Repentance, Figs and Failing Towers

 

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
Luke 13:1-9

 

13:1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” (Luke 13:1-9, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of infinite goodness, throughout the ages you have persevered in claiming and reclaiming your people. Renew for us your call to repentance, surround us with witnesses to aid us in our journey, and grant us the courage to fashion our lives anew, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen

 

At first reading, this passage from the Gospel of Luke is scary.   No one wants to hear that if we do not bear fruit or that we don’t measure up and please God, then God will take out the axe and cut us down.   Which leads to the question how do we measure up? How do we produce fruit that will please the landowner…God?   I am getting ahead of myself.  So let’s go back and look at the whole passage.

 

In this passage Jesus refers to two calamities that were probably familiar to ancient audiences.  The first horrific event involves Pilate and his state-sanctioned violence in the killing of the Galileans in the temple.  The second event, the collapse of tower of Siloam was a random accident.   However, in both of these events people died for no apparent reason.   These two ghastly instances are reminders of just how precarious life is.

 

Then Jesus gets to the heart of the story when he poses the questions that must have been on everyone’s minds.  Were those Galileans, who were killed by Pilate, worse sinners than others?   Were the people killed by the collapse of the tower worse sinners than everyone else living in Jerusalem?   Then Jesus, quickly answers his own question, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  He clearly states that the victims did nothing to warrant their deaths but his answer includes a curious statement.

 

It seems is if Jesus is sending a mixed message, here.  He says, “No … but.” As in, “No they weren’t worse sinners, and no they weren’t worse offenders. Their sin did not cause their deaths, but you will meet the same fate if you don’t repent.” Well, which is it?   His statement is confusing.   He seems to be contradicting himself.  First, Jesus makes it clear that there is no rational explanation for these tragedies.  He doesn’t say, “It was God’s will that this Galileans were killed by Pilate.”   Instead it seems as if the Galileans, who were killed by Pilate were victims of the Roman government’s blood thirsty desire for control.  Because, it could have been anybody who was in the temple that day offering sacrifices.  And the people killed by the collapse of the tower?  It could have been anyone who happened to be standing there.  Instead what, Jesus is saying is, don’t look for cause and effect explanation.  It may be what we want, is a cause-and-effect, karma-type scenario that explains why things like this happen, Jesus is saying that is not how God operates.   No, they weren’t worse sinners, but you and I, sinners, will meet the same fate unless we repent and accept the gift of abundant life that Christ is offering.

 

Look at your life?  Look at my life?  We can spend so much time trying to explain things—so much time worrying about why tragedies happen—that we forget to pay attention to how we are living our own our own lives.

 

I know that this is not a satisfying answer because we want to be able to explain why people suffer and die as a way to distance ourselves from it.  Or we want to believe in – works righteousness, we live right to earn God’s favor – even when we say we believe in grace.

 

The problem with making our relationship with God a transactional one rather than a covenantal one is that at some point the math just won’t work.  We will be persecuted by Pilate or those like him – for no reason other than Pilate chooses to persecute us.  Or, the tower will fall on us for no other reason than we were at the wrong place at the wrong time.  We will look for a reason, some logical explanation, some underlying purpose and it simply will not be there.  Then what?  Are we simply bad people who get what we deserve?  Are we sinners in the hand of an angry God?

 

As people of faith, catastrophes and violence raise all sorts of questions that challenge our faith and cause us to question God.  Trying to explain the complexities of life and the horrific events that happen is something we all do— it is a form of protection.   If we can explain it then we can make sure it won’t happen to us.   But, Jesus’ message gets right to the heart of our desire to do so.

 

Jesus is teaching that the outcome is the same if we build our lives upon those well-meaning rationalizations that we use to get us through the day: stating that we are blessed, safe, and able to claim our better fortune than the victims of these events because we have won God’s favor, then we are mistaken.  To focus on this point, share with you an article I read recently in the New York Times.  It was from Sunday February 13, 2016 in the NY Times Review Opinion page, an article written by Kate Bowler, entitled, Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me. Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School and the author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.”

 

She researched and wrote about the prosperity gospel and its theology.  A theology that claims being good and living a righteous life equates to being blessed by God.  She has recently been diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35.   She wrestles with this theology and her own experience. She writes:

Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith…

Tragedies are simply tests of character.

It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.

“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

“Pardon?” she said, startled.

“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.

My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.

In other words, is she a worse sinner? Did she smoke? Eat poorly? Bad genes? If the answer is no, then what will keep the wolf from my door?

 

Kate Bowler continues:

Cancer has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential…Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.

 

She continues:

But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from my Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.[1]

 

It sounds like Jesus: Life is so beautiful.  Life is so hard.   Life in relationship with the Triune God and with one another is a gift to be received and cherished even when it isn’t fair or reasonable.   So, perhaps, who sinned or who is the worse sinner is irrelevant when Jesus came to save sinners.   So, today we have a precious gift of Life, an opportunity to change our focus from rationalizing suffering and horrific events to focus on the suffering One, Jesus the Christ, who intercedes for us, tends to us and stays with us in all of life and its circumstances.[2]

 

Let us pray:

[1] As found online on Facebook and summarized in an email from Jill Duffield February 28, 3rd Sunday in Lent. Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9 Presbyterian Outlook

(http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html)

 

[2] Jill Duffield February 28, 3rd Sunday in Lent. Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9 Presbyterian Outlook

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