Jesus told the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west you say immediately that it is going to rain; when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south you say that it is going to be hot—and so it is. Actors! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
The Jewish kings of the first century before Christ established independence from the Seleucid Greeks, partly through Rome’s friendship. In 63 BC, a Roman army under the famous general, Pompey, after first extinguishing what remained of the Seleucid kingdom, marched into Judea. Pompey left the local political arrangements he found in Palestine in place. Within Judea, Pompey installed a member of the Hasmonean family, called Hyrcanus, as ruler. One of Hyrcanus’ high officials was Antipater the Idumaean.
While pushing the frontiers of their empire outwards, the Romans were also involved in their own repeated bouts of civil war. The impact was felt in Judea. The Jewish royal court split into bitter rival factions. Violent struggles repeatedly rocked the state. Antipater maneuvered himself into dominating the ruler. Antipater became a close friend of Pompey’s; and was soon the effective master of Judea. In 47 BC, Julius Caesar defeated and killed Pompey. Antipater swiftly switched his allegiance to Caesar, and led troops to Caesar’s aid, helping him to establish his power in the region. Caesar made Antipater a Roman citizen and appointed him governor of Judea. A rival assassinated Antipater in 43 BC and a coup brought his enemies to power. Judea’s new rulers were also hostile to Rome, and invited the Parthians, Rome’s great enemies, to occupy Judea. Antipater’s son, Herod, hurried to Rome, and persuaded the senate that he was the man they needed to be in charge of Judea. He would be loyal to Rome and further its interests in this unsettled region. The senate therefore appointed Herod King of the Jews. It took the Romans, supported by troops raised and led by Herod, three years of hard fighting to regain control of Judea. When finished they installed Herod as king.
Herod reigned over Judea until his death in 4 BC; navigated the treacherous power politics back in Rome. He was at first a supporter to Mark Antony, the Roman commander in the East. Antony was defeated and killed in a civil war with his rival, Octavian at the battle of Actium. Herod won Octavian over. Before the Battle of Actium, Anthony and Cleopatra traveled through Herod’s territory, moving north and to the battle.
As we read the details above, it is important to notice that armies from Parthia, Greece, and Rome had marched through and pillaged the landscape many times the century before Jesus. Jesus may or may not have known what war is, first hand. His parents and grandparents must certainly did, and they tried to teach their children what war is. It is ugly, blood and guts spilled out everywhere, fires burning from the looting, and much more.
Matthew’s Gospel reads, “In the evening you say, ‘Tomorrow will be fair, for the sky is red’; in the morning, ‘Today will be stormy, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to judge the appearance of the sky, but you cannot judge the signs of the times.” Sailors to this day speak of, “Red sky at night is a sailor’s delight; red shy in the morning is a sailors bad mourning.”
See the signs of the times. Violence in our streets, in Dallas, Texas, where 5 police died. Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, became the 135th black person killed by police this year. Philando Castile became the latest addition. The clouds of the sky are red with blood. Red sky in the morning is a sailor’s bad warning. Either we end the backbiting politics of liberal and conservative, minority against majority, and all the backbiting office politics in our places of employment, and in our clubs, or we will see the end of our nation. For those of us who are older, it may not come in our lifetimes, but it will come.
Jesus tells us to see the signs of the times.
The eastern world it is explodin‘, violence flarin’, bullets loadin’, you’re old enough to kill but not for votin’, you don’t believe in war, what’s that gun you’re totin’, and even the Jordan river has bodies floatin.’ Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say? Can’t you see the fear that I’m feeling today? If the button is pushed, there’s no running away, There’ll be none to save with the world in a grave, take a look around you, boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy. Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’, I’m sittin’ here, just contemplatin’, I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation, handful of Senators don’t pass legislation, and marches alone can’t bring integration, when human respect is disintegratin’, this whole crazy world is just too frustratin’, and you tell me over and over and over again my friend, ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction. the poundin’ of the drums, the pride and disgrace, you can bury your dead, but don’t leave a trace, hate your next-door-neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace, and you tell me over and over and over and over again my friend, ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.
Think of all the hate there is in Red China/North Korea! Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama/Dallas Texas, Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Baton Rouge, Miami Gardens, Florida/Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Timothy Thomas in Cincinnati and more! Barry McGuire wrote those words several decades ago, yet somehow; the song speaks to our times as much as it did to his. We need to look and see the signs or we will drive our bus into the concrete barrier along the way.
Another song from my generation also speaks for Jesus in the reading for the Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, For What its Worth. “There’s a man with a gun over there telling me I got to beware I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound everybody look what’s going down. There’s battle lines being drawn nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong. What a field day for the heat a thousand people in the street. They are singing songs and carrying signs mostly say, hooray for our side. It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound everybody look what’s going down. Paranoia strikes deep into your life it will creep it starts when you’re always afraid you step out of line, the man come and take you away we better stop, hey, what’s that sound. Everybody look what’s going down. Stop, hey, what’s that sound everybody look what’s going down stop, now, what’s that sound everybody look what’s going down. Stop, children, what’s that sound everybody look what’s going down.”
The key words are about paranoia, mutual paranoia on both sides, liberal and conservative, black and white. When we look at the statements from our political leaders, they are striking. The liberals all pointed to the social disintegration caused by the excessive force of the police. The conservative ones, all pointed to the need for law and order, a phrase of Nixon coinage of the same era. They do not mention the African-American deaths.
Our signs need to stop saying, “Hooray for our side.” Start thinking about God’s side. This means seeing the tragedy of dead police, 136 dead blacks, the tragedy of abortion, and the tragedy of 24 thousand babies dying in the first year of life from a lack of nutrition and health care. It means working to end poverty, it means asking what our nation, and our Church is about. Most importantly, it means an end to the mutual paranoia on both sides, by trusting in God. Look at the signs, not of those protesting this or that, but of the signs Jesus refers to, armies marching this way and that, all the death and all the destruction that comes with it. Then it means working to end that violence. If we do not, Jesus was right when he predicted the events of Anno Domino 70. They will refer to Anno Domino 2017, if we do not change.