Luke 13: 1-9
Today’s Gospel text forces us to reflect on some of our biggest questions in regards to sin, human suffering, and divine judgment. One theologian begins his commentary on today’s scripture with, “some biblical passages, like some flammable materials, should probably carry a warning label: handle with care. This story… is surely one of them.” Pastor Mike swears he doesn’t look at the texts before developing the preaching schedule… after today, I’m not so sure…
Luke writes that Jesus is approached by a group of people who push him to explain the slaughter of a number Galileans at the hand of Pilate, those “whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices”.
Jesus responds by asking a series of rhetorical questions about sin and its’ connection to human suffering in a way that forces those in the crowd to look back at the sins that they themselves have committed, before they point to the sins of others.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all others living in Jerusalem?”
Much like those in the crowd in today’s Gospel, we often find ourselves pointing out the sins of others before we take the time to look at our own, and too, when we experience moments of great suffering, whether for ourselves or on behalf of others, we question God’s presence in it all. We wonder if the bad things that happen to us in life are somehow our fault… if they’re a punishment for the sins we have committed… and if so, what about when bad things happen to good people?
In the world of religion, these questions revolve around the bigger question of what’s called theodicy, the question of “why bad things happen to seemingly good or innocent people?” Within the Old Testament, seen maybe most evidently by 3 friends throughout the book of Job, we find the theology, the belief, that the one who suffers can’t possibly be innocent. That if you suffer, you must have sinned, or else God wouldn’t be punishing you. And the way to respond to this punishment? Trust in God and be patient.
Interestingly, though we may not like it and it may make us a bit uncomfortable, Jesus’ response to the crowd in today’s Gospel isn’t all too far off from this theology, both in what he says, and in what he doesn’t say.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all others living in Jerusalem?” “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish.”
While Jesus cuts down this idea that one sin is somehow greater than another, thus deserving of some greater punishment at the hand of God, he does require something in response to the sins that we commit… repentance… and he gives us some idea of what will happen to us should we fail to do so. “For unless you repent… you too will perish.”
I don’t know about you, but for me, as someone who firmly believes in a God who as Paul writes, and Luther agrees, gives us the gift of salvation and everlasting life “through faith and apart from works”, I get a little nervous when Jesus requires certain things of me in order to receive these gifts. The truth is, we don’t know fully what Jesus means by what he says, and like so many things within scripture, his words in today’s Gospel leave us with more questions than answers. Does Jesus mean that if we don’t repent for each and every sin we commit, that we will be struck dead by some sudden tragedy? Not likely… Does Jesus mean that if we don’t repent for each and every sin that will be in total separation from God at the time in which we die? Maybe??? I hope not. Does Jesus mean that if we fail to repent and ask for forgiveness for our sins, that we will meet some form of punishment for them in the life to come? We don’t know. What we do know, however hard it might be to swallow, is that Jesus doesn’t remove the possibility of judgment, and that he requires us to respond to our sins.
In the Greek, Jesus uses the word “repent” in the form of a present tense subjunctive. While that may sound like Greek in itself, what it means, is that Jesus is literally saying, “If you are not continually repenting… you too will perish…” It’s not, “phew… good thing I do confession once a week, or whenever I decide to show up to church on a Saturday evening or Sunday morning.” Jesus tells us that we are to be in a constant state of repentance for the things we have done wrong, a constant state of asking for forgiveness, should we not want to perish as those who did at the hand of Pilate or in the tower that fell at Siloam.
So where is the Good News in this Gospel text? While difficult to see at first glance, it is there. As Jesus wraps up his conversation with the crowd of people, he gives us the parable of the fig tree. A landowner discovers that his fig tree has not bore any fruit for the third year in a row, so he goes to his gardener and tells him to cut it down. But instead of simply following the landowner’s order, the gardener replies, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”
If Jesus is the landowner, we’re left with a God with little patience, who would rather destroy the things God has created when they fail to do as they should, rather than help them along the way. But if Jesus is the gardener, we are left with a God who stands beside that which God has created… even, and maybe especially in the times they fail to bear fruit. I don’t know about you, but I prefer the latter.
The world around is one that is filled with hardship. I don’t think I need to convince any of you of that. Near and far, across time and space, tragedy can be found and is often difficult to miss. Whether it’s the Galileans from our gospel text for today, slaughtered at the hand of Pontius Pilate or the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell, the individual who died in the apartment fire in Littlestown this past week or the four family members who were shot and killed in their Arizona home by their son and brother prior to him taking his own life early Tuesday morning, or the many life challenges each and every one of you face in your own lives from day to day.
The Good News is, that like a gardener, God comes into our lives in these moments of hardship, digs around and fertilizes the ground that surrounds us so that new life can be found and new fruit can be born. For Jesus, in today’s text, new fruit is found through repentance. He tells us this again and again as he talks with crowd, and then, though we miss it yet again in our English translation of the text, he makes a final plea for forgiveness at the end of his parable. In reference to the fig tree, we hear the gardener say, “Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.” In the Greek, Jesus’ words for “leave it alone”, translate literally as “forgive it.” Forgive it…
St. Augustine writes on today’s text; “Here we find the essence of repentance: the faithful affirmation that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. The manure around our roots is the very blood of the one who pleads for our justification before God…”
We all have our sins for which we should repent. And admitting our sins to God and to one another can be a difficult thing to do. But today Jesus calls us to do exactly just that, while at the same time giving us the promise that we are never alone in the work. Christ comes to us as a gardener, acts as our advocate, fertilizes us with the blood of his sacrifice and the waters of baptism, and gives us the strength to bear the fruit that God has created us bear. With this we journey through the challenges life brings our way, we mend broken relationships through repentance and forgiveness, we share the gifts that God has given us, and we rest in the assurance of God’s love made evident in the cross of Christ. As we move with Jesus to Jerusalem throughout this season of Lent, may you find freedom from life’s burdens in repentance and hope in the promise Christ’s sacrifice. Amen.