Lent 3C (3 March 20143)



  • Isaiah 55:1-9 & and Ps 63:1-8
  • 1Cor 10:1-13
  • Luke 13:1-9



This week’s Gospel focuses on the prophetic theme of repentance and also preserves echoes of a popular memory of Pilate as a cruel ruler.

Josephus on Pontius Pilate

The 1C Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, refers to Pilate’s cruelty and nastiness as part his description of the events that would culminate in the Jewish-Roman War.

Pilate and the Jews

1. BUT now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Caesarea to Jerusalem, to take their winter quarters there, in order to abolish the Jewish laws. So he introduced Caesar’s effigies, which were upon the ensigns, and brought them into the city; whereas our law forbids us the very making of images; on which account the former procurators were wont to make their entry into the city with such ensigns as had not those ornaments. Pilate was the first who brought those images to Jerusalem, and set them up there; which was done without the knowledge of the people, because it was done in the night time; but as soon as they knew it, they came in multitudes to Caesarea, and interceded with Pilate many days that he would remove the images; and when he would not grant their requests, because it would tend to the injury of Caesar, while yet they persevered in their request, on the sixth day he ordered his soldiers to have their weapons privately, while he came and sat upon his judgment-seat, which seat was so prepared in the open place of the city, that it concealed the army that lay ready to oppress them; and when the Jews petitioned him again, he gave a signal to the soldiers to encompass them routed, and threatened that their punishment should be no less than immediate death, unless they would leave off disturbing him, and go their ways home. But they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly, rather than the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed; upon which Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable, and presently commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Caesarea.
2. But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem, and did it with the sacred money, and derived the origin of the stream from the distance of two hundred furlongs. However, the Jews were not pleased with what had been done about this water; and many ten thousands of the people got together, and made a clamor against him, and insisted that he should leave off that design. Some of them also used reproaches, and abused the man, as crowds of such people usually do. So he habited a great number of his soldiers in their habit, who carried daggers under their garments, and sent them to a place where they might surround them. So he bid the Jews himself go away; but they boldly casting reproaches upon him, he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on; who laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those that were tumultuous, and those that were not; nor did they spare them in the least: and since the people were unarmed, and were caught by men prepared for what they were about, there were a great number of them slain by this means, and others of them ran away wounded. And thus an end was put to this sedition.
3. Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
[Antiquities, XVIII.3.1-3]

There is also a parallel account in The Jewish War:

1. AND now as the ethnarchy of Archelaus was fallen into a Roman province, the other sons of Herod, Philip, and that Herod who was called Antipas, each of them took upon them the administration of their own tetrarchies; for when Salome died, she bequeathed to Julia, the wife of Augustus, both her toparchy, and Jamriga, as also her plantation of palm trees that were in Phasaelis. But when the Roman empire was translated to Tiberius, the son of Julia, upon the death of Augustus, who had reigned fifty-seven years, six months, and two days, both Herod and Philip continued in their tetrarchies; and the latter of them built the city Caesarea, at the fountains of Jordan, and in the region of Paneas; as also the city Julias, in the lower Gaulonitis. Herod also built the city Tiberius in Galilee, and in Perea [beyond Jordan] another that was also called Julias.
2. Now Pilate, who was sent as procurator into Judea by Tiberius, sent by night those images of Caesar that are called ensigns into Jerusalem. This excited a very among great tumult among the Jews when it was day; for those that were near them were astonished at the sight of them, as indications that their laws were trodden under foot; for those laws do not permit any sort of image to be brought into the city. Nay, besides the indignation which the citizens had themselves at this procedure, a vast number of people came running out of the country. These came zealously to Pilate to Cesarea, and besought him to carry those ensigns out of Jerusalem, and to preserve them their ancient laws inviolable; but upon Pilate’s denial of their request, they fell (9) down prostrate upon the ground, and continued immovable in that posture for five days and as many nights.
3. On the next day Pilate sat upon his tribunal, in the open market-place, and called to him the multitude, as desirous to give them an answer; and then gave a signal to the soldiers, that they should all by agreement at once encompass the Jews with their weapons; so the band of soldiers stood round about the Jews in three ranks. The Jews were under the utmost consternation at that unexpected sight. Pilate also said to them that they should be cut in pieces, unless they would admit of Caesar’s images, and gave intimation to the soldiers to draw their naked swords. Hereupon the Jews, as it were at one signal, fell down in vast numbers together, and exposed their necks bare, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be slain, than that their law should be transgressed. Hereupon Pilate was greatly surprised at their prodigious superstition, and gave order that the ensigns should be presently carried out of Jerusalem.
4. After this he raised another disturbance, by expending that sacred treasure which is called Corban (10) upon aqueducts, whereby he brought water from the distance of four hundred furlongs. At this the multitude had indignation; and when Pilate was come to Jerusalem, they came about his tribunal, and made a clamor at it. Now when he was apprized aforehand of this disturbance, he mixed his own soldiers in their armor with the multitude, and ordered them to conceal themselves under the habits of private men, and not indeed to use their swords, but with their staves to beat those that made the clamor. He then gave the signal from his tribunal [to do as he had bidden them]. Now the Jews were so sadly beaten, that many of them perished by the stripes they received, and many of them perished as trodden to death by themselves; by which means the multitude was astonished at the calamity of those that were slain, and held their peace. [War, II.9.1-4]


Pilate and the Samaritans

1. BUT the nation of the Samaritans did not escape without tumults. The man who excited them to it was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence, and who contrived every thing so that the multitude might be pleased; so he bid them to get together upon Mount Gerizzim, which is by them looked upon as the most holy of all mountains, and assured them, that when they were come thither, he would show them those sacred vessels which were laid under that place, because Moses put them there So they came thither armed, and thought the discourse of the man probable; and as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together; but Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men, who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village; and when it came to an action, some of them they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain.
2. But when this tumult was appeased, the Samaritan senate sent an embassy to Vitellius, a man that had been consul, and who was now president of Syria, and accused Pilate of the murder of those that were killed; for that they did not go to Tirathaba in order to revolt from the Romans, but to escape the violence of Pilate. So Vitellius sent Marcellus, a friend of his, to take care of the affairs of Judea, and ordered Pilate to go to Rome, to answer before the emperor to the accusations of the Jews. So Pilate, when he had tarried ten years in Judea, made haste to Rome, and this in obedience to the orders of Vitellius, which he durst not contradict; but before he could get to Rome Tiberius was dead. [Antiquities, XVIII.4.1-2]

It is not clear whether Luke 13:1-3 is a variant of the stories about Pilate that were known to Josephus, or an independent tradition. Gerd Lüdemann (Jesus, 2000:352) considers Luke to offer a garbled version of the Samaritan massacre, the event which led to Pilate’s recall.

The event described in Luke 13:1-3 is not attested in any other source, but fits with what was commonly said about Pilate at the time. Whether a false report presented to Jesus by Pharisees–who may themselves have been acting in good faith or with ulterior motives–or an historical error by Luke, the alleged episode was credible in the tense realities of Roman-occupied Palestine.

Quite apart from historical questions about the particular episode, the allegation reminds us of the brutality that was part and parcel of life in those circumstances. Jesus was neither the first nor the last Jew to be crucified by the Roman occupiers. He was one of 250,000 estimated victims. His suffering was no more brutal than that of thousands of other victims, and should not be made the focus of Christian interpretations of his death.


The rock that followed them

In 1 Cor 10:1-3, Paul draws on an ancient Jewish midrash about a miraculous rock that followed the tribes of Israel through the wilderness of Sinai, providing them with water for their sojourn.

The tradition to which Paul refers is found in the targums to Numbers 21;16-20. In essence, the midrash addresses the question of how the water continued to be available to the Israelites even after they left the location of the rock from which Moses had miraculously drawn abundant water. Rather than imagine leaking rocks all over the Sinai desert, the ancient Jewish stiry tellers imagined this rock as one of the wonders of creation; indeed one of ten such special things created by God on the evening of the sixth day of creation.

This miraculous rock followed the Israelites as they moved through the desert, and it was one of the three great exodus miracles (signs) given to Miriam, Aaron, and Moses.

Where our minds question how a rock that supplied sufficient megaliters of water every day to support two million Israelites for 40 years could have failed to turn the Sinai green, Paul latches onto a quite different dimension of the legend. That mobile monolith was Christ—meeting their thirst then, just as he meets our thirst now. This is poetry not geology, myth not history; but all the more powerful for that—and, Paul suggests, a lesson for our instruction.

Luke and the Good News of Repentance

What ever the historical value of the tragic episodes recounted here, Luke has clearly used them to convey a message about making wise use of the time available for repentance:

  • 13:1-3 Galileans killed by Pilate
  • 13:4-5 Judeans killed by a collapsing tower
  • 13:6-9 The barren fig tree

The concluding parable has a well-known parallel in the later Syriac versions of the much earlier (5C BCE) Story of Ahikar:

And Ahiqar said to him, ‘O my boy! thou art like the tree which was fruitless beside the water, and its master was fain to cut it down, and it said to him, “Remove me to another place, and if I do not bear frult, cut me down.” And its master said to it, “Thou being beside the water hast not borne fruit, how shalt thou bear fruit when thou art in another place?”

Luke is widely considered to be responsible for compiling this unit with its focus on repentance while there is time to do so, but there seems to be a strong sense that the parable itself may go back to Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar voted the saying Pink; an outcome that suggests the “voice print” of Jesus can be discerned in this passage. In this case, the Fellows of the Seminar seem to have been persuaded by the surviving features of a story transmitted orally as well as by its “exaggerated hope” that God’s patience be sufficient to elicit repentance and reform.

While his own methodological rigor would require John Dominic Crossan to exclude this saying from his inventory of historical Jesus materials (since it is attested only in a single source), Crossan still gives the passage a positive historical rating.

The idea that Jesus proclaimed a message about the unstoppable love and mercy of God is one that most of us would find very attractive. It is therefore hard for us to reject from the core sayings of Jesus a text such as this. Just as we have stereotypes of Pilate and the brutality of the crucifixion, we have our personal and collective stereotypes of Jesus.

One of the points where our stereotypes of Jesus clash with the canonical tradition is the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree that failed to provide him with fruit to relieve his hunger; even though it was not the season for figs. Scholars have considered the possible links between the cursing of the “barren” fig tree in Mark and Matthew, and this parable about a barren fig tree in Luke.

After a detailed discussion of the tradition, John P. Meier (A Marginal Jew, II.884-96) concludes that “the story of the cursing of the fig tree has no claim to go back to the public ministry of the historical Jesus.” His suggestion for the development of the complex intertwining of words and deeds against the Jerusalem Temple and the cursing of the fig tree is as follows:

In the beginning, quite early in the first Christian generation, the stories of Jesus’ triumphal entry, his cleansing of the temple, and the temple officials’ challenge to his authority were told as a single block of material, a narrative unit in which one story followed immediately upon the other. Perhaps we have here an early sign of a primitive yet already expanding Passion Narrative, reflected in different ways in both Mark’s and John’s tradition. As the passion tradition developed, a pre-Marcan author sought to emphasize that the cleansing of the temple was not an act of reform and purification but rather a prophetic judgment on the temple. He accomplished this by creating the story of the cursing of the fig tree and wrapping it around the account of the cleansing. By mutual interpretation, the two interrelated stories made clear that Jesus was not urging the temple’s reform but pronouncing the temple’s doom.

Without necessarily accepting every element in that creative reconstruction of the prehistory of Mark 11, we can perhaps posit the parable of a barren fig tree—preserved as a saying of Jesus—as the creative spark for the process of enclosing the prophetic incident at the Temple within another symbolic narrative that drew on the ancient metaphor of the fig tree. Our short parable in this week’s lectionary may well have been the catalyst for the dramatic symbol of the cursed fig tree that was found without fruit when God came visiting!

There is no opportunity for repentance in Mark’s version of the story. That may be one reason that Luke omitted the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree? (And why just one victim of Jesus’ fit of pique? Why not a curse upon all the fruitless fig trees on the hills around the city?)

Perhaps Luke wanted to offer an interpretation of Jesus that offered hope to the poor without ostracizing his intended audience of wealthy and influential readers?

Questions for reflection:

  • Where do we find the good news in the legacy of Jesus?
  • And how do we interpret it in ways that keep our comfortable church-attending selves reassured that all is well?


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Liturgies and Prayers

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