Blood on the Altar

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” (Luke 13: 1-3)

The great German theologian Karl Barth is reputed to have told his students to preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.  This is the pastor’s weekly challenge: to find the connection, the resonance, between biblical events, and the events of our own day; between the concerns of scripture, and our own concerns. Sometimes it can seem a bit of a stretch.

Other times, not so much.

Lately, the events of our own time seem to have more in common with biblical events than I for one would have thought possible. Take today’s gospel reading.

This week’s lectionary reading speaks of a mass killing in a place of worship. The victims were Galilean Jews, who were struck down at the Temple, even as they offered their sacrifices.

Last week, we learned of another mass killing in a place of worship. The victims were New Zealand Muslims, who were struck down at the Al Noor mosque, even as they offered their prayers.

There is a saying, that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Sometimes it’s a bit of a forced rhyme. Not this week.

There is blood on the altar this week. And with those earlier disciples, we ask why.

Not much is known about these Galilean pilgrims, killed at the altar of the Temple. Today’s brief passage from the Gospel of Luke does not tell us much about the incident, and there don’t seem to be any other surviving contemporary accounts. Luke does tell us that the violence was incited by the Roman governor, Pilate. Which is historically plausible; it would not have been the first time that Pilate put Jews to death, nor would it be the last.

Bear in mind, that Jesus and his disciples were, themselves, Galilean Jews, and that this conversation among them took place as they too were travelling to the Temple in Jerusalem. No surprise they were thinking about this previous band of Galileans who met their deaths there. Wondering, perhaps, if the same thing could happen to them.

Jesus begins, as he so often does, with a question. Do you suppose that these Galileans were cut down in this way because they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?

Let’s pause here and consider his question. What ARE the disciples thinking?

The conventional interpretation is that the disciples are, indeed, thinking this very thing. That the disciples ascribed to an ancient worldview, one that presumed that the just were always rewarded and the wicked were always punished; that victim-blaming was rampant in ancient Israel; and that Jesus was here introducing a radical new teaching, by suggesting that those who suffer are no different from us.

Well, that’s a pretty good message, to be sure. And one we still need to hear today. After all, victim-blaming is still rampant in modern society. It seems to be human nature, to find fault with the suffering; to distance ourselves from the unfortunate. We feel sympathy, sure, of course we feel sympathy for those in pain; but we also want to reassure ourselves, that it couldn’t happen to us, that it couldn’t happen here.

That’s the conventional sermon on this text, and it’s a pretty good one, but I don’t think that’s actually Jesus’ point here.

Because I just can’t imagine that the disciples were actually walking along, thinking, yeah, well, those other Galileans probably got what they deserved.  I’m guessing the disciples were laying the blame where it belonged: at Pilate’s feet.

So when Jesus asks them, do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, to have ended in this way? – I’m guessing this is really a rhetorical question, to which the disciples already knew the answer, and that they all answered: Hell, no. Pilate wouldn’t care if they were sinners or saints.

That blood on the altar? It could have been ours.

(But – could it, really? I’m just speaking for myself here now, white Protestant American that I am. Were the victims of last week’s shooting really just like me? I remember after the Charleston shooting – when a white supremacist entered an historically black church and killed nine people at a bible study – after that shooting, I remember a member of an all-white congregation telling me that she didn’t ‘feel safe’ in church anymore – and I thought, seriously?  It’s not like the Klan will be coming after you. Or me, for that matter…..  Well, let’s hold that thought. I’ll circle back around to it. Meanwhile, let’s get back to Jesus.)

Jesus asks his disciples – perhaps rhetorically, perhaps not – Do you think that these Galileans were somehow to blame for their fate? And then he answers his own question: No. No, of course not.

And I imagine the disciples nod their heads, emphatically, feeling morally superior to anyone who would suggest otherwise.

And then Jesus adds, But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Wait – what?

Jesus’ words here remind me of the kind of fear-mongering I see sometimes on Christian billboards. There used to be one on the Mass Pike that said: WHEN YOU DIE, YOU WILL SEE GOD – accompanied by a graphic of a flat-lining EKG. The message of the billboard was clear: Repent or go to hell. Seek ye the Lord while he may be found — or else.

I ask you, what kind of response is that, to a mass killing? How on earth could repentance have saved these people from death? It’s not as though Pilate cared whether they were penitent. And surely it is the murderer, not the victim, that needs to repent?

So what the hell is Jesus talking about?

Well, first off, he’s not talking about hell. At least, I don’t think so. Because he specifically says, unless you repent, you will perish in the same way as these other Galileans. In the same way . Meaning – what? At the hand of Pilate?

You see the irony here, right?

Because it’s Jesus himself, who will be the next Galilean Jew to die at Pilate’s hand. Do we imagine that Jesus suffered in this way because he was a worse sinner than other Galileans? No, of course not.

So what is he talking about, when he tells his disciples, unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way?

I never could make much sense of this verse, until now. But now there is blood on the altar again, and now maybe I can begin to hear what the disciples heard in these words – not threat, or condemnation, but urgency, and lament.

“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” is very church-y language.  Suppose we try another translation:

“Unless we change course, the Pilates of this world will get us all.”

Reading them in the context of current events, I find that  Jesus’ words now call to my mind the words of Martin Neimöller, a pastor who became part of the German religious resistance to Hitler. Neimöller, a former U-Boat commander, was originally a supporter of the Third Reich — something he would repent for the rest of his life. It was Neimöller who spoke these now-famous words:

“First they came for the socalists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socalist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Today’s scripture lesson is for all the Neimöllers out there — for all of us whose grief over recent events is still mingled with relief that we were not the ones targeted.

Do we imagine that the worshippers killed in Christchurch last week were somehow deserving of their fate? No, of course not. But unless we change course, unless we transform ourselves and our culture, unless we repent — this hatred and division will destroy us all.

First they came for the black churches.
Then they came for the synagogues.
Then they came for the mosques.

So if we are still feeling perfectly safe, if we have not changed course at all, perhaps it is because we are not yet standing in solidarity with those who are in danger. Our neighbors down the road at Temple Israel have been worshipping behind locked doors, ever since the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.  How have we changed our own ways, in response to these events?

There is blood on the altar, and we are all called to repent. How do we begin?

Two days ago, on the Friday following the shooting, thousands of Muslims gathered for prayer at the Al Noor mosque. Their non-Muslim neighbors gathered there too — thousands of them. The entire community literally stood behind the worshippers.

Many of the non-Muslim women in the crowd wore hijabs, headscarves. Asked why, one Christchurch woman offered this explanation:[1]

“Why am I wearing a headscarf today? Well, my primary reason was that if anybody else turns up waving a gun, I want to stand between him and anybody he might be pointing it at.

“And I don’t want him to be able to tell the difference, because there is no difference.”




Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts
March 24, 2019

[1] Christchurch resident Bell Sibly, quoted in the NYT

Image: Paper links are draped over the fence at Hagley Park near one of the mosques were more than 40 people were killed in Christchurch March 15. (S. Miller/VOA)