Year C, Lent 3
March 24, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
I came across a pithy little quote from Oscar Wilde: “I like to sin. God likes to forgive. It is a nice arrangement.” That’s pretty funny. But maybe it is funny because it is not as far off as we might like to think, how seriously we really take this stuff, our religious life, our relationship between how we are in the world and God? How seriously do you take the notion that the abundant life Jesus Christ offers us is somehow tied up in His horrendous death and glorious resurrection? Is this an idea to ponder; a creed to confess; a guide post by which you orient your life? How seriously do you take it? Is the gospel of Jesus Christ a first stop; a cross-reference; or just an “oh, yeah, that too”? How seriously do you take this?
Our selection from St. Luke’s gospel is very serious. Well, I guess the gospels are all pretty serious, but this one is serious in that it has some pretty serious, pretty complicated implications for us, particularly as members of a mainline protestant denomination where taking religious things too seriously is not one of our primary sins. There are two distinct parts of this text. First, there are the folks who died in the temple and under the tower of Siloam and Jesus’ call to repentance, and second, His challenging Parable of the Fig Tree. And as we have been doing this Lent, questions are guiding us through the narrative arc.
So the first question is thus: Repent or die? That is what Jesus said, “…unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Some of the people with Jesus bring an incident involving the death of some Galilean at the Temple at the hand of Pilate. Jesus’ companions seem to make a Jobian suggestion: bad things happen to people because they somehow deserve it. Jesus answers, “Do you think these Galileans suffered in this way because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” I can imagine an incredulous tone, “Are you telling me that you really think this?” Then He asks the same question, in, I can imagine, the same tone, about their thoughts on the 18 killed when apparently a tower collapsed somewhere in Jerusalem. And again, Jesus answers His own question in exactly the same way. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish just as they did.”
First, He answers the Job question: bad things happen to the good and bad, there is no rhyme of reason to tragedy, just like He taught that blindness isn’t caused by sinful parents, life (and death) happens. We’re clear? But!!!! (and this is a big but), but “unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” This is a serious part, a part that for us in the liberal age of individual responsibility and authority might feel uncomfortable. Life happens, death happens, and there is nothing fair about any of it, nothing we can do about any of it, AND we have to be ready. We have to be prepared. We even have to repent.
What does repentance have to do with dying suddenly and unprepared? That is a very good question. Before that, though, what do we mean when we say “repent”? The Greek word here that is translated as “repent” (and has been since at least the King James Version) is metanoia. The literal translation of metanoiais “a change of mind.” Meta- as in meta-morphosis, is change, -noia, is mind, thought or will, as in para-noia. Metanoia – a change of mind. The literal translation is just the start.
Martin Luther and John Calvin were very concerned with this notion, which is appropriate, as this was a central concern of Jesus. Calvin’s unpacking of the term I think is most helpful. In his towering Institutes of the Christian Religion, he described metanoia, repentance in four movements: as withdrawing from ourselves, turning to God, laying aside the old, and putting on a new mind. His definition accounts for the idea of repentance in the Hebrew Bible which has a distinctly religious conversion aspect to it, which it would seem would be right in line with Jesus’ Jewishness being overlaid on the Gentile/Greek-speaking world that His teachings quickly spread to.
I often speak of repentance as changing the direction of your life, and that it is. But I realized that definition might imply simply a change in behavior. Stop sinning or start serving and you’ll be fine. It is a great start, but that is not sufficient. That is, as our recovery friends say, faking it until we make it. Changes of behavior can be practices that lead us to deeper changes, certainly. I encourage such practices, like practicing not drinking during Lent. Just as certainly, changes in behavior can be signs that inner change has occurred. If you are doing better you won’t be so bad. Right? (Or lost or hurt or scared or despairing, or being bad, but being naughty is mostly an outward and visible sign of a deeper moral and spiritual debilitation). But what Jesus is saying here, what the whole concept of repentance teaches us, is that it is the whole enchilada. We need to look beyond ourselves, we need to turn towards God, towards truth and love and justice and beauty and goodness, we need to lay aside our old, our regular ways of doing things, no more business as usual, and we need to put on a new mind, a new way, a new relationship with ourselves, with God and everything. You know, actually do what Jesus tells us to do. You know, actually be Christian.
Another way to look at it is that repentance is a change of perception. As one commentator said, it is about “a change of our perception of what is true, of what is real. It is about having a possibility of sensing the kingdom in our midst. It is a call to recognize what the time is about.” And what is this time about (every time, that is)? It is, as Jesus said over and over and over again, it is the time of the Commonwealth of God. It is at hand! Right here, right now, in this very moment if only we could let go of our fears of living as if it were so. I hope that fleshes out the idea of repentance a bit. I am sorry if I have been a bit one dimensional with this central idea. I keep learning…
This is precisely where Jesus pushed them, pushes us. “…but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” So if we don’t repent, we’ll die? Well, this is a rather pregnant sentence. He says that we will perish, which isn’t necessarily physiological death, Paul uses “perishing” in a non-dead kind of dying. In spiritual terms, life and death are not just about whether your heart is still beating, we can die or “die to” in so many ways. But then Jesus does say, “just like them”, and the “them” were dead dead, some under the sword, others under a pile of rubble. What Jesus is telling us, in His often dramatic fashion, is that this is serious, life and death serious. Repent!
By associating the stories of dead victims of oppression and accidents with our condition, Jesus is overtly associating physical death with spiritual death. He is drawing a clear connection of sin and death with repentance and life, life bestowed by the grace of God. And that is not just hyperbole. I think of images of near riots breaking out when Wal-Mart opens at midnight on Black Friday. Of young black men being shot by police who are legally justified in doing so, because they were in fact scared, and legally being fearful for their own safety is a good enough reason for a police officer to shoot someone. I think of the people I have met on the street in the hell of heroin or meth addiction, walking dead. In our avarice and gluttony, our fear of the other, the miasma of addiction, of escaping the world as it actually is (which for too many is pretty absolutely horrible), sin, which is little more than separation from God and death go and in hand. Are the selfish, the scared, and the addicted actually dead? Maybe perishing is the better word. Alive, but perishing. Not dead, but surely the opposite of flourishing.
Are we perishing here? Some of us are. Addiction happens here. As do sickness unto death and being lost in material excess and earthly striving. The murk of depression and the chokehold of anxiety exist here, certainly. Are we flourishing here? Some of us are. Right here there are new vocations! New stages of our lives and developments! New senses of peace and contentment. Right here there is new life happening! And great work (and works) being done in the world and interiorly. But in the end, most of us, most of the time, have bits of us that are perishing, bits that are flourishing, and maybe most of us that are just going along, one foot in front of the other, day by day, week by week, year by year. In this text Jesus puts a sense of urgency to it all. If we don’t repent, if we don’t change our perception and adjust ourself to the reality of God and life, we will perish. There is a real sense of urgency here. Maybe it is more pressing than we think. Maybe just day by day going along to get along is itself a way of perishing?
This brings us to the fig tree. This is not comfortable stuff. And I am not settled with all of this in my own heart, but as one commentator I listen to puts it, “Don’t preach against the text.” We need to consider, closely and seriously, what Jesus is telling us, even if it offends, or is contrary to our opinion about things (maybe it is most important to do whenit is contrary to the way we believe or want to believe things are).
So there is a fig tree angering the land owner because for the past three years it has produced no figs. “Cut it down!” he says. The patient and graceful gardener responds, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
That is some pretty decisive and hard preaching for our social and theological location. Just last week I said something about it never being too late to repent, to turn it around, or at least to begin your Lenten devotional practice. (I stand by the last one, for sure). But Jesus is saying something that begs our second question for the day: Can it be too late? Well, can it be too late? To late to repent? To late to turn it around? Can we live horrible, mean-spirited, selfish lives and on our death bed ask for forgiveness and it be given and all is right with the world?
This parable is piercing. It is clearly saying that we are expected to bear fruit. Be it the fruits of the spirit, good works in the commonwealth, a kind, generous and loving being, all of them… The key is expectation. God has expectations of us. We must bear fruit. Now we are not alone in the effort. Not getting to get too allegorical, but let’s say God is like that patient gardener, “Give her some more time. One more season. Let me feed the soil here, that’ll help. She’ll come around. One more season.” We’re not alone. Grace happens and we are fed in ways we can’t imagine let alone in our blindness ask for. But!!!! (A second big but from God in this passage. Ouch). But after next year, if it hasn’t started producing, cut’r down.
Jesus is telling us that it can be too late. That at some point, the ax is going to fall (or an imperial sword or a shoddily built tower), the point is, there is a point at which we need to bear fruit or we will perish (and/or die, it’s murky [in a spiritually appropriate way]). Now is He trying to instill a sense of urgency in us? Snap-snap, this is serious. Or is our Lord and Savior telling us that it can get to be too late to repent? Can we get to a point where it is too late to look beyond ourselves, to turn towards God, to lay aside our old ways, and put on a new mind? Is that what Jesus is saying? That is not what I want to believe. That is not what I want to feel. Then again, there are a lot of things I don’t want to believe are true that are. This all makes me a little nervous, spiritually. And maybe it should you, too.
Repent or die? Can it be too late? We are in the middle of Lent, aren’t we. This is serious stuff. I don’t know where you all are with this, but as Paul warns, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” AMEN.