Although I am not a tremendously good card player, I have played enough to know that the value of what you are holding in your hand depends entirely on which game you are playing. The very same cards can mean something completely different in various situations.
There are games in which having a joker in your hand will guarantee you a position of dominance, and there are other games in which holding on to a joker is poison. There are games where a black queen will give you the game, and others where it won’t give you much at all.
And, more to the point of today’s liturgical celebration, there are games when the king is the strongest card you can play, and there are games when the king can be trumped, depending upon whether aces are high or low. And I hope it’s not stretching the metaphor too much here to suggest that in the gospel conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate today, they are both looking at exactly the same hands—the same data before them—and seeing two completely different things. They are playing two utterly different games, only it’s not a game.
Jesus is holding the aces. Pontius Pilate thinks aces are low and kings are high. Jesus knows that it is exactly the other way around. And this exchange between the two of them amounts to a bit of a verbal dance to uncover which game each of them is engaged in. Or, to say it another way, what’s the ace worth, and which is it?
For Pilate, the supremacy of the king is obvious. Just look at the face of the card—all that color, the robes, the sword, the crown, the proud stoic image. Compare that to the face of the ace—just one lowly little symbol of color and shape. Certainly the king is high, right?
But the rules of this game were not determined by Pilate—nor even by Jesus. They were determined by God, who deemed to call aces high. Pilate is free to strategize to the contrary if he wishes—to pretend that the rules are otherwise. But the longer and more intensely he does that, the more certain is his downfall. Jesus is holding the aces, which makes every king worthless in this game.
I suppose it wouldn’t work to try to re-name this liturgical feast day to “Christ the Ace,” but that’s really what’s at the heart of our Sacred Scripture message today. In other words, all of our presumptions about the power of earthly kings are simply wrong. In the end, both Jesus and Pontius Pilate agree on what holding a king means and what holding an ace means. To be possessed of kingship, as we normally assume it and as Pontius Pilate did, is to be wealthy, powerful, capable of issuing threats, to be feared, to be militarized, to be domineering over others—especially the poor and powerless, and to be in control of one’s own destiny in this world—absolutely so.
To be possessed of aces is to turn that world view on its head. Aces are about service to the most vulnerable among us, about self-denial for the sake of a greater good, about the sharing of wealth so that all may have some, about putting aside violence and greed as motivators for anything. About banishing fear.
So if Jesus and Pontius Pilate agree about that, the only remaining question is which game is in play here. Is the ace worth one point? Or is it worth eleven? Low or high? Who has the ultimate authority in his hands? And this is where the two of them are talking right past each other in the gospel today. For Pilate, as for far too many of us still, it simply sounds crazy and illogical to think that exercise raw power and domination over the weak is actually a recipe for failure. Pilate couldn’t imagine low solidarity and justice could be more potent than militarism, or how ignoring the commands of God in favor of something more immediately expedient could end up as doom.
That’s what it means to be playing with aces. So are they high or low? The gospel witness of Jesus is very clear about that. Aces are high. They trump the kings that we have become accustomed to venerating as such. This is the feast of the “Christ the Ace.” Somehow Pontius Pilate must have sensed that, or he wouldn’t have wasted his time conversing with such an apparent nobody as Jesus—a man with no army, no money, no influence in politics, no glamourous friends, no legal team, no media outlet.
Jesus was just the one who understood fully the rules of the game being played out here, that God is on the side of the oppressed, the poor, the immigrant, the marginalized, the seeming weak and disenfranchised. These are the ace cards, and Jesus had them. So do we.
It is still up to us how we play our cards, by which supposed rules we imagine ourselves to be moving through life. How confident are we about what cards we hold in our hands? Today we are encouraged to be as confident as Jesus was before Pontius Pilate. Ironically, the more we trust in our aces—the aces that the kings of this world hold in such disdain—the more nervous and defensive and afraid those kings start to become. That is the consolation of this gospel. When earthly powers begin to become afraid of what this Jesus is proposing as true and enduring—love over fear, peace over war, unity over clan, solidarity over greed, God over earthly royalty—then we know that something truly divine is breaking in to the world. And it’s happening in our midst now. It’s not pretty or without conflict, but it is happening. Christ holds all the aces, and the aces are high.