Luke 13:1-9 1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or 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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6Then 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. 7So 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?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sin is fickle. I say that because the dictionary definition of fickle, according to Merriam-Webster, is “Marked by lack of steadfastness, constancy, or stability: given to erratic changeableness.”
Let’s face it, if our sins always produced the same results, and those results were deadly, or just painful, or even merely more uncomfortable than pleasurable, soon sin would be no more.
But it doesn’t work that way.
Sin is fickle. Sometimes it seems to have no consequence at all, and at other times the consequences go to someone other than the producer of the sin, someone other than the perpetrator. Children suffer when their parents become addicted to substances or behaviors that monopolize their time and resources. Parents suffer when their children become addicted in much the same way. Opioids are blamed for an entire generation being absent from their responsibilities… but it’s not just drugs. So many different things pull us away from better things, from family, from true friends, from fulfilling occupations.
Suffering is just as fickle. Often the people who seem most innocent seem to suffer the most, while the most obviously guilty seem to suffer not at all.
One of my colleagues wrote a way to retell today’s gospel reading, substituting current events for those mentioned by Jesus. The terroristic attacks on the mosques in New Zealand and the floods in Nebraska took the place of Pilate’s massacre and the falling tower in that telling, but the point remains: Those who died and those who suffer these tragedies are not any worse than we are. They have not been targeted for an increase of suffering because of their sin.
But then Jesus seems to back off and say the opposite. Twice, he says it. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
What does that mean? What kind of sense does it make to point out that they were not singled out for suffering, and then to say that if we don’t repent, we’re all going to die like them, too?
Yesterday, as I was struggling to get this all put together in a way that could be helpful, I found myself reading an article written with apparent frustration at the church. The article claimed to have tried them all, conservative, progressive, somewhere in between, but all of us failed, because in all the churches, this person saw something that was not Jesus, and not only not Jesus, but something I might even describe as anti-Jesus…
The article writer describes a “callous lust for personal gain and all the blatant disregard for people and integrity that comes with it.” As the writer describes bragging rights for things like fanciest facilities, latest technology, highest attendance, most followers and purest doctrine, I found myself nodding. When good people were described as rarely winning, even in churches, which ought to be the places of goodness, I couldn’t help but agree. Even the description of churches often being comprised of closed tribes sounded true, and the promise of the writer to walk away, never to return, confident that Jesus would be more visible outside the hallowed walls that had been polluted by the pursuit of personal gain made sense.
Then the article was followed by a blurb promoting the author’s new book, supposedly getting rave reviews, and I saw exactly the same thing the writer had railed against… a desire for personal gain.
It’s everywhere, isn’t it? There’s a desire for personal gain, a yearning to get ahead, a craving for a life of leisure—and pleasure… That doesn’t make us worse sinners than anyone else—it actually means we’re pretty much all in the same place.
Jesus talks about repenting, and I believe our understanding of that word is just a little bit too small.
I’m not sure about you, but from the time I was small I understood that to repent meant to look back at something I had done that was wrong, then to express regret and apologize for that wrong thing, and finally to promise never to do it again.
But sometimes, we don’t notice our wrong things, or we can’t see them. Sometimes there is no regret or apology because it wasn’t really noticed or deemed important enough to address. After all, sin and suffering are fickle. Suffering comes to those who deserve it least of all, with sins invisible or totally unrelated…
So what does Jesus mean when he says, “repent”?
I don’t believe it means so much what I’ve already described, although that can be a part of it. We can look back and find the regrets and issue apologies, but that’s not enough. Even the promise to be better against the temptations to do those things again falls short.
You may have heard before that a literal translation of the Greek word for repent means to have a change of mind (or heart). We can focus such a thing on particular misdeeds of our pasts. More than that, though, we can have such a change of outlook that isn’t tied only to those misdeeds, but one that is focused on a community future that fits better with God’s desire for the good of all creation. The warning of Jesus makes more sense, I think, when it is opened up this way.
Unless you repent, unless you open your heart and mind to a future that is greater than that marked by everyone out for oneself, pretty much everyone’s going to die by the kinds of violence you see around you here, there, and everywhere. That violence will continue to grow because that’s what it does.
If we repent, though, if our hearts and minds are turned toward God’s desire for good for this creation instead of focusing on our own advancement, things just might improve.
Sin and suffering are fickle. God is not. God remains steadfast, constant, and stable, faithful. Let us walk forward with minds and hearts set on Jesus, set on God’s love for all creation. That’s what God’s forgiveness is for, so that we can move forward. In Jesus’ name. Amen.