Isaiah 55:1-9 • Psalm 63:1-8 • 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 • Luke 13:1-9
The gospel story begins with people rushing to tell Jesus the latest news of Pilate's atrocities. This time, he has had his soldiers kill Galilean Jews as they were themselves sacrificing animals in the temple in Jerusalem, thereby mixing the blood of the animals with the blood of the people. As Jesus and his group were themselves Galilean Jews on their way to Jerusalem, the story-tellers may themselves have been expressing concern about continuing this trip into danger. Jesus' response is unexpected. Although he does not side with Pilate, neither does he side with his own people. He warns that worse is coming for those who fail to hear his message, a message to turn away from a rebellion against Pilate in particular, and Rome in general. Apparently, he saw the people as a fig tree without fruit, wasting their attention and energy on a foreign enemy rather than on following the true God.
I have a certain sympathy for those who went to Jesus with this story. Surely, they must have thought, this story will get to him. He will see Pilate for who he is, finally joining us in hating him. But Jesus stands firm. From his view, the problem is not Pilate, nor anyone else. Every person is contributing to the problem in humankind's failure to repent of this tendency to treat the outsider with contempt, whether it is Romans and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans, or Alabama and Auburn fans.
To be fair, human beings came upon this problem naturally. Ducks will chase away a stray duck, one who is not a part of their group. Prairie dogs, living together in huge coteries to share sentry duty against birds of prey, live in separate familial tunnels and will defend their own tunnels from anyone outside of the family group. It has been adaptive across many species, from honeybees to primates, to work for the success not of the species as a whole, but for the success of the group one is a part of.
Humans must outgrow this tendency. Humans must find a way to welcome one another, including an outsider: to respect the dignity of everyone, all the time. Not only does Jesus say this, but Jesus also accomplishes it, in his last days in Jerusalem itself. He manages to relate to Pilate with respect both for Pilate and his own self-dignity, in a situation where the stakes could be no higher.
Remaining calm when one is threatened – even when one is simply tired! – is difficult. Jesus sets the bar high, challenging us to become more than a reactive species, ready to lash out at, or withdraw from, anyone outside of our own group. Becoming a person who can stay connected with others who differ from oneself, while maintaining one's own self, is not for the faint-of-heart. It does not happen quickly. Fortunately, as Isaiah reminds us, God's thoughts are not our thoughts. Although we humans may be quick to condemn others, it is not so with God, who is with us on the journey to become more than ducks, sharing our ponds with others.