Readings for 3rd Sunday of Lent: Ex. 3:1-8A, 13-15; Ps. 103: 1-4, 6-8, 11; I Cor. 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk. 13: 1-9
The entire world was shocked last week when a right-wing gunman and admirer of Donald Trump slaughtered at least 50 worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
At the same time, the world edified when the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, the world’s youngest head of state, donned a hijab in a sign of solidarity with the Muslim community. The Muslim worshippers, she said “are us.” She resolved immediately to change her country’s gun laws (in defiance of the international gun lobby) including a ban on assault weapons.
Her response contrasted sharply with that of President Trump following a similar massacre in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue last October. Then, instead of calling for solidarity and disarmament, the president famously advised placing armed guards at synagogue doors.
Prime Minister Ardern’s words and symbolic action were a demonstration of the very type of repentance to which the non-violent Jesus called his own community (and us!) in the puzzling episode recounted in today’s Gospel reading for this third Sunday of Lent.
To make his point, Jesus comments on two contemporary tragedies that were “in the news of the day” as prominently as last week’s New Zealand catastrophe. Then he adds an explanatory parable underlining the time-urgency of his summons to non-violence. All three elements are highly relevant to Christchurch and our president’s and our culture’s tendency to solve everything with violence.
The similarities between Christchurch and the Gospel’s first-mentioned tragedy are undeniable. Like what happened in New Zealand, it involved the slaughter of worshippers by reactionary outsiders who despised their victims’ religious faith. Some Galileans (no doubt identified as insurgents) were killed by Roman soldiers while offering sacrifice in the temple.
Jesus asks, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way because they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?” Then he answers his own question, “By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
The second tragedy had eighteen people killed by the collapse of a tower located in the section of East Jerusalem called Siloam. In this case, it seems that a tower had fallen by chance and killed some innocents.
Regarding that second tragedy, Jesus asks, “Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them— do you think they were guiltier than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
But what does Jesus expect his audience to repent from? Does he want them to stop being insurgents against Rome? Does he want them to be more faithful to the Ten Commandments or something?
As Jesus would say, “By no means!”
How then do these two events connect?
To get the connection, put the incidents in context. There they become statements about violence, counter-violence and the need for non-violent resistance. Again, that contextualization sheds light on the Christchurch tragedy and our own culture’s worship of guns, as well as the permission it gives our military to kill people in their mosques and schools, at their funerals and weddings.
This approach takes seriously the political intent of the news item shared with Jesus at the very outset. Luke tells us, “Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.”
No doubt, this was not news to Jesus. The opening words of today’s gospel were not meant to communicate news but to complain about the Roman occupiers. Those introducing the topic were looking for sympathy and agreement. Jesus does not disappoint.
Pilate, of course, would have claimed that his temple victims were insurgents against the Roman occupation; they were “guilty” as terrorists, he would have said. That was his official line.
Jesus says, “Don’t believe it” – as if his audience were tempted to believe Roman lies. “Do you think they were guilty?” Jesus asks. “By no means,” he answers.
Here Jesus is agreeing with his Galilean compatriots. If the ones Pilate killed were terrorists, he says, so are all Galileans; we’re all guilty in Pilate’s eyes. None of us wants the Romans here, Jesus implies. After all, it wasn’t the Galileans who threw the first stone; it was Pilate and the Roman soldiers who did so by invading Israel’s sovereign territory.
But then Jesus suddenly takes another tack. He connects Pilate’s butchery with another headline of his day – an act of counter-violence taken by the “Zealot” forces Pilate was attempting to punish. (Zealots were the revolutionary force committed to ousting the Roman occupiers from Palestine.) Pilate’s action, Jesus suggests, started the cycle of violence that evoked a disaster at Siloam at a spot near the Fountain of Ezekias. Siloam was the location of a small arsenal, where the Romans kept their swords, shields, battering rams and other weapons.
According to Maria and Ignacio Lopez-Vigil, a group of Zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel up to the tower with hopes of seizing the weapons and turning them against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already in a state of decay, and the tunnel caused the entire construction to suddenly collapse. The falling tower claimed the lives of several Galilean families who had built their houses near the arsenal.
Jesus point: Pilate is certainly a bloodthirsty man. None of us want him or his armies on our soil. However, those who resist the hated Romans by resorting to arms are bloodthirsty too. And if we follow their example, we’ll all drown in a bloody deluge. Or as Jesus put it, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
And time is running short, he adds with his parable about a fig tree. The bloody deluge has been building for at least three years. We have maybe another twelve months before the chickens of the deadly cycle of violence come home to roost. Without repentance, without replacing violent resistance to Roman butchery with non-violent tactics, we’ll all be cut down like a barren fig tree. (Later on, remember, Jesus himself demonstrates the kind of non-violent direct action he had in mind, with his “cleansing” of Jerusalem’s temple.)
Jesus’ prediction of bloodbath, of course, eventually came true, but not as soon as he thought. The Romans would defeat the Zealot uprising in the year 70, and definitively squash all Jewish rebellion in 132. Jesus was right however about the extent of the slaughter. It was horrific resulting in the deaths of more than a million Jews. Such disaster is inevitable, Jesus teaches for all who “live by the sword.”
What does all of this say to us today? The message is quite relevant. It reminds us first of all that empire represents the systematized oppression of the poor and defenseless by the rich and powerful. That was true of Rome; it’s true of U.S. empire today. We’re still killing those identified as insurgents in their churches and mosques. In fact, our soldiers do it every day. And far from being outraged, we applaud them as heroes.
Secondly, this passage calls us to non-violence and warns us about where the cycle of violence will inevitably lead. Christchurch NZ provides a window into the world created by the worship of guns. Another window is provided by Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam, Hiroshima, the Cold War, and the general impoverishment of our country and world brought on by so-called “defense” spending. All of it has us drowning in a deluge of blood. And it promises to get worse and eventually destroy us all. How much time do we have before our chickens come home to roost – three years, one year. . .?
Christians represent about 30% of the world’s inhabitants. There are more than two billion of us. Imagine the world we’d create if we insisted on following the call to non-violence represented by Jesus’ words in this morning’s gospel!
Imagine the country we’d create if our politicians followed the example of Jacinda Ardern ‘s identification with the Muslim community instead of following the divisive policies of Donald Trump and endorsing the genocidal violence of our armies.