In our gospel reading a few weeks ago, Jesus said, “A prophet is not welcome in his hometown.” In these past two weeks, we are beginning to see why.
As Jesus moves closer to Jerusalem in the gospel of Luke, the crowds grow, and his words become more powerful and provocative, challenging people to examine themselves, to examine their assumptions, to repent and change their ways. This week, we return to the beginning of Luke 13 (this is when having Bibles in our pews would be handy. You may want to look this up when you get home). In Luke 12 and 13 Jesus is speaking to crowds of thousands, making fun of Herod, challenging the entitlement of the Jewish authorities, casting out demons on the Sabbath. He challenges his listeners to pay attention to the signs, to repent, because judgement is coming. And yet, the more provocative Jesus becomes, the more followers he gains, people who are giving up their fear to follow the way to the cross. Or, perhaps, just jumping on a bandwagon.
Today, out of his followers, a group approaches Jesus and asks for his take on some current events, expecting to poke Jesus’ political sensibilities. Some Galileans, Jesus’ kin, had gone to Jerusalem to make sacrifices in the temple. While they were in the temple, Roman soldiers entered the temple and slaughtered them, not only taking their lives, but shedding blood in their sacred place, desecrating it. The group asks Jesus, “What kind of sign is this? Your own kin, slaughtered in the temple, desecrating your Father’s house!”
What kind of sign indeed? Is Jesus saying God sacrificed the Galileans as a sign of the end times? How do you explain that to their families? Is it supposed to be comforting that they lost their loved ones so God could provide a sign?
And Jesus responds, “Are you saying the Galileans who died were worse sinners than those who survived?” He doesn’t exactly bring comfort, because Jesus refuses to reduce the tragic and meaningless deaths to a simple answer. Instead, he responds, “It could have been you. Are you ready?”
Lent asks a very difficult thing of us, to take a serious look at our sinfulness and to acknowledge the part we play in a broken world. Our human nature resists this acknowledgement as much as we can. The easiest way for us to disassociate ourselves from the brokenness of this world is to look for a simple answer that does not involve us.
For example, we seek to find a reason for disaster, by blaming something bigger than us. It is easier to blame big oil companies and federal subsidies for the degrading of our environment than to look at how much oil we consume. We can get angry about how marketing targets and exploits children, while we wear jeans made by child labour.
We deflect our sinfulness. The Galileans’ question isn’t really about why bad things happen to good people. That is an important and heartfelt question, and they are using it to deflect from Jesus’ teaching. In other words, they are asking, “Who cares about our sinfulness when Roman soldiers are slaughtering our people in the temple?!” Jesus says, “You should care”.
Have you noticed that when someone angers us, we vilify them into the worst of their character? We jump to the worst conclusions about people in order to feel better about ourselves. “She manipulated me. Well, at least I have integrity! She has none.” Yes, perhaps she did manipulate you. And that was wrong. Does that mean your integrity is flawless? No. “My boss told me there weren’t enough profits for me to keep my job when he got a bonus. He is a liar and a thief.” Was he dishonest? Perhaps. Do you deserve better treatment from your company? Absolutely! Does that make you more honest? Sadly, no.
Repentance does not ask us to excuse the sins of others or the ways we have been hurt. Jesus is not excusing the violence of the Romans, nor is he making the death of the Galilean pilgrims any less tragic. We are not asked to repent when the world becomes a better place. We are called to repent now, in the midst of a tragic and corrupt world.
Our understanding of judgement is very different from the world of Jesus. The psalms are full of reference to the day of judgement as a day when people would come face to face with God. In Jesus’ day, the days of judgement were to bring freedom. For some, it meant an end to a difficult and oppressive live. For others, it brought a sense of entitlement. By being an Israelite, freedom was guaranteed on the day of judgement. If freedom is guaranteed, there is no need to examine, or repent. Jesus says this is a mistaken understanding of judgement, and so is the expectation of condemnation.
Jesus proclaims this scary invitation, to take a serious look at ourselves and repent, and then offers words of grace, with the strange parable of the fig tree. A landowner has grown weary of watching a fig tree grow taller but bear no figs. He goes to his gardener and orders him to cut the tree down. Cause and effect. Simple problem, simple solution. The landowner can wipe his hands, plant a different crop and forget all about the useless fig tree.
But not so simple for the gardner. He has tended this fig tree. He knows that it takes at least four years of constant care before a fig tree can bear fruit. He begs the landowner for one more year, a year of more attention, even adding fertilizer so it does not take from the rest of the soil, in hopes of bearing fruit for one more year. Jesus’ call to repent ends with the promise of the gardener, that God does not give up on us. God will stay with us, loving us all the way into death, ours and his.
The call to repentance is an invitation to enter more deeply into a relationship with Christ, a relationship that is based on God’s love for you; who you really are, broken, sinful and loved.
Naming our sin is only a part of repenting. The root of repentance is a reorientation away from being immersed in the ways of the world and towards the way of Christ. It is an opportunity to bare ourselves before a purely loving and patient God. There is nothing we can share with God that would compromise God’s love for us.
But what about the corruption? The violence? The damage to the Earth? Doesn’t God care about that more than my small transgressions? God does care about all of that. When we repent, offer our transgressions to God, let go of our resentments and turn to a new way, then we are open to the work of the Spirit to resist evil, fight corruption and violence. But we do it from a place of justice rooted in the love of Christ, not to seek our own revenge.
It goes against our human nature to spend time reflecting on our weaknesses. In this world we are, instead, encouraged to focus on our strengths, those traits that people admire about us, make us lovable. It can be frightening to confess our sins before God, so frightening that we would rather keep moving forward, towards success, hoping to bear fruit in our lives, in hopes that God will love us more. God does not ask us to repent of our strengths, but of our sins. Jesus’ call to repentance promises so much more. When we live in God’s grace, forgiven, there is no need to seek others to blame, to deflect attention away from our own weakness. When we experience God’s love and forgiveness, we can walk into a difficult world with less fear of failure and condemnation.
There is freedom in the day of judgement, not because it is the end of this hard life, but because, with God’s judgement, there is forgiveness and grace. That is the promise of the gardener. Each Sunday we pray to be forgiven things we have done and left undone. There is nothing we could do or fail to do that would push God away. God will always be fighting for us for one more day, one more year, maybe even another millennium, until we truly flourish not in our own success but in the love and grace of God.