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Unless You Repent

Luke 13:1-9

13:1 At 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.’”

*****

Have you noticed how whenever some awful event happens, whether it’s a natural disaster or whatever horrific violence has occurred this week, it’s not long before people start telling us the “meaning” of what happened? I don’t mean analysis shedding light on how an event occurred, but more so those who are ready with an answer for why it happened or even why in the big picture it’s actually good that it happened. This kind of thing can be more or less crude: maybe you remember after September 11th when one well known preacher said that the towers fell as God’s judgment because of this country’s supposed tolerance toward people who are gay or another pastor who said something similar after Hurricane Katrina. Just last week, it wasn’t 24 hours after the shooting at the mosque in Christchurch before highly regarded journalists began saying that these murders happened because of growing tensions over “the loss of Western identity” (as though the shooter had reasonable motives and only messed up in his methods).

When something awful happens, a lot of people have this instinct to fit that event into a moral order, so that something is revealed about the ones suffering. People don’t want to think that we really live in a world where things like that happen at all, so when they do there’s this instinct to put those events into a story that not only make sense of them, but that actually justifies them, that shows they are a part of a larger pervasive goodness, where the wicked always receive punishment and there are always blessing for the good.

In our passage this morning, Jesus’ audience is telling this kind of story. Jesus has just been talking with the crowd about judgment, about God’s judgment on sin and injustice and all who perpetuate them. In response to Jesus’ teaching, these people in the crowd “at that very moment” tell Jesus a story about some Galileans who were murdered by Pilate while they were offering their sacrifices so that their own blood mingled with the blood on the alter. The people are telling this story because they seem to think that this is proving Jesus’ point, that these people were murdered at worship because they were bad and this shows God’s judgment against them. Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, so we can look at their misfortune and make our own judgment about the kind of people they were. They weren’t murdered because Pilate is a tyrant who did heinous, oppressive things like this all the time. In this telling of the story, Pilate is the agent of God’s justice and the victims are not victims at all.

I think it’s really important that we hear Jesus’ response to this kind of story, this habit of looking on people’s misfortune and drawing conclusions about their character, about whether they are deserving of grace or punishment. [I imagine Jesus looking back at them…image of Jennings taking his glasses off and rubbing his eyes] And Jesus says, “No! You think they suffered this way because they’re sinners? No!”

That’s not what Jesus had been talking about at all. “True blessedness,” Jesus says, “is doing the will of God,” which is no guarantee of success. Blessedness is not good fortune, it’s not wealth, it’s not health; it’s not fame. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who weep; but woe to the rich, and the full, and the mighty; you’ve taken your fill and Jesus has come to make sure everyone else gets theirs. God is always on the side of those the world brings low. You really want to tell this story, where people’s misfortunes prove their lack of character? Where we deserve the things that happen to us because we need to learn how to be good and responsible? Let’s do another one: the tower of Siloam fell and killed all those people. Because they were sinners? No! Let’s not do this with every disaster that happens. Maybe let’s ask how these disasters keep happening and what that says about our world, not about those who suffer. Reading immorality out of people’s misfortune belies a deep seated cruelty towards those who suffer; but Jesus never forgets that rain falls and the just and the unjust alike so the appropriate response to anyone’s misfortune is always, always, always grace.

When Jesus talks about judgment, it’s not to pile on to the ways that people are already suffering; it’s to tell the truth about why many suffer so much and a few live in comfort. Jesus talks about judgment because he’s being honest about our need for new creation in a world that has fallen apart. Moralizing atrocities and blaming victims are just ways of saying “this world is all there is, it can’t be any better” so we’d need to learn how to put a bow on it.

But our world is so devastated, it needs remaking in the first place, in part because of the ways we distance ourselves from those who suffer. Jesus talks about judgment and the crowd points to those Galileans. It reminds me of this panel from what are called the Bernward Doors which are part of a thousand year old cathedral in Germany. Here is the human condition: Adam and Eve have just sinned and God comes to them and asks, “Have you eaten from the tree I told you not to eat from?” and Adam says, “The woman you gave me made me do it.” You see the way Adam points at Eve in the panel and Eve is pointing at the serpent (which to her credit is more accurate). This pointing, this blaming, this distancing, will become a pattern for human relationships at their worst. Adam and Eve’s son Cain will murder his brother Abel and when God asks where Abel is, Cain answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” What does their misfortune have to do with me? Look how they’ve made a mess of things! I’m glad I’m not like them. Jesus talks about judgment and the crowd does the same thing: look at them, look how messed up their lives are, that must be who you’re talking about, right?

But Jesus says, “No.” And not just no, but also “unless you repent, you’ll perish in just the same way.” These habits are bad for all of us. Pointing, distancing, blaming people for their misfortune, these are not postures that make for life. Even for the supposedly fortunate, we live in a society where the greatest virtues are self-sufficiency and independence—where you’re supposed to be able to do everything for yourself and not be a burden for anyone else—and it turns out that a lot of people in this world are exhausted and lonely. It’s almost like we were never supposed to live this way. And when we experience misfortune, we always have to minimize our own pain because “someone else has it worse”—even when it shames us we have to know we’re better off. That judgment of others’ misfortune is also the voice that whispers in our ears in the middle of the night when we can’t sleep at night.

Jesus wants us to say “no” to these ways that we say “no” to each other and ourselves, and in that double negation find God’s “yes” that was always already spoken over creation. That’s what he means by “repentance.” It’s not slapping yourself on the wrist because something has made you happy. That’s actually the kind of thing we need to get over. We’ve inherited these relentless habits of negation, where we’ve learned to be ashamed of our neighbors’ weakness and our own, too, where we’ve learned that the comfortable and the wealthy and the powerful are good by default, and those who struggle and grieve and live paycheck to paycheck need to be educated or corrected. But Jesus says, “No you’ve got to repent. You’ve been taught to turn away from each other so turn away from the turning away. You won’t find life in the terms the world gives you. You can’t intuit a moral order out of this devastation. You’ve got to just say no and create new terms. You’ve got to imagine a kingdom that’s not coming from this mess.”

After Jesus calls the crowd to repent, he tells a parable that suggests a different way to live. There’s a fig tree that hasn’t put out fruit in 3 years. The man who planted this tree said to his gardener, cut it down, it’s not bearing fruit. But the gardener said, “Let me have another year. Let me give it another chance. I’ll tend this tree and give it fertilizer and I’ll work with it. If it doesn’t bear fruit next year, maybe you’re right, but I’d like to operate assuming new life is possible.”

The owner is ready to say “no” to this tree. It doesn’t put out good fruit. Its life has not borne the right results. It’s not worth saving. But the gardener says otherwise. The gardener says maybe this tree just needs more, more care, more time, more nutrition, and if that’s what it takes for this try to live why wouldn’t that be worth it? So what can I give? The gardener responds with grace, maybe it’s grace that isn’t deserved, but what other kind of grace is there? The owner is the first Adam who points and like his son says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Whatever does not bear fruit is wicked; cut it down. But the gardener, the gardener is the Second Adam, who doesn’t point and distance himself from his neighbor but draws near and gives everything he has, even his own life into the ground, to make a new world and new life possible. The gardener gives abundantly even when it seems like it doesn’t make sense.

I think in this weird little parable, Jesus is calling us to live with grace as the guiding principle of our life together. There is so little room for grace in our world, in our lives. Everywhere we turn we hear that the deadline is firm, the policy doesn’t cover that, you’ve made your bed now sleep in it. (Sometimes we hear those words because we are the ones speaking them.) We hear that you reap what you sow, so when people are murdered in worship or towers fall or a house is repossessed or your loved one gets sick, there must be some reason to justify it, and you’d best accept it and do whatever you can to prove you’re not one of “them.”

Jesus says we don’t have to live that way. We don’t have to do that to ourselves and each other. Don’t point the finger, don’t distance, don’t blame; join, give, care even when it doesn’t make sense, even if you’re not sure that’s fair. It’s probably more fair than the way things are. And the gift of this is that when you find yourself in your own misfortune (which we all will), when the bill’s overdue, when the grief is too much, when the rain falls on you too, there will be people here to remind you that you are not wicked, you are so loved, there is grace for you, too. You are planted in a garden where no one will give up on you, because Jesus is the gardener who does not give up on any of us. Amen.

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