These words from Psalm 124 in the Scottish Metrical Version:
“But blessed be God who doth us safely keep
and hath not given us for a living prey
unto their teeth and bloody cruelty.”
came to mind as I read in my morning paper that David Haines, who was beheaded by ISIL had asked that nobody should pay a ransom for his freedom. He must have been a very brave man. I’m less scared of death than I used to be, but extreme pain scares the shit out of me, and that’s what David Haines was facing. The manner of his death and of many others at the hands of ISIL pushes me towards notions of retribution which are contrary to my ethics of peace.
Shortly afterwards I received an email from Beth in Alaska telling me of landslides which have devastated a town and trapped some of its people. She and her husband Mark are teaching native people to set up a fish loading business and are very grieved by this incident.
The two events taken together remind me of a passage in Luke’s Gospel chapter 13.
“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’”
Two events are reported here:one a bloody murder, the other, a terrible accident, just as in my reading today.
I find it hard to read the passage without anger. What on earth was Jesus on about? How could he respond in such a blunt and unfeeling fashion to these tragedies? There’s no word here of any compassion for the victims, but rather a willingness to use their suffering as a warning. Is Jesus saying that the victims died without time to repent and that his hearers best get in some repentance before something similar happens to them? I begin to imagine how our gentle and compassionate mass media would have dealt with this matter if they had been around in Jesus’ time.
Voices shouting: Hey, Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, Judaean Times here, Jerusalem Post wants to know, Capernaum Courier, your local paper Jesus, Tyre TV Jesus, what have you to say to grieving relatives Jesus, did you disrespect the dead?
Jesus: OK One at a time please!
Reporter 1: Judaean Times, Jesus, we want to know if you used these terrible deaths to preach a sermon about repentance….
Reporter 2.And you showed no respect or compassion, Bethlehem Bugle here.
Jesus: And of course your newspapers are models of respect and compassion?
Reporter 3: Don’t think you can weasel out of this by abusing the media. I’ve got a note that says you described the dead as just average sinners and told your audience that unless they all repented the same might happen to them. Is it true you said these words?
Jesus: Not quite true….
Reporter 4: Tyre TV….we’re transmitting this direct… we don’t want any maybes, did you say those words and if so how do you defend them?
Jesus: Those who use the death of others to make money for their companies are in no position to judge. But I’m happy to answer if you’re happy to listen instead of screaming.
Reporter 1: It better be good….
Jesus: I did not use the word repent, I said “change your ways”.
Voices: Just makes it worse, that’s appalling, he’s supposed to be a holy man, he’s a headbanger….
Jesus: The people asked me if God let Pilatus kill the men because they were terrible sinners. And I said they were no worse sinners than the rest of us. And I said the same about the people killed by the tower. I can say it again to you. These victims were the same kind of sinners as you and me.
Reporter 2: Are you saying God’s got something bad planned for us?
Jesus: Come on, grow up, these are nothing to do with God….
Reporter 4: You mean they were just accidents?
Jesus: Well, certainly our father in heaven does not control all the events of the world, but these events were not accidents…
Reporter 3: Aw come on Jesus, if they weren’t accidents, what were they?
Jesus: Pontius Pilatus ordered the massacre of the Galileans because he thought their sacrifices to God were provocative.He may have imagined he was keeping order, but he is responsible for these deaths.
Reporter 1: Maybe you want to lead people against the Romans?
Jesus: Do I look like a Jihadi? People who take up the sword die by it.
Reporter 2: But the tower falling, that was an accident wasn’t it?
Jesus: Not altogether. God didn’t build the tower, nor was it God’s duty to maintain it. So if we build and fail to maintain our buildings, who’s at fault if they fall on somebody? Remember I used to be the village builder.
Reporter 4: It was part of the Temple. You accusing the Temple authorities?
Jesus: No I’m just pointing out we live in a world that is not controlled by God. Sometimes accidents do happen. Sometimes people do evil things. That’s our world. We can only change it by changing ourselves.
Reporter 3: And if we change ourselves we’ll be free from evil or accidents?
Jesus: Unfortunately not.. But if we work with God for a different world, our deaths will not be meaningless.
Reporter 1. But the people we’re talking about, their deaths will still be meaningless?
Jesus: The New World I work for is for all, including those who are victims of evil and carelessness. It might even include journalists……..
This is exactly how reporters would do it, putting words in his mouth and drawing out insinuations that are not there. The conclusion is excellent, but all but meaningless to many. Most people simply refuse to see the bigger picture. They look for cause and effect on the micro scale – the Christian version of karma, I guess – but Jesus is looking at the cosmic scale and using two events only as examples of violence which, irrespective of cause or agent, are images of life as is. The call to repent is a call to change our ways and work for justice and goodness in all areas of life, not just what grabs today’s headlines. Jesus is always after the big picture, which is why he often grew impatient with demands for healings and settling family squabbles and answers to questions meant to trap him. We humans are so damn petty!
But the big pic is not very comforting. “The one who endures to the end shall be saved” ?
Hmmm… not sure how to deal with that.
But then it also depends on how one interprets salvation/saved. Traditional atonement/redemption theories…?