March 3, 2013
“Change of Hearts and Minds”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
13 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.’”
Let me say right off the bat that this is a difficult passage (Dan says he thinks this is one of the most difficult in the New Testament). Jesus seems to be giving with one hand and taking with the other. Terrible things have happened – we can relate to that – all we have to do is turn on the news. Jesus tells the people who bring him this news that this was not God’s punishment – those who died were not more sinful than other people and therefore more deserving of a violent and sudden death. But there’s a disconcerting “but” that follows, “But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Sometimes it takes us aback to hear this kind of talk come out of Jesus’ mouth – I am taken aback by these words. Where is the Jesus of love and grace? Jesus is first and foremost always about bringing us back to God – sometimes that involves reminding us of God’s love, sometimes that involves reminding us how poorly we have loved God. Here Jesus is seizing the teachable moment.
One of the blessings and challenges that comes with the work of a pastor is being present with someone dealing with some of the most difficult things we encounter in life: watching a parent die, learning of a cancer diagnosis, losing a job, desperate struggles with a spouse or a child, a terrible accident. In the midst of these scary events come the questions that cut to heart of our faith: why do these things happen, or perhaps, why does God let these things happen? How do we understand who God is in the midst of our heartbreaking reality?
Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite preachers, writes about when she was a hospital chaplain, the calls she dreaded most did not come from the emergency room, the psychiatric ward or even the morgue. They came from the pediatric floor. She writes, “One day I received a call to come sit with a mother while her five-year-old daughter was in surgery. Earlier in the week, the girl had been playing with a friend when her head began to hurt. By the time she found her mother, she could no longer see. At the hospital, a CAT scan confirmed that a large tumor was pressing on the girl’s optic nerve, and she was scheduled for surgery as soon as possible. On the day of the operation, I found her mother sitting under the fluorescent lights in the waiting room beside an ashtray full of cigarette butts. She smelled as if she had puffed every one of them . . . She was staring at a patch of carpet in front of her, with her eyebrows raised in that half-hypnotized look that warned me to move slowly. I sat down beside her. She came to, and after some small talk she told me just how awful it was. She even told me why it had happened. ‘It’s my punishment,’ she said, ‘for smoking these damned cigarettes. God couldn’t get my attention any other way, so he made my baby sick.’ Then she started crying so hard that what she said next came out like a siren: ‘Now I’m supposed to stop, but I can’t stop. I’m going to kill my own child!’ This was hard for me to hear. I decided to forego reflective listening and concentrate on remedial theology instead. ‘I don’t believe in a God like that,’ I said. ‘The God I know wouldn’t do something like that.’ . . . However miserable it made her, she preferred a punishing God to an absent one . . . If there was something wrong with her daughter, then there had to be a reason. She was even willing to be the reason. At least that way she could get a grip on the catastrophe. Even those of us who claim to know better react the same way. Calamity strikes and we wonder what we did wrong.”
We do that, and people in Jesus’ day did that. That is apparent in the conversation that we find Jesus in, in this passage. Terrible things have happened and people are talking. The first story is that Pilate has killed people from Jesus’ home province, Galilee, who were at worship and in the violence, their blood was mingled with the sacrifices on the altar. This is the only account we have of this event. But from what we know of Pilate’s actions towards the Jews, it is very probable.
It would have been horrific. Holy, sacred things had been violated. In a single stroke Pilate humiliated the nation and its culture, and the very presence of God. And we don’t know what the reporting of this event sounded like, but we can tell from Jesus’ response that it must have sounded something like, “Did you hear about what happened? Those Galileans must have brought that upon themselves. God was punishing them for their sins.”
One commentator writes, “I think most people at one time or another will run headlong into the question, “God, how could you let that happen?” Usually it is in the context of something like your worst nightmare coming true. Whether it’s the loss of a child, or the loss of a marriage, or some tragedy on a broader scale than the individual, I think at one time or another we will all face that troubling question. It is a natural thing to ask when you’re in the depths of despair. After all, if God is truly infinite, truly beyond all that we can comprehend, it would only seem reasonable to assume that God has the ability to prevent tragedies from happening. For some, this becomes proof positive that there must not be a God, since the world is full of tragedies both individual and widespread, from Holocaust gas chambers to genocide in Rwanda, from the tsunami in Myanmar to the earthquake in Haiti. This seems to be what was on the minds those who approached Jesus to ask him about a tragedy that apparently affected them deeply. Although our Gospel lesson doesn’t spell it out, I think we have to assume that they were troubled by this tragedy—the Roman Governor Pilate had not only executed some of their friends and neighbors, but also had desecrated their sacrifices. It would seem that what troubled them were questions about God’s character. ‘Couldn’t God have prevented this from happening?’ ‘If so, why didn’t God prevent it?’”
And Jesus replies strongly, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you . . .” Jesus declares that their sinfulness had nothing to do with it. And he adds another example of his own, another terrible event, a tower in the wall in Jerusalem, near Siloam, fell and killed eighteen people. And he asks again, “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” And he answers his own question, “No, I tell you . .”
So we have a purposeful act of violence on the one hand, and a random accident on the other – one human-caused, one nature-caused. Both saw innocent people killed with little warning and for no apparent reason.
Jesus is given the chance to defend God against charges of being cruel or unjust – but he doesn’t take it. We simply cannot equate tragedy with God’s punishment. As hard as it is to hear, sometimes terrible things just happen.
But we want to know, don’t we, why these things happen. We want to know what we can do. We want control of our chaos and the unexpected. We want protect ourselves and our loved ones from every danger. Jesus doesn’t offer us a simple answer; he only makes sure that we understand that this is not God’s punishment. But events like this should stand as graphic reminders that life is fragile, and any of us may stand before God without a moment’s notice.
Jesus doesn’t stop there – there is a “but” that follows. Twice he says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
That word in the Greek for “perishing” can be translated two different ways: as physical death, as when the disciples think that they are going to die on the boat in the storm, or as spiritually or relationally dead or lost, as in when Jesus says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose themselves.”
So that’s probably how we should hear this passage: not, those who are unrepentant will meet an untimely death, but, that what is lost or destroyed is the relationship between God and people – he is talking about the perishing of the soul.
Jesus has seized the moment – his listeners are more aware than ever that life is fragile, their existence is precarious – and Jesus reminds them that now is the time for repentance – the need is urgent. We don’t have the luxury of knowing how much time we have to get right with God.
One commentator writes, “If life’s fragility demands urgency, that urgency shows that life itself has carved out opportunity for us to seize God’s graciousness.”
So what Jesus does here for his listeners is what happens to us on Ash Wednesday. We come at the start of the season of Lent and hear these words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return,” and we receive a mark that reminds us that we are mortal, that life is fragile, that we don’t have time to waste on things that don’t matter, our need for repentance is great and urgent.
A quick word about repentance. One Commentator I came across said some helpful things about repentance. He writes. “Repentance becomes less interesting when people mistake it to mean moral uprightness, expressions of regret, or a “180-degree turnaround.” Rather, here and many other places in the Bible, it refers to a changed mind, to a new way of seeing things, to being persuaded to adopt a different perspective.”
Repentance is a change of heart and mind that allows us to see ourselves and our world differently. And the word Jesus uses for repent is in the present tense subjunctive, which is to say, that it means continual action, as in “be a repentant person,” “continue to repent,” or “keep on repenting.” Repentance is not meant to be a one-shot at being saved, but a lifestyle.
The first part of what we read today reminds us that our need for repentance is urgent, and the parable that Jesus tells indicates that the time for repentance is short. According to Levitcal law, a fig tree had to produce fruit for three years before the fruit became ritually clean and could be harvested, so in the story that Jesus tells, the owner of the vineyard has waited six years for fruit. The fig tree takes up valuable space and wastes resources. But the gardener proposes to do something out of the ordinary, even extreme, to save the life of the tree. But time is running out.
We discover during Lent, and especially on Ash Wednesday, that is not a bad thing for us to feel the fragility of our lives. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, it is not a bad thing for us to count our breaths in the dark — not if it makes us turn toward the light. She writes, “Depending on what you want from God, this may not sound like good news. But for those of us who have discovered that we cannot make life safe nor God tame, it is gospel enough. What we can do is turn our faces to the light. That way, whatever befalls us, we will fall the right way.”