Repent or perish? (A sermon from Luke 13:1-9)

Today’s Gospel reading is a text that I think many Christians misread and therefore misapply. I said last week that Jesus knows the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem. The handwriting is on the wall. Jesus does not need any special revelation to know that the religious authorities want him out of the picture. He has preached and practiced an inclusive table fellowship, inviting all sorts of people who were disdained and considered unworthy by the gatekeepers. He intentionally violated laws that the religious establishment used to create a worthiness system to keep people under their control. He provoked them and challenged their authority in various ways. And when he leads a peace march into Jerusalem, which is what Palm Sunday is about, and then afterward when he stages a protest in the Temple, he seals his fate. He will perish at their hands.

And, as I said last week, he also knows that unless his people change their ways they too will perish at the hands of the Romans. And a few decades later that is exactly what happens. Luke’s Gospel was written at least one decade, maybe two decades after the Romans swept down on Jerusalem destroying the Temple in a war that did not last very long. The Romans crushed the Jews and many of Jesus’ fellow Jews perished.

This is what Jesus is talking about in this passage of scripture. The two questions Jesus poses have to do with God’s involvement in events that cause people to perish. In the first instance Pilate, for whatever reason, kills some Galileans. We don’t know why he killed them. He wouldn’t have to have had a reason since he was a Roman in power over the Jews. Jesus asks if they perished because they were worse sinners than the rest. Jesus says, “No.” The second instance is about a tower falling and killing eighteen people. The same question is asked, “Were they worse sinners than the rest?” Jesus says again, “No.” Jesus makes no attempt to explain why God had nothing to do with those two tragedies, he just says, “No.” Perhaps Jesus knows that it is an exercise in futility to try to figure out why things happen the way they happen. Or maybe Jesus thinks that it should be obvious to anyone who seriously ponders it. And it really should be obvious. God’s hand is not positioned over a zap button, which God decides to push from time to time. On the flip side, neither does God intervene to keep us from perishing. None of us have special protection against cancer and any other disease, or against a lunatic nationalist or whoever else who might start firing automatic weapons in a church, or a theater, or a school, or in a busy downtown shopping center. We do not perish because we are worse sinners, and we are not protected because we are more righteous. God does not work in the world from without. God works in the world from within. So because God works from within, not without, God is limited in what God can do.

Now, there are different views on why this is so. Since Jesus didn’t go there, I’m not about to go there either. All I have anyway is a theory, which is all any of us have. There’s no way to know why, though it should be fairly obvious that this is how God works in the world. God is not responsible for violence, either from humans or natural disasters. And God does not prevent violence from happening, either from humans or natural disasters. Jesus says, “No.” Jesus doesn’t try to explain it. I doubt if he could explain it. We don’t have access to that knowledge. It’s beyond us. It’s beyond Jesus. He just says, “No.”   

Now, in my opinion too many persons of faith mistakingly for whatever reason want to make God responsible. I heard about a lady who decided to get a pet after her husband died so that the house would not seem so empty. So she went to the pet store and the pet store owner talked her in to getting a parrot. She brought it home and after a few days the parrot started talking. Now, I have to tell you that this was one foul with a very foul mouth. This woman could not believe the words that came out of the parrot one after another – blankety blank, blank, blanky . . .   She tried everything she could think of it to cure it. She would squirt it with a water bottle. She would take its food. She tried throwing a blanket over the cage. She tried to return it to no avail. They were glad to get it out of the store.

One afternoon her pastor called and wanted to stop in for a few minutes to visit. So in her haste to pick up in the house a little bit, she forgot about the parrot. So the pastor came and they had a little visit, and just as he was leaving, this crazy bird billowed out the most horrendous string of curse words you ever heard. She was so upset that as soon as the pastor stepped out of the door she raced over to the cage, grabbed the bird by the neck, and flung it into the freezer. She thought I’ll just let this bird cool off a little bit.

Well, just then the phone rang and she forgot about the parrot. When she remembered some time later and opened the door, out creeps this bird, stiff as a board, ice cycles hanging off its feathers, beak almost frozen together. The parrot says, "I reeeeeppppent." Then it points its frozen feather back  to the icebox and says, still shivering, “Ttttteeell me.  WWWhat ddddid that Turkey do?"

There are Christians who think that’s what God does. But instead of the freezer, God throws us into a fire pit. That’s not how God works. Jesus says, “No.” Then he says, “Unless you repent, unless you change, unless you turn around, you will likewise perish.” Jesus is not talking about perishing at the hand of God in this life or the next. He is talking to his fellow Jews about perishing at the hand of the Romans. Jesus knows that if his fellow Jews continue to respond to the hate of their oppressors with hate, and to violence with violence, they will perish. And many of them did indeed perish a few decades later when the Romans descended upon Jerusalem.

I believe Jesus thought he could help change the spiritual and moral climate of his people, so they might avert the disaster he could foresee. He did works of mercy and justice. He healed the sick. He set free the oppressed. He embodied the compassion of God. He told them to love their enemies, not to hate their enemies. He knew that hate would lead to violence, and violence would bring down the wrath of Rome upon their heads. Jesus knew that unless they changed their attitudes and actions, unless they repented of their lust for vengeance, they would perish at the hands of their oppressors. A modern equivalent would be to say that unless we repent/change/turn around in the way we are misusing the earth's resources, depleting the ozone layer, and dispensing toxins into our atmosphere and waters, we as a human species (along with many other species) are going to perish. I cannot emphasize this enough sisters and brothers: WE DO NOT NEED TO BE SAVED FROM GOD. We need to be saved from our sins, because it's our sins - our greed, hate, and violence - that are killing us emotionally, morally, spiritually, and physically.

The parable that follows is related to this situation between the Jews and the Romans. Neither the owner of the garden who is ready to cut down the fruitless fig tree, nor the gardener who manages to persuade the owner to give the tree a little more time, neither one, owner or gardener is meant to represent God. The point of the parable, and this is one parable that I believe just has one point, is that time is running out, and there will come a point in time when it’s too late to avert the disaster they are bringing upon themselves. Again, this warning is very applicable to us in our current world. We have mismanaged this planet and time is running out. We are misusing the earth’s resources creating a toxic environment that will eventually kill us and our planet. And it won’t be long before the damage we are doing is irreversible, so the time for change is now.

Once we understand this context, we can better apply this scripture personally. Time is running for all of us, so now is the time for change. From God’s side of things, time is irrelevant, because time never runs out. From our side of things, every day is precious, because there is never any guarantee we will have another one. So, the time to change is now.

Earlier in this Gospel when Jesus begins his ministry and announces his agenda in the synagogue at Nazareth, he reads that wonderful text from Isaiah about preaching good news to the poor, setting prisoners free, giving sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming God’s acceptance. Then he says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today is the day for us to fulfill that scripture, too, as Jesus’ followers. Today is the day for us to continue the gracious works of Jesus.

Paul tells the Corinthians, “Today is the day of salvation.” Today is the day to begin the process of healing the hurts and wounds in our lives. Today is the day to seek deliverance from our false attachments and from our harmful addictions. Today is the day to begin the journey to becoming a more gracious, generous, and grateful person. Today is the day to change, to repent, to make a new start that will lead to healing, liberation, and transformation.

A key part of this process is the ability to see where we need to change, to honestly and openly admit our need for change, and then do what we need to do in order to implement that change. For there can be no change and growth until see we need it, admit and confess we need it, and then do something about it.

In the film The Browning Version, Andrew Crocker-Harris (Albert Finney) is a strict classical literature professor at a British boys prep school. He is much disliked by the students and with good reason. Two events, however, have a profound impact on his life—his marriage ends and a student shows him genuine appreciation. Richard Rohr likes to say it takes suffering or love to bring about change. I guess he got some of both. His suffering through the breakup of his marriage and the love he felt from this student humbles him enough for him to see the truth about himself. 

At this time Harris is assigned to speak at a graduation ceremony. After his introduction and a smattering of a polite acknowledgment, he stands up to face the group with a serious expression on his face. He puts on his glasses, takes out his note cards and starts to say a few words about the importance of the classics.  Then he stops, unable to continue. He finishes a sentence, pauses, and walks down the steps of the platform to the main floor saying nothing. Then in a penitent voice he says to the student body,

“I am sorry. I am sorry because I have deserved the epithet “Hitler of the Lower Fifth.” I am sorry because I have failed to give you what is your right to demand of me as your teacher: sympathy, encouragement, humanity. I have degraded the noblest calling a man can follow, the care and molding of the young. When I entered this school, I still believed that I had a vocation in teaching. I knew what I wanted to do.  And yet I did not do it.  I cannot offer excuses. I have failed and miserably failed. And I can only hope that you can find it in your hearts, you and the countless others who have gone before you, to forgive me for having let you down. I shan’t find it easy to forgive myself. That is all.”

As difficult as it is, our acknowledgement and admission to ourselves, to God, and to others regarding our need to change is vital to our becoming the persons and communities God wants us to be. And that’s where it has to start.

Gracious God, surely your heart must break at the many ways we hurt ourselves and hurt one another. I am so thankful that you never withdraw the invitation to change. If the door is ever closed, it is closed from our side, not your side. Give us grace we need to see those blind spots where we need to change, so that we can begin that process that will form us more fully into your likeness. Amen.


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