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Where Are You From?

Sermons on the Gospel Readings
Series II, Cycle B
Whenever we travel, we come into contact with new people. Often these interactions remain basic and simple, with us exchanging just the bare minimum of information necessary to complete our interaction, like when checking in for a flight. "Good morning, traveling to San Francisco today?" "Yes." "May I see your photo ID?" "Sure." "Any baggage to check?" "Yes, two pieces." "Two pieces." "Yes." "Okay, you're all set. Departure is from gate sixteen, and boarding begins in fifteen minutes." "Thank you." This kind of interaction gets repeated all along the way, at the newsstand, coffee stand, airport shuttle counter, hotel reception desk, and so on.

I take secret pleasure in keeping these interactions as perfunctory as possible. Getting drawn into any conversation with a stranger beyond the bare minimum is risky. You never know what you might hear, and there's always the danger that the person might want to talk longer than I would. Which is why we all complain about the times we get seated next to someone on a flight who won't leave us alone. You know the type -- no matter how private and inconspicuous we try to be, they sooner or later find a way to start up a conversation, and they won't take any of our hints that we're not interested in talking.

"Good book?" I had hoped that I could read some fairly dull book about church history without arousing anyone's interest. "Not bad." "Are you a pastor? I see it's about the church." Now I'm in trouble. Bad idea to read anything about the church on an airplane. Nobody but a pastor would do that. Gave me right away. It's all over now. I'm stuck for at least fifteen minutes, probably five times longer, and I know, I just know, I'm going to hear this person's own personal theology in its completeness before it's all over.

When at last that winds down, my shoes having failed to spirit me out of that seat and back home no matter how many times, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I click their heels and mutter, "There's no place like home," our "conversation," if you can call it that when only one person wants to participate in it, launches into a new phase with one simple question, one that's so hard to avoid answering. And if answered, it gives my seatmate enough to go on to prolong my misery for the remainder of the flight.

"So, where are you from?" Oh, boy. I know how this will go. No matter what I answer, I'll hear stories about this person's relatives, or visits to the area. I love the ones about how they once drove through on the interstate, a number of years ago, and the things they saw driving through.

Such a simple question that opens up so much conversational territory. Come to think about it, it's a question we ask each other so commonly that we may even ask where someone is from before we ask them their name. And all kidding aside about interminable airplane conversations, this is a question that at least on the part of the questioner indicates genuine interest in the other person. We ask people where they are from because we're interested in knowing. There's something about the person that has triggered a wish on our part to get to know them a little better.

"Thanks very much for the directions. Take a right out of the parking lot, then a left at the first light, and continue straight on for two miles. The hotel will be on the right. I think I've got it." "You're welcome, and good luck. You shouldn't have any problem. Say, where are you folks from, anyway?" Before we had even exchanged names -- and even if we never would.

"Where are you from?" This common question. An innocent question, one that we ask of complete strangers, as an indication that we sincerely want to get to know them better.

Not the kind of question we'd expect to find at the core of Pilate's interrogation of Jesus in this Good Friday reading from the Gospel of John. A genuine question, even intimate in comparison to the others that Pilate had asked Jesus that day.

For the most part, Pilate had been trying to keep his distance from the whole affair. Pilate had initially tried to get the Jewish authorities to keep Jesus and try him according to Jewish law, but they had refused on the grounds that they were prohibited from sentencing anyone to death. The Roman authorities were not. Then Pilate questioned Jesus a first time, about whether he was the King of the Jews, or a king of any kind, and about the nature of truth. After which he abruptly ended the interrogation and went out to tell the Jewish authorities that he could find no case against Jesus. He offered to release Jesus, according to the custom that he release a prisoner at the Passover. But they refused, asking for Barabbas instead. So Pilate had Jesus flogged, and again tried to release Jesus. But the crowd shouted, "Crucify him!" The flogging wasn't enough.

"Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him." But they answered, "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God." They wouldn't settle for less than his death. Pilate didn't want to risk a confrontation with them. Twice before he had tried to do something the Jewish authorities didn't like, and both times they had won out. The first was when he had first arrived in Judea, and had sent the emperor's standards into Jerusalem. This was met with outrage, for in Judea the Roman authorities did not flaunt the image of the emperor as a god as they did throughout the rest of the empire, and in Jerusalem the image of the emperor Tiberius was not allowed at all. A Jewish delegation came to Pilate's palace at Caesarea, on the coast, to demand that the standards be taken down. For five days, he had refused. On the sixth day, he lost his patience and threatened to kill all of them if they did not leave him alone. Their response surprised him. They fell down before him, in homage, and he was so impressed that he relented and ordered the standards to be taken down.

The second time the emperor had actually intervened on the Jews' behalf. Pilate had put up some golden shields in his palace in honor of the emperor. The local Herodian princes, this time, came and asked him to take them down as they were an insult to the Jewish religion. They didn't have any images on them, but apparently there must have been a reference to the emperor as divine. Pilate refused, saying that they couldn't be taken down because they had been consecrated. So the princes complained to the emperor Tiberius himself, who was furious and ordered Pilate to take the shields down. He was admonished to be more accommodating, and to be more sensitive about what the Jews could and couldn't accept. He obeyed the emperor, and resolved to try to be more aware of what was important to the Jews.

Pilate remembered these confrontations, and with the crowds that had come to Jerusalem for the Passover being this insistent on crucifixion, he probably knew that this was one more confrontation that he couldn't win. His first instinct had been to stay out of it, as his successors would do. When presented with religious cases, they refused outright to get involved. They kept their Roman distance.

But this time they had Pilate boxed in. It was only Pilate in the region who had the power to pronounce the death sentence. And he did have a legal basis on which to convict Jesus: if Jesus had claimed to be King of the Jews, this was sedition, and an offense against the Roman people, by disrespecting their emperor. With the crowd about to riot, why spare Jesus and lose all Judea?

More afraid than ever, he reentered his headquarters and out popped what seems like an odd question: "Where are you from?" This getting-to-know-you question, usually no big deal. A question that is innocuous enough for us to ask of people whose names we don't even know. But even the small degree of intimacy that this question suggests signals a turn of much larger significance, from Pilate's initial determination to stay out of the Jesus matter to a willingness, however forced, to be a part of it. He had tried so hard to keep his distance, but every attempt he made to dispose of the matter without killing Jesus had been refused. Faced with no option but to crucify him, he asked him where he was from.

Why? It's difficult to say. What we do know is that in the culture of the day people were honored or despised based in large part upon where they came from, in terms of their place and family of origin.1 Jesus had earlier been scoffed at, when Peter had told Nathanael that they had "found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote" (John 1:45). Peter then identified him by family and place of origin: "Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." But Nathanael scoffed back, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46). Who Jesus was, in that culture, was a function of his lineage and place of origin. Apparently, Nazareth wasn't anything to brag about.

Jesus refused to answer the question. Pilate had questioned his stature, which he made no effort to defend. That didn't make Pilate happy. Maybe Pilate had intended to inquire about how a humble man from a rural town had come to think of himself as a king. Maybe he was hoping beyond hope that he could make up some kind of claim about Jesus' case belonging to another jurisdiction. In any case, Jesus didn't answer. Outraged, Pilate burst out, "Will you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?" What he didn't say, but what was apparently the case, was that if Jesus wouldn't work with him he didn't see any way around the only option he presently had: to crucify him.

"Where are you from?" Jesus didn't answer. In our own encounters with strangers and acquaintances, we often don't want to answer either. Our origins reveal more than we may want to reveal about ourselves.

In Jesus' case, the answer was well known to his followers. Jesus had proclaimed that he had descended from heaven (John 6:38), and his power to heal made his origins known (John 9:30). Jesus comes from God, and he will return to heaven (John 13:1-2). In Jesus' case, the answer to where he was from revealed one of the most important things about him.

"Where are you from?" We can ask this of ourselves. What would it reveal? In the long-ago culture of ancient Palestine, it was thought to reveal the most important aspect of a person's identity.

In our own, we have discounted the significance of the answer to this question. It no longer determines whether or not we'll be treated fairly, and respected. Now we are tempted to look to other status symbols, like the type of credit card we carry, or the car we drive. The neighborhood we live in tells people about how affluent we may or not be, but it doesn't shape how they treat us in significant ways. "Excuse me, I demand to be given a table at this restaurant immediately! I live in a wealthy suburb!" I don't think so.

A shift seems to have taken place, away from one's stature as a function of family and place of origin. These days, stature comes in two forms. One will get you a table. That kind is fame, and who you know. Maybe I'm wrong, because I can't get a good table anywhere, but I think that the main thing that gets people special treatment is, first, that they're famous, and second, for the not-so-famous, it's who you know.

The other form of stature, these days, comes from one's personal integrity. Our integrity defines us. The equivalent of asking, "Where are you from?" in Jesus' time would today be more like, "What do you stand for?" Integrity has little to do with one's origins; it has much more to do with the match between one's values and actions.

"Where are you from?" On this day of soul-searching, when we remember the extent of Jesus' commitment to us, we would do well to ask ourselves the extent of our commitment to our values as Christians. "What do you stand for?" Note the active verb in this question. What do we stand for, as in taking a stand in difficult circumstances? Not just what do we think is right, and what do we think is wrong, from the comfort of our own armchairs.

"What do we stand for?" The answer to this question reveals very important things about us, just as in former times where one comes from was thought to do. In Jesus' case, he didn't have to answer. The answer was well known. How well known is it for us?


1.ÊJerome H. Neyrey, "Despising the Shame of the Cross: Honor and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative," Semeia 68 (1994), pp. 127-28.

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