Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Journey to the Cross: True Repentance

Let me begin today by saying, up front, that these are hard texts. They are often avoided by us because, in part, they raise the difficult question of why human tragedies occur and why people suffer. And, in this particular moment, as we are living through a very difficult and dark time, reflecting on why there is suffering may hit very close to home. We have just passed a horrendous milestone in this pandemic. Half a million people dead in our nation. Two and a half million fathers, mothers, sons, daughters lost across the world. Why? We might ask. Why did they have to die? What evil did they do to cause this? What evil did I do to cause this? Why did they die and not me? 

When we experience human tragedy like this past year and at other times, asking these questions is natural and human. And quite impossible to answer. This is why we tend to stay away from this part of Luke. Because it raises hard questions. And, because, it gives us no ready-made answers. 

But, today, as we journey, we will attempt to understand what Jesus is teaching his disciples. And us. We read in Luke, chapter 13. Today, I am reading from the Common English Bible.

Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” --Luke 13:1-5 (CEB)

As the story begins, Jesus continues on his way to Jerusalem. He’s been teaching the many disciples who are following him about what it means to be faithful people. In the midst of this, someone comes and tells Jesus of a gruesome crime that Pilate has perpetrated. 

We know the name. Pontius Pilate, although often referred to as the Roman governor of Judea, is more correctly the commander of the Roman auxiliary troops based in Judea to maintain control over the Jewish people. There is little known about Pilate other than that he has a reputation of greed, cruelty, and inflexibility.  He treated Jewish customs and religious beliefs with contempt and would deliberately provoke the Jewish people by placing Roman military flags in the temple and by confiscating the temple treasury, things that his predecessors had avoided. 

So, what’s the crime that Pilate has committed as it’s reported to Jesus? Pilate has killed worshipers in the temple who have traveled all the way from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south, to offer their sacrifices before God. To make matters worse, the blood of these faithful has run together with the blood of the sacrifices they have offered. So, it was not only murder, but also a sacrilege. It might bring to mind for us the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in the Middle Ages, while he was in Canterbury Cathedral. Or, in more recent times, of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he conducted communion in a church in El Salvador. 

Now, let’s be honest here. We know, as we read through Luke, that there is little love lost between the people of Judea and the Galileans. Many Jews viewed those in Galilee as second-rate Jews, somewhere between true Jews and heathen Gentiles. So, those making the report are, actually, raising several questions in one. First, the age-old question of the reason for such meaningless suffering. But, there’s also a suggestion here that what has happened to the Galileans has, in some respect, been deserved, because they were viewed as less faithful than other Jews. It’s why Jesus asks the question, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans?” And then, it’s why he sharpens the question, bringing it closer to home by referring to another incident in Jerusalem. “Do you think that the eighteen people on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed deserved it because they were more sinful than others in Jerusalem?”

Now, we may think that we think differently than this. But I wonder if we do. How many of us, when we’ve seen people suffering from famine in another country, wonder just for a moment if this might be happening because of something they did or didn't do. Or when we see suffering in the inner city, we wonder if it's because of their sin and the life mistakes they've made. Or what about the poor. And the commonly held belief that I often hear expressed that, if they’d only made better choices. What’s the right choice when one has to choose between paying the rent or putting food on the table?

Jesus takes it one step further, then, in the text, to show us that we are posing the question in the wrong way. The surprising thing is not that so many die, but that we still live. Because, if it were a matter of sin, we would all be dead. Twice, Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And, then he tells a parable, which is where we continue in our reading.

Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’” --Luke 13:6-9 (CEB)

What’s the meaning of this parable for Jesus’ listeners? It means that those who survive - the Galileans not killed by Pilate, or those Jews on whom the tower did not fall, or those of us who have not died from famine, or those who are not poor - are living only by the grace of God. And that our continued life is for the purpose of bearing fruit.

Now this passage is often used by those who preach the “prosperity gospel.” That the good things we receive are a reward for our faith and our fruitfulness. But, in fact, the truth Jesus speaks here is exactly the opposite. Notice that the fig tree that is receiving special care is getting it because it has yet to give the fruit it was meant to bear. It’s a reminder for us who live in comfortable houses, when so many are homeless, or enjoy a substantial income when so many are poor, or all kinds of food to eat when so many are hungry, or a relatively healthy body when so many are ill - that we have all of this not because we have been particularly faithful. And could it be that the reason why some of us have been given all these advantages is that, without them, we would have difficulty bearing fruit? Could it also be that our apparent advantages and privileges are also a warning about impending doom unless we bear fruit?

Repentance - true repentance - is less about shame and guilt and more about begging the Holy Spirit to turn us around. To help us reorient how we think. And how we live. Because our tendency is not much different as was the tendency of people in Jesus’ day.

Our reading continues in chapter 13. 

At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”

Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.” --Luke 13:31-35 (CEB)

Jesus knows our tendencies. It’s why, no matter the threat that Herod represents, he will continue his journey to Jerusalem, even as he laments the city’s disobedience. Because his desire is to give them another chance. Just as with the fig tree, also given a second chance. And like us, too. Given another chance purely by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. May we, nurtured by the love and care of Jesus, repent and turn around that we might bear fruit as God’s faithful people. Here. In this time and this place. Amen.

Preached February 28, 2021, online with Third Lutheran and Grace & Glory Lutheran churches, Louisville/Goshen, KY.
Second Sunday of Lent
Readings: Psalm 122, Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

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