Tag Archives: Pontius Pilate

Looking Back at Yesterday’s Gospel

Old fig tree
Old fig tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Today’s gospel appears to be two unrelated stories. The first appears to ask why the innocent suffer. The second asks what can be done with unfruitful believers. Despite appearances, the two stories are related. It’s all about appearances. Does God care about the way things look, or does God care about the way things are?  

In the first story, Jesus is accosted with news of people who were executed (perhaps a better word is murdered) by Pontius Pilate, a man whose claim to fame is complicity in the murder of Jesus. Like people today, people of Jesus’ day wanted life to make sense. According to their logic, and according to many pious folk, “Everything happens for a reason.” The problem is that the people of Jesus’ day were no better at discerning the reason than we are. They jumped to conclusions, a universal human failing, and assumed that the dead had done something bad to deserve destruction. After each story, Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did.” If those people did not earn destruction by evil deeds, then why did Jesus tell people to repent of evil or perish? Harper’s Bible Commentary tells us that “The final blow to the idea that any person suffering must have sinned is dealt at Golgotha.” 

After this conversation, Jesus told a parable, the second story. In the parable, an innocent fig tree is simply growing in a garden and bothering nobody. Sadly, in the eyes of the garden’s owner, the fig tree is no better than a thief. It is sucking up nutrients from the ground and making itself lush and beautiful, comfortable in its little corner of the world, but it is not doing the one thing that makes a fig tree uniquely valuable: it is not producing any figs. The owner allowed it three years to grow up and become an adult. The owner recognized the religious  (Pharisaical) rule that the fourth year, the first fruitful year, all the produce belonged to God. Well, there was no produce, but that was God’s problem. Then three more years passed. Three years. The fruit during these years belonged to the owner – well, after the tithe they belonged to the owner. The owner is indignant that the tree should receive the resources of the garden while remaining fruitless. As far as the owner is concerned, this tree is a fraud, living off larceny, perpetrating the long con. The gardener speaks up in apparent defense of the tree, offering to give it even more resources, suggesting that a little more investment will pay off in a year’s time. You might say that as a response to Jesus’ admonition to “repent, or you will all perish” the gardener says, “I think I know how to persuade this tree to stop stealing and start producing fruit.” If the gardener could make it happen, it would be a dramatic turnaround for that fig tree. And that is the point. 

The gardener offers to invest more in the tree, and it sounds at first as if he is offering to give the tree more freedom (cultivate the soil so it is looser for the roots to develop) and more food (fertilizer that will make it even more lush). If you read the words again, the gardener is offering to invest himself in that tree. He will dig around it. He will spread more fertilizer. By implication he says that he will do more for this tree without reducing his efforts for all the other plants in the garden. He will give more of himself in order to lead the tree to a place where the tree will give something – fruit. 

It takes us back to the stories of execution and accidental death. What was wrong with those people who died? In what way might they resemble the figless fig tree? In what way might anyone resemble the figless fig tree? If a fig can be reasonably expected to produce figs, and condemned if it doesn’t, in what way does that image compare to a human being? How does the failure of a fig tree to produce figs parallel a human being’s need for repentance?  

Answers to these questions can be found by digging a little deeper, to borrow the gardening metaphor, into the word repent 

The Greek word that underlies the English word repent is metanoeo. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged says of this word, “In general, what is meant is an about-face.” (page 640) Dr. Rick Carlson interprets the word much more dramatically, saying that repentance is radical reorientation. When we think of repentance that way, it sounds like the kind of response called for by radical injustice (autocratic execution of innocent people) or radical probability (the statistical likelihood that eighteen people would be near enough to die when gravity took its toll on that tower).  If you hear Jesus say, “unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did,” it might sound like something you could put on tomorrow’s to-do list. It sounds more compelling when you hear Jesus say, “Unless you radically reorient your life, you are doomed!”

Which brings us to the fig tree. The whole problem with the fig tree is that the owner had a right to expect figs from that tree. It was his tree in his garden. He bought it, he planted it, he paid the gardener to give it the same care as everything else, but no figs. The problem is what Dr. Carlson calls “axiomatic.”

Everyone who studied geometry, willingly or unwillingly, in high school, remembers the word axiom. Some will even remember that an axiom was a statement of truth which was self-evident and required no proof. An example of an axiom is the statement “things equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” That statement does not require to be proved the way the statement “all right angles are congruent” needs to be proved. Following this train of thought, it is axiomatic that figs come from fig trees, but somebody must prove that extra cultivation and fertilizer will compel a fruitless tree to produce fruit.

John the Baptist talked about this problem. Crowds of people came to hear him preach down by the Jordan River, and among the people in the crowds were Pharisees. The Pharisees were the masters of religious appearance. They looked exactly like the definition of religion just as that fruitless fig tree Jesus talked about looked exactly like the definition of fig tree. Sadly, in both cases, no fruit was being produced

John the Baptist looked at the Pharisees, who had the appearance of being God’s own people, but they showed none of the fruit of a relationship with God. He said, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Actually, the text suggests that he probably shouted those words vehemently. He almost certainly shouted Aramaic words, which were written down in Greek gospels and have now been translated into English. Still, to get the meaning the way John shouted at them, we need to borrow Dr. Carlson’s language. In John’s eyes, those fruitless Pharisees needed something as radical as that figless fig tree needed. He shouted, “It is axiomatic that fruit trees bear fruit, and it is axiomatic that people who live in relationship with God show the evidence in their lives! You need to radically reorient your lives and start bearing fruit axiomatic with repentance!”

In Matthew’s gospel, the parallel between this message of John the Baptist and the message of Jesus is quite clear.

 Matthew 3:1 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Matthew 4:17 Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Both John the Baptist and Jesus opened their messages with the same call Jesus gave to the people in Luke 13: “You need to make an about-face. You need to radically reorient your lives. And you need to start bearing fruit axiomatic of that radical reorientation.”

The people who came to Jesus with the stories of the murder of innocents, looking for some simple explanation for the evil in the world did not get off the hook. Jesus took them down the road to a place where mere appearances and easy answers no longer worked. It was fairly easy to say that Pilate perverted justice by murdering people who had not been convicted of anything. It appeared to be a perversion of justice. Jesus said that the murder by Pilate was no better or worse than the accidental death of people who simply happened to be standing by when a tower collapsed. In the cosmic sense, that appears to be a perversion of justice, too. People died without being convicted of any wrong-doing. So when a gardener jumps to the defense of a silly tree that refuses to produce the fruit that is axiomatic of fig trees, it almost sounds comical, until you think of what John the Baptist and Jesus both preached. Then you realize that Jesus simply wanted everyone to recognize that you can’t fool God. Nobody can produce the fruit of a radically reoriented life by simply looking religious. Only a person who makes the about face, turns away from the mere appearance of religiosity, and radically reorients his life to complete commitment to Christ will produce the fruit axiomatic of a relationship with God. If we don’t do that, we are as doomed as those innocent bystanders. Christ, our wonderful gardener, invested himself on the cross, invested everything in us on the cross. That fruitless fig tree that focused only on being leafy and comfortable was just like us when we are self-absorbed and self-worshiping and focused on “what’s in it for me.” If we want to produce the fruit axiomatic of a relationship with God, we need to turn around and radically reorient ourselves, do a complete about-face, and follow Christ to the cross.

What is Truth?

What is truth? Deutsch: Was ist Wahrheit? Fran...
What is truth? Deutsch: Was ist Wahrheit? Français : “Qu’est-ce que la vérité ?” Le Christ et Pilate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Readings:  Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14     Psalm 93     Revelation 1:4b-8     John 18:33-37


Is Jesus a king? After Jesus had been betrayed and handed over to the religious leaders, they held a mock trial and sentenced him to death. Forbidden by Rome to execute anyone, the religious leaders handed Jesus over to Pilate for execution. Challenged by Pilate in a last-ditch effort to avoid execution, the leaders shouted, “We have no king but Caesar!” and watched Jesus handed over to his executioners.

The scene with Pilate is famous because of a ridiculous question Pilate asked in order to avoid responsibility for what he was about to do. Pilate asked Jesus some questions which Jesus answered, and then Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” to which Pilate responded, “What is truth?” He didn’t ask because he wanted to know the answer; he asked, because he did not have the courage to deal with the answer.

The truth was that he could clearly see that Jesus was no criminal. Pilate could see truth and grace and even power in Jesus, but Pilate could also see that the population of Jerusalem was likely to explode if Jesus were allowed to live. Pilate’s problem was that he could not handle the truth.

Lots of people cannot handle that truth.

People who go to church and hear the gospel preached Sunday after Sunday often claim that that they “didn’t get anything out of it.” They try to put the blame for their unwillingness to put Christ first in their lives on preachers who never entertained them enough to keep their attention. If they don’t like church and can’t identify with Jesus, then it is due to poor customer service by Christian leaders. They can’t handle the truth, so they blame the messengers.

People who believe and are baptized claim their faith with eagerness, but at some point, they see a pastor who cheats on his wife, or they discover that a church treasurer has absconded with the offering. They ask a pastor to pray for a sick child, but the child doesn’t get well. A neighbor who sits beside them in the pew on Sunday lies about them to other neighbors on Monday. People fail them, and they decide that the “religion thing” is a complete hoax. Churches are full of hypocrites, and they don’t want to be around people like that. They look out and see sinners; they look inward and see only the wounds to their own egos. They can’t handle the truth, so they blame their fellow-travelers.

The things some people say make it sound as if everything they ever heard about God, the Bible or Christ himself made less of an impression than Cinderella. Everything about religion, they say, is like a ghost story, and they don’t want to have to listen to any more ghost stories. They can’t handle the truth, so they re-characterize the truth to diminish its substance to that of a vapor.

The truth that slapped Pilate in the face that day was that Jesus actually was a king. Pilate was so busy protecting his job that he did not dare acknowledge who Jesus was, but everything he did betrayed his desperation to finesse this problem and simply make it all disappear. He knew that the religious leaders were duplicitous thugs. He knew that if they wanted Jesus dead it was not due to their excess of piety. Yet he also knew that these religious leaders would have no qualms about inciting a riot if Pilate failed to do their will. He represented the most powerful nation on earth, and he commanded a cohort of soldiers who were willing to kill women and children without compunction at the order of a superior officer. Yet Pilate’s behavior tells the reader that he was afraid of powers that could do him harm.

Pilate’s words and deeds that day reveal the fear that engulfed him as he sat on the horns of a real dilemma. If he did nothing, he knew the Jews would riot. If he killed this kingly man who had already suffered unjustly, he knew that it would haunt his conscience. He knew the truth, and when he required the executing officer to post over Jesus’ head a sign that said, “The king of the Jews,” he knew what he was doing.

 At first glance that sign sounds political, of course, and certainly shames the leaders who instigated this outrage, but Pilate was trying to work through his recognition that Jesus really was a king, and that his kingdom was not of this world. Pilate could not handle the truth. On that day, the only person who ever dealt with the truth was the centurion who cried out at the moment of Jesus’ death, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

The world is full of people who cannot handle the truth of Jesus’ kingship. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is currently engaged in yet another battle to take down a cross outside San Diego, because the Foundation cannot handle the truth. The truth about Christ is so powerful and so compelling that people cannot simply ignore it and get on with their lives. The truth about Christ demands that they make a choice – submit to his kingship or really and truly reject him. The Freedom From Religion Foundation rejects him over and over and over. Pilate tried to avoid making that choice, but it was forced upon him. Neither the religious leaders nor Christ would simply disappear. Pilate washed his hands in a vain attempt to reject the necessity of being part of the assault on Jesus, but none of his efforts to take himself out of the picture worked. For two thousand years, Christians have named him and his complicity in the murder of God’s Son every time they recite the Apostle’s Creed. For that long, every culture touched by the Bible has found some way to speak of the abdication of responsibility by a phrase about “washing your hands.” For that long, Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” has been a way of describing a situation in which a harsh truth has consequences even for those who ignore it.

In today’s gospel, Christ does not look like a king to earthly eyes, but the gospel writer clearly sees Christ the King elevated on his throne, the cross, bearing the sins of the world and washing them away in his own blood. In today’s gospel, Pilate tries to sidestep the truth about Jesus and act as if he is just another bandit processed by blind justice. Pilate does not succeed in avoiding the truth about Jesus, and neither do we. How do you attempt to diminish Christ’s claim on you? What are your strategies for avoiding his call to deny self and die with him? Are you asking “What is truth?” or are you living in truth?

Holy Troublemakers

Readings for Sunday, July 15, 2012
Amos 7:7-15     Psalm 85:8-13     Ephesians 1:3-14     Mark 6_14-29

 Has anyone ever told you something true that you wished you did not know? It is a common problem. A wife hears the truth that her husband prefers another woman. A father hears that his son has been killed in an auto accident. A young girl discovers that her best friend has begun dating the boy she dreams of. A mother is told that her baby was stillborn.

Most of us try to live by the principle of telling the truth, but we don’t always like the truth.

Some people avoid the truth by pretending it is not so. Some enforce their willful ignorance of the truth by abusing other people who refuse to play along. The prophet Amos and John the Baptist both faced that problem. They spoke the truth as God instructed them to do. People who preferred lies forcefully rejected them.

Amos, a Judean, showed up in Israel and began to preach that God was mad at neighboring countries. The Israelites were glad to hear that God was angry with their enemies. That truth sounded good, and they were eager to hear more of the same. However, when Amos announced that God thought Israel was out of line, not true when measured by a plumb line, the people of the northern kingdom took offense. They told him to go prophesy in Judah, and never to come back to Israel, because they did not like the kind of truth Amos told. Amos accused them of selfishness and greed and addiction to personal pleasure. He said God thought their sacrifices, offerings and worship activities were completely dishonest shams. He accused them of not actually worshiping God, no matter how good things looked. Amos was made persona non grata in Israel, because he was a loudmouth troublemaker.

John the Baptist offended a lot of people, too. He called the religious leaders vipers and he accused the king of adultery. Unlike Amos who was simply run out of town, John was actually arrested. Ultimately he was beheaded, because he, too, was a loudmouth troublemaker.

When standing for truth might cost someone power or celebrity status, many people reject the truth and pretend it isn’t so. When Jesus was on trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” to which Pilate responded, “What is truth?” Pilate knew that Jesus was speaking truth, and Pilate knew that the religious leaders and their mob were speaking lies, but Pilate did not want to deal with the truth. His job was to keep riots down. In his worldview, Jesus, the itinerant rabbi that had the whole world in an uproar, was nothing but another loudmouth troublemaker. Jesus was executed, because Pilate could not accept truth.

As Christians we, too, are called to be troublemakers. We are to be little Christs, sprinkled around in the culture like salt sprinkled on a stew. We are supposed to be busy telling the truth all the time. The truth about God. The truth about Christ. The truth about our life in relationship with Christ. We are to reject lies and live truth, and if we do that some people will hate us. If we say that an unborn baby is a living human being, we might be hated, even though we speak truth. If we say that a human embryo is a living human being, we might be even more hated, even though we speak truth. If we say that God does not create people with a genetic identity that runs counter to God’s own model for family structures, then we will be hated, even though we speak truth. If we say that we cannot show kindness to anyone without doing it in the name of Christ, and that therefore, we cannot ever perform completely secular service, we will be scorned, if not hated, and we may suffer some social and legal consequences.

Nevertheless, we are called to be troublemakers. Loving, peaceful, kind, truthful little Christlike troublemakers. We must expect the consequences the culture visits on troublemakers.