On Luke 13:1-9, preached by seminary intern Rachel Daley
Did you hear about the Galileans? The ones who came to offer sacrifices, and whom Pilate had put to death? He spilled their blood so that it mingled with their sacrifices. What did they do to get into trouble? What was Pilate’s agenda? We don’t know the particulars of this incident, but we know the type. Such violence can be politically expedient. Coercive power is needed to enforce laws, to thwart criminals, and to maintain order and justice. We are familiar with the abuses of such power which is too often used to silence dissidents, sow uncertainty and fear, or tighten the grip of a corrupt ruler.
Someone mentions the incident to Jesus, asking for a bit of political commentary, maybe a theological account of this sobering piece of news. What is Jesus to do? Philosophize about the right use of violence? Incite the crowd to righteous anger against the Roman prefect who has committed yet another injustice? Call down God’s judgment on irresponsible rulers? Offer comfort to a people badly shaken by Pilate’s violent whims? Assure them that the dead have passed on to a better world? These would be valid responses to the problems of violence. They are the impulses that give rise to ethics, political activism, prophetic critique, lament, and hope in a more just world. Each of these is part of the Christian calling and witness.
Jesus doesn’t say or do these things. He teaches about something else- an attitude that is costlier than righteous anger.
While called to respond to an act of political violence, Jesus lifts up an example of destruction that is outside of human control. Eighteen Jerusalemites were killed when a tower collapsed on them. Violence is deliberate and gruesome, but it is also accidental and indiscriminate. There is an element of violence in the world that is outside of human control. We try to control and limit destruction. Today this incident would be followed by an investigation into the practices of building inspectors, a suit against irresponsible contractors, and push for reform in building codes. The inevitable fact is that we make our lives within buildings that age and wear; we make our lives on plates that shift, war, and crash.
Are the victims worse sinners than everyone else? No! - Jesus says. We would probably say the same. The Galileans were victims of an unjust use of power. The Jerusalemites at Siloam were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is not true that suffering happens to the worst sinners while the righteous remain unscathed. The world is not mechanized. Violence and death are not distributed as punishment for sin. Jesus rejects the unvoiced suspicion that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad.
It is hard to live in a chaotic and unordered world. There is always bad news of the outbreak of war, the escalation of conflict, another report about the disastrous effects of climate change. It is hard to understand undeserved suffering. There is a lingering temptation to order and to mechanize. Do we ever interpret our safety as a sign of the superiority of our own way of life? Do we assume that wellbeing is evidence of God’s tacit approval? I feel secure because I live in well-constructed buildings. I live among decent people. My leaders are not perfect, but our government does not allow violence against innocent citizens. I don’t get mixed up with the wrong sort of people. I protect myself and my family. Self-satisfied security protects us from the demands of violence; it’s something that happens to other people, in another neighborhood, on another continent.
We know the woes of our troubled planet, but there is a tendency to locate such problems outside of ourselves. We philosophize and theologize, protest and complain, ignore and grow apathetic. In such action and inaction, we fail to address a fundamental truth. The truth is that the sin of the world is in us too. Sin is not something other people do. You can’t dismiss sin as a problem of those without education or good values. Sin is not limited to tyrants, corrupt politicians, and greedy executives. We can’t respond from a position of comfortable privilege or moral superiority.
Jesus won’t allow his followers to make this question of violence and death abstract - it is always personal. Suffering, corruptibility, and death are in us. The ache of the poor, the sick, and the fearful is our ache. The seeds of greed and selfishness that prompt war and violence are in me, in you. We share in the violence of the oppressor and the suffering of the oppressed. We are bound to those who have perished. We are bound in our common humanity; by the flesh and the weakness we share, by the inevitability that we will meet the same end. We are all equal in the face of death, equal in our need to repent of our part in evil.
The parable of the fig tree is a challenge to the comfortable. The tree has stood for several years and yet it bears no fruit. The axe is at the foot of the tree, but the gardener speaks up - Wait. Wait one more year. I will tend and nurture the tree, I will make one final experiment before cutting it down. It is warning. The barren tree still stands, but it has not escaped judgment.
It is tempting to grow comfortable while we are allowed to stand. That we do not see the end, does not mean that it is not coming. That we don’t yet feel the impacts of our lifestyle on the environment, does not mean we will be safe forever. That war begins in a distant land does not mean that it will always so far away. Prosperity and security give us no advantage before God. Rather we will be called to give an account of how we have acquired and dispatched such gifts.
Jesus has one word for the self-satisfied, the despairing, the indignant: Repent. Unless you repent, you will perish just as they did. Jesus takes these events as a call to redirect the heart and life toward the purposes of God. We don’t need to abandon our rage and sorrow, but we do surrender them to a God whose anger and lament over violence is more fervent and more faithful than our own. Repentance means to make confession of our part of violence and our complicity in violent structures. We confess the things we have done and left undone. We confess that we have been unjust and indifferent while pursuing our own security in a violent world. Repentance is the category through which we interpret and respond to painful events. Repentance itself is painful as we realize that sin and death cut to the core of our being.
Jesus expects that the fig tree will bear fruit. John the Baptist preached about the fruits of repentance. The crowds asked him what he meant and he said- Anyone who has two coasts must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise. Then he told the tax collectors not to collect more than the amount prescribed, and told soldiers not to extort money through threats or accusations. The fruits of repentance are to be just and fair, and to give to the one in need.
John the Baptist does not tell the people to take up an ideology, does not launch a campaign under a grandiose slogan like World Peace or End Poverty. Those are worthy efforts, but they are not repentance. They keep the issues abstract and allow us to circumvent the problem of our own sinfulness. Repentance is a turn from selfishness to ethical concern for neighbors. The fruit of repentance is in ethical patterns of assistance, honesty, equity, in the prudent and moderate use of material possessions. The logic of these small acts is that repentance must be personal and physical, because sin and suffering are personal and physical.
I think it’s really hard to get this right. Jesus warns us against getting too comfortable. Do we then live in fear, expecting violence and judgment at every turn? Jesus reminds us of our sin. Are we then plagued with sorrow about our part in suffering? Jesus us tells us to repent. Do we then shoulder responsibility for every pain and sorrow? Must we earn God’s favor through the sincerity of our confessions or through many good deeds? No, this mandate would twist Christ’s message into its opposite. Christ’s work is a free movement of God’s love toward humans.
Have we forgotten where Jesus is? Have we forgotten where he is going? He is on the road. Some time ago he set his face to go to Jerusalem. He has embarked on a path that leads to violent death. In taking this journey, he has already put on the suffering of the Galileans and the Jerusalemites. He has taken up the sin of the crowds, the abuses of unjust power, the ache of a turbulent, crashing world. He himself will die at Pilate’s hands, even while bearing the sin of those who put him to death. He carries your sin, your suffering and the hurts of a world that are too great for you to bear. A word of fear and guilt has nothing to do with this good news. Christ’s teaching is sobering, but it is given by him who takes sin and suffering upon himself, and so it is not without hope. His message exhorts us to watchfulness, but never to despair.