Grace Presbyterian Church
March 24, 2019, Lent 3C
Current Events and Ultimate Things
Honestly, the beginning of this particular scriptural excerpt just seems…odd. On the surface it seems very much like a non sequitir. It’s as if in the middle of a difficult, intense lecture or speech or sermon with a challenging question-and-answer session, someone suddenly blurted out “hey, didya hear what happened to Uncle Milton and those boys from over in Newberry when they went down to Orlando?”
Jesus has been teaching, in what is preserved for us just before, in Chapter 12, about: avoiding hypocrisy, not being arrogant, avoiding worry, being watchful and not being caught, Jesus himself as a cause of division, and settling grievances with your adversary. It’s difficult stuff, to be sure, and in some ways one might feel a bit challenged, to say the least, by hearing all these teachings one right after the other. And Jesus isn’t being at all sideways or sparing in his teaching; it’s all imperative – “beware…do not…therefore I tell you…be…know.” No wiggle room, no fudging, no passing the buck to anybody else. It’s all on you, dear listener, to hear and to change your life.
Given that background, I suppose one might could argue that somebody in the crowd miiiight just have been feeling a bit stressed by all of this talk, and looking to, well, not exactly lift the mood, but at least provide some distraction or relief of pressure. Having heard of an awful incident in the Temple in Jerusalem, where a group of Galilean pilgrims had been massacred while there to offer sacrifices; perhaps he first told it to his companions, and maybe somebody got up the courage to bring it up to Jesus. Luke doesn’t tell us much about how this happened besides that vivid metaphor of their blood “mixed with their sacrifices.”
Jesus is a lot of things in the gospels, and one of those things is that he is an extremely effective teacher. There seem to be a lot of folks across Galilee who think so, anyway, since his teaching – not just the miracles or exorcisms, but the actual straightforward nothing-but-teaching teaching – was drawing and holding crowds across Galilee for hours or even days at a time. Some of you out there (and one of me up here) know just how startling an accomplishment that is.
In this case, Jesus takes this non sequitir, this out-of-left-field interjection, and brings the crowd right back on subject by making it a teachable moment, in two parts.
Part I: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you…”
Here Jesus addresses a rather pervasive belief in the Jewish culture of the time, one that comes up in another encounter in another gospel when his disciples ask Jesus if a man born blind had somehow sinned to bring his fate upon himself, or if it was his parents’ fault. In short, without a lot of foundation, the folk tended to assume as much as believe that if something really bad happened to you, you must have been really bad or done something really bad to deserve it.
You hear it still sometimes. The TV preacher Pat Robertson, for example, used to get a lot of attention for blaming natural disasters on the affected city’s or area’s sinfulness – and it was usually a “sin” that was a favorite of Robertson’s to pick on. New Orleans got that treatment from Robertson after Hurricane Katrina, for example, and it wasn’t for tolerating so much poverty. The New York/New Jersey region also got such accusations after Hurricane Sandy. On the other hand, Robertson doesn’t seem to blame the horrible Midwest flooding going on now on the sinfulness of Nebraskans and Missourians.
So first Jesus takes down that old belief, but then continues to use that interjection to make a point that brings the discussion back to his sermon subject, so to speak:
Part II: “…but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Wait, what? If those interlocutors had hoped to distract Jesus or get him to let up on them,…well, it didn’t work. Jesus is right back on the subject he had been teaching, all of which can be understood as part of the broader theme he now names as repentance.
As if this weren’t enough, Jesus himself brings a second “current event” into the discussion, one in which a tower had collapsed at the town of Siloam, killing eighteen. Unlike the previous story, in which the Roman governor Pilate is clearly identified as the villain, this looks to be a tragic accident. A tower collapsed. If there were issues with shoddy workmanship or inferior materials, they aren’t identified here. As far as we can know, it just happened. But again Jesus hammers the point home: “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
A couple of clarifications: no, Pilate won’t slaughter you if you don’t repent nor will a tower fall on you. This isn’t a place for hyperactive literalism. Also, this point (about how those who died were not somehow worse than others) is something of a two-edged sword. It means these people weren’t worse sinners than you, yes, but it also means that you’re not “less worse sinners” than them.
No one caught in sin gets off the hook. It does no good to comfort yourself that your sins are “minor,” and those people are the “real sinners.” No; those who do not repent of their sinfulness, forsake their sinful condition, perish. Period. End of discussion.
“Repent” and “repentance” are words that get used an awful lot in religious circles, but aren’t always defined very rigorously. You get constructions like being told to “repent of your sins,” which sounds as if you go down a laundry list of bad things you did and say “I’m sorry,” you’ve repented. No. What Jesus is calling for is far beyond that.
To give one example Jesus turns to a parable, in which a rich landowner is quite done with an unproductive fig tree. The gardener, though, pleads for one more year to give some extra attention to the tree. He’ll agitate the soil and add some extra fertilizer, and if in a year it still isn’t bearing fruit, it can be cut down.
Unlike some of Jesus’s parables, this one is bluntly obvious. We – each of us – are the tree, and Jesus is the gardener pleading for us and promising to nurture us even more. Still, though, there is that looming “promise” that our time to bear fruit is not infinite.
And here also is the “repentance” Jesus commands of the disciples, and of us. A fig tree exists to bear figs; that’s its purpose for being. If it doesn’t bear figs, it’s kind of pointless not to cut it down and replace it with a tree that will bear figs. Even the gardener doesn’t pretend that the tree should be given forever to bear fruit.
So, to get to the point: what does it mean to “bear fruit”?
Again, that’s a term that gets used a lot without a lot of clarity of definition. For some, it consists solely of turning other people into Christians – conversion is all, nothing else matters. For others, it’s all about good deeds or charitable giving or other obvious outward gestures. Those good deeds, yes, are good things, but they come decidedly short of what Jesus is talking about in this gospel when “repentance” comes up. In Luke, “repentance” cannot be reduced to outward changes. In true repentance, everything changes, both in each of us individually and in all of us as the body of Christ. We live differently, and we live together differently.
It’s possible that one of the best ways to understand how fully a repentant life changes might just be what we see in today’s reading from Isaiah. For some this presents an utterly joyful picture, while others are probably horrified by it (the idea that wine and milk are just being given away, with nobody profiting from it? That’s socialism, right?) <note: sarcasm>
Anyway, as Isaiah’s picture unfolds, we see what is really going on; the people have, at long last, accepted the providence of God, and submitted to God’s provision for their lives. We are called no longer to chase after what cannot satisfy, but to receive the true stuff of life from the Lord. Even here, though, the theme of repentance is sounded clearly:
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their ways, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (55:6-7, emphasis mine)
Nothing changes without change. Turning away from the desire for what cannot fulfill, the desire for the material and the financial and the immediately comfortable; this is where repentance is found. And repentance brings pardon; we are given a double statement of this – the Lord will have mercy, God will pardon– for extra emphasis.
And that providence of God? This isn’t barely-get-by stuff. Don’t miss that last half of verse 2, and the invitation to “eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” To appreciate this one we need to lay aside our modern dietary scruples and understand that God’s provision is of the good stuff, stuff that sustains and makes stronger. We aren’t being asked to starve ourselves or deprive ourselves for God (which makes this a strange Lenten reading, I guess, but still); God wants to give good.
But repentance is still there, waiting for us to take it up.
Our lives being reoriented, turned upside down (or inside out, more likely) and faced only towards our Lord; it may seem an odd place to end up when one starts talking about current events, but when Jesus the teacher is in charge, the lessons you learn are not always what you think.
For The Great Teacher, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #441, Hear the Good News of Salvation; #696, O God, You Are My God Alone; #427, Jesus Knows the Inmost Heart; #649, Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound