Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
If you thought the first bit of that Gospel reading was a bit obscure, I couldn’t agree more. It only appears in Luke, but I’ve discovered it is essentially a story about water. Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, decided to bring a badly-needed supply of fresh water to Jerusalem and naturally, the Romans, famous for their aqueducts, were the best people to do it. But – Pilate decided the project should be funded by money from the Temple. The Jews, especially the Galileans, were adamant this should not happen, believing that no foreign power had any right to their money – especially money given for religious purposes – despite the fact the Jews themselves would be the main beneficiaries of the water supply. So the people resorted to a large-scale protest, but Pilate wouldn’t budge an inch. He had some of his soldiers, in mufti, scattered through the crowds of protestors, with cudgels under their cloaks. When the signal was given, they were to disperse the protestors, but the soldiers didn’t stick to their orders. Instead, they sparked violence and killed a number of innocent people, thereby mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices being offered in Temple worship. The second part of the story deals with another tragedy around the same time. Some people standing by the Pool of Siloam died tragically when the tower on the city walls above them fell down. It seems these people were probably working on Pilate’s controversial aqueduct, and that structural work caused the accident. So, there was a second group of innocent victims.
History is, of course, littered with the bodies of the innocent. Many of the worst atrocities are etched in our collective consciousness. Sadly, still today, we are asking the age-old questions: Why do innocent people die so randomly, whether through violence or accident, and who do we blame? If your C of E roots go back a long way, you may recall the prayer in the Litany of the old (mid-16th century) BCP: ‘From battle and murder and from sudden death, good Lord, deliver us.’ Dying unprepared, to the early modern mind, was a most terrible thing. The 16th century was a precarious enough age anyway: people routinely died young; parents would often lose their children as babies; few couples would be able to invite both parents to their wedding. A man might die suddenly and leave his wife and children with no provision, so innocent people could find themselves in a real mess. For that reason, in the same prayer book, the priest is required to ensure that a sick or dying person has tidied his affairs, made proper provision for his family, and, if he had the means, made a charitable bequest to the poor. You see, even on your deathbed, you might be bothered by the vicar asking for money!
What a different world we live in now. Some of us have seen those we love linger in pain with cruel illnesses over months and years before they eventually die. We might well hope for a quick and painless death, but we also know the pain a sudden death can bring to those left behind. Instead of the administrative and financial mess our 16th century ancestors feared, we might be left in a psychological and emotional mess.
What often fails to be addressed nowadays is a question that would have been obvious to our forebears: what was it like for those who died unprepared? When yet another terrorist outrage occurs, and more innocents die, you often hear: what did they do to deserve it? The question – framed in that way – is pretty offensive to us nowadays, yet it is the first thing many in former times would have thought of, and it’s the question Jesus is being asked in today’s Gospel reading. What did those Galileans do to deserve their fate? We shouldn’t underestimate the sheer horror of what happened. To the ancient Jews, blood was the symbol of life, God’s great gift to his people. What Pilate’s henchmen did was not only vindictive, it was also sacrilegious. Or again, those eighteen people who died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them: what did they do to deserve to die? Whose fault was it? Who was to blame? Jesus’ disconcerting answer is, ‘Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.’ – a real shock, and not the response anyone wanted to hear.
But see what happens when we start to answer the question Jesus tells us to drop. For instance, in the last decade, whose fault was it that so many died on 9/11, or in Madrid in 2004, or on 7/7 here? ‘Murderous terrorists’, we say. And God knows there have been countless further attacks on the innocent since then, and still it goes on. But ask this, too, ‘Why did the perpetrators feel so murderous?’ Because Spain, and the UK and others, supported the US invasion of Iraq and, earlier, of Afghanistan. And why were these countries invaded? Because of terrorist attacks on mainland America. And why did they happen? Because of decades of interference in the Middle East by Western nations – supplying weapons, funding terrorism, deliberately destablising regimes (not least oil producers) for their own financial gain. Set this alongside the establishment of the State of Israel, and the plight of the Palestinians, and we have already turned the clock back seventy-odd years. And why was Israel founded? Partly out of European guilt about the Holocaust. And what was the Holocaust about? It was the fruition of centuries of anti-Jewish prejudice in Europe. And who caused that? Well, if truth be told, it was very often fed by the Christian Church. And so it goes on. Now, I know there’s a lot of debatable and controversial politics in all of that, but the real point is that made by Jesus in today’s Gospel. Essentially, he says that that if you insist on knowing who is to blame, you will never stop asking. His advice to his questioners is: Let go of blame, look to yourselves, repent and start afresh. And what about that tower collapsing on the eighteen hapless victims? Surely that was just bad luck? Would it be just bad luck if falling masonry from St Matthias killed eighteen people passing this church this morning? On one level, yes, but more likely it would become a feast of litigation, with blame flying between lawyers, insurers, architects, planners, diocesan property inspectors and the rest – a spider’s web of blame! But Jesus’ response is the same: Let go of blame, look to yourselves, repent and start afresh.
These two little stories put before us a sobering proposition. It can be one of the hardest things in the world not to get into the blame game. It goes against our human nature in so many ways. But this is not about letting wrongdoers off the hook. Obviously, authorities need to establish who is to blame for terrorist attacks: justice demands it. Wrongs need to be righted and accidents clearly need investigating. But blame may not be the most important question for the rest of us. The need to attach blame and the bearing of grudges can become all-consuming and destructive, and we put ourselves at risk of never being able to move on. That applies to the events of our own lives just as much as it does to great international calamities. If ever you needed proof that the Gospel is counter-cultural, this passage in Luke is one sure example.
The final image in today’s Gospel – and perhaps rather more straightforward to talk about – is that of the fig tree which isn’t bearing fruit. The parable seems clear, and it is fitting we are confronted with it in Lent, the season when we are called to do some personal spring cleaning. Spring is a time for digging over the old soil, removing the dead stuff of last season, adding fertilizer and preparing the ground for new growth. Lent gives us an opportunity to do exactly the same thing in our lives. As Jesus says, Let go of blame, look to yourselves, repent and start afresh. You never know: if we can manage to put guilt and blame to death, we might stand a chance of appreciating what resurrection means.