Lost to us, of course, is the whole backstory about this week’s Gospel. We don’t know what happened. Why would Pilate send in soldiers who killed Galileans as they were apparently engaged in what sounds like a fairly innocuous pursuit—the act of worship? Were they innocent bystanders, as we have seen all too often in the news such as in the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was killed by police in Cleveland? Were these Galileans zealots who were inciting rebellion against Roman authority? We don’t know. That is all lost to history.
When I think about this incident in the Gospels, I cannot help but think about another time and place from history that should be more familiar to us. December 29th, 1890. There, Lakota Sioux had gathered at a place near Pine Ridge, South Dakota at a place called Wounded Knee, to engage in an act of worship which they called “Ghost Dancing.” Ironically, The “Ghost Dance” was a ritual dance– a religious ceremony that arose in response to Westward Expansion. It was a way in which to grieve the culture of the indigenous people, which they saw passing into oblivion. It is not quite clear what caused the incident known as the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Maybe it was a misunderstanding. Maybe it was something else on the part of the United States’ 7th Cavalry. But that doesn’t change that when the incident was over, so were the lives of some 300 people, many of whom were women and children.
Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux, recalled the massacre at Wounded Knee with these words:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch… as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream… the nation’s hope is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”[
There are ample reasons that this reflection could turn in the direction of social justice, reparations, and immigration reform, and I hope that you think about these issues. They are pressing issues for our time, and they deserve more reflective thought than seems to be given them either by media coverage or by certain candidates for political office.
Back to the Gospel—
No, we don’t know about those Galileans. We don’t know about those upon whom the tower of Siloam fell either. Of course, in these days of social media and electronic communication, we do know about the scope of tragedy. We are so aware of it because it is inescapable. Yet, what should bring tears to our eyes has caused some people to become indifferent to the suffering of others around them. Many have become cynical. “If it doesn’t directly affect me; why should I care?” I have heard more than one person wonder aloud, “I wonder what the crisis of the week will be?”
Just to be clear about it: while we are inundated by the scope of tragedy, that does not let us off the hook from thinking and responding in care, and with a quest for what is ethical, moral and just.
Jesus suffered a tragic and unjust death so he might redeem the scope of the tragedy in life. But– because we live in a world in which we cannot escape the scope of tragedy that ever presses into our awareness– it is well that we ARE reminded of it. It needs to be something that we talk about, because it is not possible to be so isolated that the dimension of tragedy never touches us. For it surely does, whether directly, or indirectly.
So Jesus used the awareness of tragedy to remind the people of his time that we all would do well to heed the sobering warning: Repent, lest ye also likewise perish.
If we are indeed like the tree in the parable that Jesus tells this morning, then the reality of it is that most of us by virtue of being alive have plenty of “nutrient” piled on us during the course of our lives. And that “nutrient” has an effect. Either we bear within ourselves bitter fruit… or we come to bear the fruit of the kingdom of God. Either we come to bear hellish fruit… or we bear gracious fruit; either we come to bear the fruit of a life that is deeply surrounded by the grace of God in Jesus Christ… or we come to bear resentment, anger, cynicism and the like. Either we bear the flowers of Jesus’ grace– or we come to bear les fleurs de mal.*