Exodus 3: 1-15; Psalm 63: 1-8; 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13; Luke 13: 1-9
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Pontius Pilate is a name familiar to many of us, he is mentioned in the Nicene Creed which we say every Sunday. But who was Pontius Pilate, and what did he do? Pilate was a prefect, which is a Roman word that simply means governor. He governed over the area of Judea for ten years, from 26 – 36 CE. Judea was an area in Israel that included the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and covered about 1,300 square miles. To put that in some perspective, Judea during the time of Pontius Pilate was smaller than Harris County, which is over 1,700 square miles.
Pilate served under the Emperor Tiberius, and what Pilate is most known for was his involvement with the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. His reputation as a governor was that he was fierce and not benevolent. As is true of many who held power in those days, Pilate’s power came at the expense of many. The Gospel of John paints Pontius Pilate in somewhat of a more favorable light, as Pilate engages in dialogue with Jesus before his trial, asking Jesus “What is truth?” For some, this seems to be a misread of Pilate’s true character. History reveals Pilate to be a person who seemed more bloodthirsty, more interested in brutal reprisals and suppressing local religious practices than have any interest in philosophical dialogue over whatever “truth” was.
This morning we get an example of this sinister side of Pontius Pilate. As the story goes, some people from the region of Galilee whom Pontius Pilate believed were rebels against his authority had come to the temple in Jerusalem to present their sacrifices. In this case the sacrifice these Galileans presented at the temple was some sort of animal sacrifice. Pilate was enraged at their audacity to enter into the very seat of his power – Jerusalem – and so ordered his troops to murder all of the Galilean visitors, while the blood of their sacrificial animals was still flowing in the temple’s courtyard. Thus we encounter the graphic phrase in v.1 of Luke’s Gospel that Pilate mingled the blood of the Galileans with their sacrifices.
The sin was Pilate’s cruelty and the sacrilege of murder in the temple, to say nothing of the blatant disregard of the need to prove the victim’s guilt. After discussing this event which took place, Jesus asks this provocative question to those around him: “do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all the other Galileans?”
His answer is clear: no, they were not. Jesus then brings up another case of undeserving victims, in this case a story of eighteen people who died in a construction accident involving the collapse of a tower near Siloam in Jerusalem. Again, Jesus asks the question: “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” His answer again, clearly, is no.
It is not difficult for us today to find our own modern versions of the tower collapse at Siloam, or Pilate’s murdering of the Galileans. Several years ago our nation grieved as a gunman murdered six Sikhs worshiping at their temple near Milwaukee, Michigan. The Old Order Amish School children in their classroom in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Newtown, Aurora, Columbine, Paris, Charleston, Rwanda. And then there are the natural disasters. Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. The Japanese tsunami and earthquake of 2011, the tornados that struck Joplin, Missouri. The list goes on and on and on. Were the victims of these disasters worse sinners than anyone else? Did they deserve what happened to them? I believe not.
In Jerusalem then, and for us today, the challenge is to believe in God in spite of tragedy and disaster, to believe that the hand of God, and the love of God, are at work in the world today. Because it is. Are we able to credibly explain unjust suffering? I can’t, and I would never try. But instead of trying to explain unjust suffering, instead of looking for an answer, I bring my questions here. I bring them to God’s altar, and I leave it there. I bring all my incomprehension, all my fear, all my temptation to believe God is absent in the world – it comes here. It is not a pretty gift to give to God, but I believe God always welcomes it.
The world might be powerful in hate, but that does not make the world God. To the Pontius Pilates of our time, who espouse hate, we respond with love – not ours, but God’s. And we courageously proclaim to our Pontius Pilates that even in the midst of tragedy and disaster, the kingdom of God is at work, and we are never forsaken. AMEN.