so Pilate is. Look: it says Jesus the Nazarene." A little while ago (1) he did not even know what province Jesus was from; he hadn't bothered to inquire. Informal details didn't matter when it concerned those despicable Jews. But now suddenly he is very official. The office- holder knows not only the province but also the city that Jesus comes from.

However, the precision of the first half of the inscription betrays all the more the evil intent in the gravely inaccurate second part. If it had said, "the supposed king," now, that would have been okay, but "the King of the Jews?' Why, Pilate, that is no precise, summary conclusion of trial and verdict! An official statement in the name of the emperor ought not to be sloppy. Is this another informal detail - intentional this time? Is this insubordination, PilIate?

"Take it easy," Pilate would have told you: "I know, I know. But grant me this satisfaction. I don't dare to grieve about myself, so I might as well laugh about all those Jews. I want to get in one more jab at them, hit them where it hurts, put them and their king on public display. Let that high priest have the people against him for once. The common people seem to think of Jesus as a hero. Well, let the little folk seethe for a while, when they see their patron hanging there; it can't do those hot- headed priests any harm. "The king of the Jews"... do you think they'll catch on that my inscription not only targets the king but also his lovely subjects?"

And Pilate writes. He writes three times. After all, his wife had not told him about her dream in any great detail (2) And after all, he has not yet experienced that darkness which lasted for three hours. A touch of sarcasm in the inscription can't do any harm. And as for the official minutes for the imperial government, he can word them as he pleases ....

Oh yes, Pilate, but God is taking minutes today too. Their basic contents stilll lie before us. And on the basis of this story about your cutting sarcasm, we find you guilty and deserving of punishment.

We find you guilty. For you, Pilate, want to taunt the Jews, but you are taunting Jesus too. You want to vent your fury, but you don't have the courage, oh grim authority, to let the blast of your anger strike against the Jews - and against yourself. And now you are not afraid to divert your anger through Jesus. You make Him the victim of the measure of your rancour against the Jews; and with your feeble verbal onslaught you build your defences behind the Nazarene. That is worse than cowardice. That is guilt: guilt upon guilt. For a Pilate who has abandoned Jesus to injustice is more guilty if he thoughtfully reflects upon how he should formulate the inscription than if he had slammed doors in suppressed wrath.

We find you guilty, Pilate. But we say this without sarcasm. For we have precisely this objection against your sarcasm, oh judge, that even though you resisted an atrocity, you did this more in protest against the sinners than against the sin. That's how your sarcasm works. But we have beheld Jesus whose irony rises far above your sarcasm. It censures the sin, but yet it beckons to the sinner, and helps him, and heals him. That is why Jesus' irony would cry woe unto us if we should speak sarcastically about the sarcastic Pilate. We turn inward, and in shame we remember that we too at one time or another have used Jesus' name to achieve some fainthearted triumph [ ... .] (3)
and we do not hide from our shame, as you do, Pilate!

Nevertheless, we maintain that you are guilty, Pilate ... and deserving of punishment. For if it is true that irony belongs to the strong and sarcasm to the weak, to those who have experienced defeat, then your sentence awaits. When Jesus went to Pilate from the darkness of Gethsemane, then irony attended him. It was present on his path to victory. But when you, Pilate, sent Jesus away from your tribunal, then sarcasm attended you. It was present on your path to defeat.

These two paths will one day come together before the judgment seat of Christ. There, without sarcasm and yet in holy justice, Pilate will see the king of the Jews, the king of the world. For that is the title which God himself will write upon Jesus' robe and upon his thigh .(4) And there Jesus will indeed demonstrate the justice of that name. For in that hour there will be no basis for the empty jest which belongs to Pilate's sarcasm, namely, that "he who laughs last laughs best." Rather, there will be the stern gravity of Jesus' irony, that "he who weeps first weeps best." This is the proverb of Christendom over against the world. For irony and sarcasm are different.

[RETURN] (1)  Luke 216.23:6.
[RETURN] (2)  Matthew 27:19.
[RETURN] (3)  At this point Schilder quotes a few lines of poetry from Joost van den Vondel, which I have not included (J.S.).
[RETURN] (4)  Revelation 19:16.

This is a  translation by John Smith of a meditation by K. Schilder on John 19:19, taken from Licht in den Rook (Delft: W. D. Meinema, 1926), pp. 203-207.

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