Jesus urges us to ask different questions of God and of life, focusing on the life God offers and to which we are invited to turn, and not on justifying others’ sin or suffering.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, 3 Lent C; texts: Luke 13:1-9; Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
On the one hand, what Jesus seems to be saying to the crowds in this episode is very helpful even in our day. He refers to two tragedies unknown to history but clearly known and clearly troubling to his listeners, and emphatically declares that no conclusions about the victims and their sinfulness can or should be drawn. In a world where some people (and let’s be honest, it’s mostly Christians who do this) seem eager to blame the deaths of others, by everything from natural disasters to acts of evil, on the wickedness of the victims, having this clarity of declaration from the Son of God himself is incredibly important. Those who were killed by the governor Pilate as they made their religious sacrifices were no more sinful than those who were not killed. Those who died in a collapse of a tower near the walls of the city were no more sinful than those who escaped death in that tragedy. Period. End of argument. Jesus has spoken.
Would that he would have stopped there, though. Because the other hand of this episode is that after stating there are no causal links between tragedies, both natural and imposed by others, and those who are harmed, Jesus adds twice, “but unless you all repent, you will all perish just as they did.” What’s the point of saying our sins don’t cause natural disasters to kill us or wicked people to kill us and then saying if we don’t stop sinning we’re going to perish like these apparently innocent bystanders did? It seems as if Jesus is contradicting himself.
The lectionary doesn’t help us much, either, by having us hear Paul’s threats to the Corinthians that if they don’t shape up they’ll be destroyed like some of the Israelites in the wilderness were destroyed. It’s part of an important and helpful section of this letter dealing with respect and care for others in the community, but this particular bit, added to Jesus’ statement, seems to add fuel to the fire of warning.
We can’t claim refuge in half of Jesus’ words if we’re going to dodge the other half, sadly enough. But perhaps we don’t have to dodge anything. There’s a lot more going on here than first meets the eye, and Jesus actually is being consistent. He does mean to tell us that we can’t blame victims for tragedy not of their doing, naturally or human caused. But when he asks us to repent or we will perish, he’s not threatening us with tragedy. What Jesus is doing is pointing us to ask different questions about God, our lives, and what it might mean to turn around, to turn to God, to repent, instead of spending our time in judgment on others, and living in death rather than living in life with God.
The context of this section of Luke is a good starting point to our understanding.
Not only is this Gospel reading only found in Luke, where he places it is enlightening to consider. In the chapter immediately preceding this, Jesus is giving a number of warnings about the coming end times. Luke includes several of Jesus’ urgent parables about servants being at work and ready when their master returns, some of Jesus’ apocalyptic warnings, even his belief that families will be divided because of him. That immediately leads to today’s discussion. And recalling that the Transfiguration has already happened, and Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and his death, we hear today’s words with the urgency of last words, dire warnings.
But what happens afterward in this chapter is also important to note. After this, Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath, to great criticism. Then Luke places two parables next, the yeast and the mustard seed, parables Matthew tells as part of the Sermon on the Mount, earlier in Jesus’ ministry. And last, the chapter ends with the lament of Jesus over Jerusalem we heard last week, that he wanted to draw his people to himself as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but they weren’t willing.
Luke seems to be making several points.
First, whatever Jesus is saying about repentance and the deaths of innocents, it’s weighted with the urgency of limited time. He has to get his point across strongly, in other words, before he’s gone.
But second, it’s instructive to note the positive parables that follow, parables that are hard to read as anything other than the grace of God, and also to note the healing Jesus does. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like yeast in flour, or a mustard seed, both which grow and flourish and bear far greater fruit than their tiny size would suggest possible. And the grace of God that Jesus brings breaks Sabbath law, a law of God, to heal a woman in pain and suffering.
And third, the grief of Jesus comparing himself to a mother hen shapes the whole discourse. Jesus is not only short on time, he desperately wants the people to listen to him and turn their lives to God. He doesn’t want their destruction.
So the context tells us that Jesus desperately needs us to listen while we can, that he’s bringing grace and healing even when it seems inappropriate, and that same grace will flourish in unexpected ways, and that it causes him great sadness when we still won’t turn to God and live.
And lastly, let’s not forget the truly helpful context of the part we also heard read, the parable Luke retells right after this discourse. The urging of patience by the gardener, to let the fruitless tree stand another season, get fertilized and worked on, in hopes that fruit will one day come, is a powerful statement of Jesus’ intent.
For all his urgency, it is that grace we see here and in the rest of this chapter that overrides all. He wants us to turn to God, to bear fruit, and we won’t. But the Holy Spirit, acting as gardener here, says, “let me see if I can do something, get this plant growing and bearing fruit. Give me some time.” Two chapters from now Luke will tell powerful parables of Jesus about the lost being found, about a father who waits for his wayward son and welcomes him home. Such waiting grace is already seen in this story of the fig tree, and becomes our ground for hope.
What the gracious yet serious, the urgent yet patient Jesus is saying today is what he’s been saying all along: “Repent. Turn to God.” But today’s particular emphasis is that we remember that’s what’s really important.
In dealing with the unexplained and frightening tragedies as his framework in the way that he does, Jesus is taking our minds off of the status of others and telling us to focus instead on ourselves, not to be selfish, but because our lives depend upon it. Don’t worry about the reasons for bad things happening to good people or good things happening to bad people, or any combination thereof, he says. You can’t make any inference from what happens to people that will explain why things happen. In fact, he says, I’ll just tell you right out, it’s not related to their sinfulness or behavior.
Instead, he says, you should be thinking about your life with God and whether you have that life or are living in darkness. As Jesus shows grace in this whole chapter by his healing and his parables, by his very life, he says, “this is what God has to offer you. Why won’t you let God surround and embrace you?”
His call to repent in this context is one of re-focusing, and it’s an important one for us. We can spend a lot of time worrying about someone else’s salvation or sin. Jesus says that our time would be better spent considering our own.
He’s also eliminating the “why?” question in favor of the “what can I do?” question. By removing any justification for the innocent deaths in those tragedies, he’s answering the “why” question in something like the way God does in the book of Job: “you wouldn’t understand why if I told you.” He’s saying, quit wasting time trying to find reasons for things you’ll never find reasons for.
Instead, ask yourselves what you will do with your lives now that you know what God is offering you. Will you turn to God and live, or turn from God and die?
Jesus is heading to Jerusalem and the cross for the very reason that we mostly choose to turn from God and not toward God. And he, the Son of God incarnate, will die to transform our hearts by his sacrificial love, that he might rise from the dead to bring us into this life he now is offering his hearers.
Risen from the dead, he still offers open arms, open wings, open love to welcome those who have strayed. And he invites us to see that is where life is and turn to it, rather than perishing, and certainly rather than fretting about reasons for others’ difficulties.
This is exactly what Isaiah is saying to us as well. I told the Tuesday study group that I hoped the Holy Spirit would lead me to Isaiah at some point this week after this hard Gospel and second reading. And that’s just what happened.
Isaiah says what Jesus is saying: why do you run after things that don’t satisfy, eat things that don’t fill you up, seek things that are worthless? He’s not really talking about food here, obviously. Spending time trying to justify why someone else suffered a tragedy has no value or help for us or for them.
Rather, Isaiah says, go after the things of life God is offering. Like Jesus, Isaiah says God is offering spiritual food and drink that will give us life, offering all we need for hearts that are in tune with God and filled with grace, if only we recognize it and turn to it.
Both Jesus and Isaiah are inviting us to find the joy of repentance, the joy of discovering life in the risen Lord who fills us with what we need and shapes our lives into children of God who will transform the world, the children God has hoped for all along.
My thoughts and ways are higher than you can imagine or think, God says through Isaiah, so don’t focus on that. Rather, seek the LORD where he can be found, call upon him while he is near, Isaiah says. And you will find life.
In the end, Jesus says, learn to ask the right questions in life and you’ll find the answers you need.
The One who taught us that when we seek, we certainly will find, tells us today where our questions need to lie and what answers the grace of God provides. He shows us what truly will satisfy the longing of our hearts and lives, and will sustain us in this life, even in a world where people are killed and die in tragic accidents. We need not fear such things because the Son of God has risen from the dead, and we have this same resurrection waiting for us no matter when or how we might die.
But best of all, we need not even wait for God’s redeeming grace to come only at the time of our death, because in this life, Jesus urges us to know, we will have the certain and gracious love of God not only filling us to our depths, but offering forgiveness for our sin and the gracious gardening action of the Holy Spirit helping us bear fruits of Christly love beyond what we thought possible, and that will shape the world.
Let us do what Jesus asks, repent, turn to our God and the life we are being offered. And then we’ll see what well-fertilized lives planted in the grace of God can really do.
In the name of Jesus. Amen