In Deuteronomy 21, the Lord sets forth the way in which an unsolved murder shall be handled: the elders of the nearest town to the body are to wash their hands over an animal sacrifice, and then shall declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it. Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.”
Only then, only after they had spoken truthfully of their innocence and prayed, would they be absolved of the ‘guilt of innocent blood’.
The reason for God’s concern: the people must do what is right in the sight of the Lord.
Like the people of Israel with an unsolved murder on their hands, Pilate seeks to absolve himself of all guilt in the murder of Jesus by washing his hands.
What Pilate fails to grasp, or perhaps hopes that we will overlook, is that the washing means nothing if there is actual guilt.
What is even more extraordinary in the story, however, is the reaction of the crowd, people familiar with Deuteronomy: let his blood be on us and on our children!
It is no wonder that after Jesus cried out from the cross and died, the earth shook and the temple veil was torn in two – from the time of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, God’s wrath and God’s sorrow are the divine responses to the slaying of the innocent.
Perhaps Pilate and the crowd challenge us to examine our own lives, our own times, to see where the blood of the innocent stains our own hands.