A thought from the account of Christ’s trial and death.
I can make the point I hope to make using the Gospel of Mark, Luke, or John, but Mark is, as often, the most succinct; from chapter 15, verses six and nine:
Now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired. […] Pilate answered them, saying, “Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?”
In each of the accounts of Christs trial Pilate declares, either in private, to the priests, or to the Jews generally, that he finds no fault in Christ. This makes this particular offer a very surprising one. “ Jesus is innocent. I pardon a guilty man each year for you; shall I pardon Jesus? ”
There are at least two readings for the story of Pilate. One puts him as an earnest defender of Christ trying every trick he can think of, even a pardon, to keep him from being mobbed and killed. But another is that Pilate, knowing the desirable outcome (Christ going free), saw two paths to achieving that end: argue his innocence to a impassioned people or take this legal loophole to get him pardoned. One was the right way, but the other was a shortcut to the same goal. And Pilate took the easy way.
The problem with suggesting a pardon was the same that often faces us when we take the easy out. He lost the moral high ground and was unable to later regain it. His effort to say “I’d free him even were he guilty” was heard as an implicit acknowledgement that he was guilty. How can you pardon an unconvicted man, after all?
We have all heard the saying, “the ends justify the means”, and likely all heard arguments for and against that cliché. What we learn from Pilate is that those means that need to justifying may themselves undermine all possible approaches to the end.