“A Higher Purpose”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13.1-3)
When reading the words of Jesus, we sometimes get so caught up in the teaching itself, that we fail to consider the details carefully woven into the narrative by the four Evangelists. Fair enough; if the alternative were to ignore what Jesus tells us and read the Gospels as mere works of literature, then we all ought to be perfectly happy to miss out on a clever juxtaposition from John, or a particularly vivid description from Mark. But ideally, we would give attention to the details, because understanding them will help us, in turn, to better understand Jesus. In this case, we make considerable progress toward a firmer grasp of Jesus’ teaching, by beginning with the question: what were the messengers of Pilate’s violent acts expecting Jesus to say about the situation?
We don’t find a clear cut answer in the text, but Luke is a very thoughtful writer (to say nothing of the Holy Spirit!). It’s reasonable to suggest, first, that he included this snippet of Jesus’ ministry for a profound purpose; and second, that by interrupting a long stretch of Jesus’ teaching with some unnamed persons’ contribution, he invites us to consider their motives. Perhaps it was as simple as this: the bloodbath was a recent event that shocked the populace, and so naturally it was the talk of the town. But considering what Pilate represented—Roman dominance—and the general sentiment among the Jews toward it—hatred—it would be naïve to think that the conversation was limited to the facts. Surely it branched into two related topics: passing judgment, and discussing what should be done about it. Surely, most people expected Jesus to issue some kind of condemnation of Pilate’s actions, and perhaps the sins of those awful Galileans, too—since most of those outside of Galilee were only slightly more fond of Galileans than they were of Pilate.
But, even though he could have rightly condemned all manner of evil involved in what had transpired, he went a different direction: “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” It was common, especially during the final stages of Jesus’ ministry leading up to his crucifixion, for people to approach him with insincere questions. The Pharisees asked him whether they should pay taxes to Rome. The Sadducees asked him about family law in the resurrection. A lawyer asked him about the legal definition of the word, neighbor. Scribes were involved in asking him whether the law concerning capital punishment for adultery meant what it said. Usually these people were seeking to harm Jesus, but even that motivation was generally borne of selfishness, because he threatened their status. For most of these cases, there were two camps, corresponding to two politic0-religious parties, and the goal was to get Jesus to alienate one side or the other. In all cases, they were seeking to exalt themselves or their group, at the expense of someone else. In more modern terms, they were seeking to score cheap political points.
Jesus refused to give them what they wanted. In fact, on occasion he turned their own tactic back on them, asking questions such as, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (Mt 21.25a). The chief priests’ and elders’ internal deliberations illuminate the tactic for us:
And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” (Matthew 21.25b-27a)
In each case, there is, of course, a simple answer to be found. But they're not after real answers, they’re after status and power. Jesus knows how the game is played, and refuses to go along. “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Mt 21.27b)
This same game is played, today, and we should learn the lesson from Jesus—first, the lesson about repenting of sin and preparing for a more powerful judge than Pilate; and second, the lesson about the world’s self-serving behavior, often dressed up as compassion, or respect for truth, or desire for justice. It takes mere minutes for one person’s immense suffering to become a tool for another person’s self-promotion.
This doesn’t mean the politics don’t matter. Even if you simply refuse to pay attention, you’ll still have to deal with the ramifications of what others say and do. But Jesus peels back the veneer and shows us what’s really underneath. The differences between conservative Pharisees and liberal Sadducees were large, and while the Pharisees were wrong about a a great many things, on the whole they were at least closer to the letter of the law, if not the spirit, than were the Sadducees—who were pretty far from both letter and spirit! What really mattered, however, was God’s will, and neither party seemed to have given very much thought to that! Instead, they were concerned with their own petty, tribal jockeying for power.
Our society is—once again—in the throes of this same, disgusting, partisan, self-serving conflict, spurred by a horrible act of evil. There most certainly are answers and solutions to be found, but rather than picking a side of the fight, give your allegiance to a far higher authority. Concern yourself with God’s will.