“You’re touching me!” “No, you’re touching me, this is my space!” “Mom, he’s touching me.” Or “Mom she’s looking at me!!” Or even worse, “Mom, he’s breathing my air!!!”
Okay, my kids have grown past the sharing a backseat stage. Of course, bucket seats and a third row helped considerably. But those days of squabbling over real estate live on in family stories and remembrances. It brings a smile now, but it was painful at the time. It seemed as if they were looking to pick a fight.
Life seems full of ample opportunities to pick a fight – chances to shift blame or point fingers. Maybe it is a product of our postmodern malaise. It seems worse than ever, somehow enhanced by a pandemic and a still-fraught political landscape. And it goes beyond families into communities or nations. How do we conduct our political conversations these days? Town hall meetings that are mere shouting matches, out-of-season political rallies (is there an election season anymore?) designed to inflame a sense of panic and frustration and the discovery of a political party’s talking points program focused on increasing fear of the other. The enemy. It’s their fault. They don’t play fair. They aren’t like us; they don’t value what we value. We are all weaker because of them. “Mom, they’re touching me!”
It seems worse day by day, season by season. Surely there was a level of civility that we’ve lost these days. Didn’t we used to talk about “the loyal opposition” with respect for the political systems in place? Weren’t public debates designed to help make decisions based on ideas and vision and not on making the other guy look bad? Or did we imagine that too?
And what does all this have to do with anything? Or at least with our scripture text for this week? Surely Luke doesn’t present us with a political hornet’s nest designed to pick a fight. Does he? Luke 13:1-9: Oh, great, an obscure historical reference and an even more obscure agricultural parable. Just what we need here in the season of Lent.
So, Luke introduces this chapter by saying that “some present” came to tell Jesus about an event. We don’t have a clue who these “some present” folks were. Were they just your average Joes and Janes going about their daily business and trying to get by who wanted to make sure that Jesus had been reading the newspapers? Remember how in school you learned that there were all sorts of speeches that you could learn to give – the persuasive, the informative, the acceptance, the demonstrative, and so on? But what they never told you was that there was really no such thing as an informative speech – a least in our cynical age. Everyone has an agenda. One of the questions we have to ask is, “Why did they tell Jesus this story?” Or why did they pose this puzzle to him? Did they really think he hadn’t heard that one yet?
The truth is, we don’t know about the event referred to here – either one, for that matter. We don’t know anything about a Tower of Siloam and its falling. And we don’t know anything about the Galileans who were killed making sacrifices. None of the other gospel writers mention this event, and there isn’t any real historical account that identifies what happened.
There is speculation and rumor. Pilate, despite the Gospel accounts that make him out as helpless at best or wishy-washy at worst, is depicted elsewhere as a pretty nasty piece of work. Some say that he was exiled to this little backwater of the Roman Empire, and he proceeded to take it out on the natives at regular intervals. He was always rubbing the official divine status of the emperor in the faces of the Jews, who considered it blasphemy. He was constantly revoking the “special status” of the temple treasury and claiming funds for his own purposes. He was frequently spoiling the religious festivals and feast days by making onerous public decrees that prohibited or limited their celebrations.
The story was that there were rumors of an uprising coming to Jerusalem, so Pilate sent undercover soldiers into the temple to find and dispatch the ringleaders, which they proceeded to do with frightening Roman efficiency – right in the courtyards of the temple, spilling human blood to mingle with the animal sacrifices, which immediately profaned all the worship that day and made the temple (the temple, mind you) unclean for a period of days, until the proper rituals could be performed.
Most likely, these “some present” in verse one were there trying to get Jesus to take a side in a political debate. They might have been zealots who wanted Jesus to come out for their revolutionary agenda. They might have been the establishment who were hoping he would say something that would get Rome interested enough to take care of their problem. Or they might have been people appalled that such a thing could take place and wanted someone to answer the ubiquitous question: “Why?”
True to form, Jesus doesn’t do any of that. He refuses to engage in political finger pointing and name calling. At the same time, he sidesteps the theological issue of whether the people somehow deserved their fate - because if they didn’t, then the world is suddenly less safe, and terrible things happen to innocent people. He does weigh in on this, but only to deny its reality. Were they worse sinners than you to deserve such a fate? “No, I tell you.” Pretty definitive there. But then he goes on with that repent stuff. Wait a minute, Jesus, you just said that sinfulness is not the reason they died so horribly. So, why do we need to repent? It won’t save us from dying!
Ah, Jesus would reply, salvation is not about dying. It is about living. Then he tells the parable that essentially asks us how we intend to live. Do you want to be one of those who simply takes up space? One of those who is a waste of dirt? Or do you want to be one who produces fruit? Do you want your life to amount to something or for your death to be simply another statistic?
This makes all the energy we spend casting blame and picking fights seem kind of pointless, doesn’t it? Jesus’ question in the thirteenth chapter of Luke is nothing less than: “What are you living for?”