Repentance

Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-9

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.

Seek the LORD while the LORD may be found, call upon God while God is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that the LORD may have mercy on them, and to our God, for God will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

 

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

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. 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?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’



We’re all familiar with the kind of preachers who take every opportunity provided by a national tragedy or an act of violence or a natural disaster somewhere in the world to preach against the besetting sins that they believe undoubtedly “caused” the event. Their theological understandings tell them God used an act of violent mayhem or environmental catastrophe as a chastening rod to get our attention, urging the sinful to turn in repentance back to God. If the innocent suffer in the process, it’s just unfortunate collateral damage in the wake of God’s plan. No one is really innocent, anyway, in their cosmic view. Whether it is Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 or the most recent mass shooting somewhere in the U.S., these preachers are wont to pin the cause for these catastrophic happenings on the presumed sinfulness of gay marriage or abortion or some other act that, in their mind, deserves the unrelenting punishment of the Divine.

When you’re searching for sinfulness behind every calamity or misfortune, even personal tragedies don’t escape these preachers’ gaze. Some are subtler than others. And it’s not just preachers, of course. For a while during college, I worked in a funeral home. You only need to stand silently near a family in a receiving line at a visitation to hear it spoken over the casket of a child whose life is cut too short by accident or disease: “It’s all in God’s plan, dear.” Or the more secular version, “Everything happens for a reason.” Leaving parents to wonder, “What could we have done to deserve this? How is this the plan of a good and loving God? What reason could there possibly be?” But it fills the silence, so we say it – even if we don’t really know or believe what we’re saying.

Then there are those whose message is as subtle as slap to the face – churches like Westboro Baptist Church, making a national reputation for itself by picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers with an explicit message of God’s condemnation of the U.S. for it’s tolerance of gays and lesbians.

These are the very reasons many of us have so often shied away from the use of theological terms like “sin” and “repentance” and “salvation.” It makes a liberal preacher’s job more difficult during the season of Lent, when words like “sin” and “repentance” and “salvation” are the main theological dishes served up to us on the liturgical menu. 

I don’t like these preachers any more than you do. I don’t ascribe to their theology and I don’t like their tone of voice and it doesn’t take someone with a Ph.D. in pastoral care to know that they’re no good at it.  

On the day that some of Jesus’ crowd started talking with him about a tragedy, he had a similar impulse, though – to preach repentance. What’s most unusual is that they weren’t even asking his opinion on the matter. The text just says, “There were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” This is the only place in antiquity that this event is mentioned, so we can only assume that Pilate, true to his reputation, slaughtered a group of Galileans who were worshipping in the Temple, and their blood ran with the blood of their own sacrifices. The matter may have distressed them, but they weren’t begging Jesus for his theological perspective on the matter. They didn’t even proffer any of their own theories. They were just reporting the news as they had heard it.

            It was Jesus who asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”

            “Where did that come from?,” they might have asked to one another. “We didn’t imply that, did we?”

But before anyone had the chance to speak up, Jesus answered his own theological inquiry. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

And then he tells of another episode we only know about from the Gospel of Luke: “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?” Do you think that they deserved to have the stones fall on their head more than anyone else?

“No,” he says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

            And there it is, right here in the text: the impulse to preach repentance in light of tragedy or catastrophe – whether caused by human hands or unlucky misfortune, by evil ruler or by shoddy construction. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

            Why did Jesus go there? Was their news report of Pilate’s activity just an opportune time to teach a little theological lesson – a helpful illustration for a sermon he’s been itching to preach? Doubtful. Doesn’t seem typical of Jesus.

            Perhaps there’s something more personal bound up in this scene for Jesus. You and I began our Lenten journey the week after we celebrated that grand high point on the liturgical calendar when all of the vestments and paraments were dazzling white and the music soaring and grand. It was the day of Transfiguration – just three weeks ago – that Peter and James and John hiked up on the mountain with Jesus and saw him transformed before them, standing side-by-side with Moses and Elijah, and the thundering voice of the Divine spoke from the cloud surrounding them, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). And they were stunned into silence.

            And as Luke tells it, at least, this is the last time Jesus or anyone else audibly heard the voice of God. As Barbara Brown Taylor says,

From the moment he came down from the mount of the Transfiguration, the memory of God’s voice was all he had left. He prayed to hear it again in the garden of Gethsemane, but the only voice he heard there was his own. He was arrested, tried, and convicted without so much as a sigh from heaven. From the cross, he pleaded for a word, any word, from the God he could no longer hear. He asked for a bread and got a stone. Finally, in the most profound silence of his life, he died, believing himself forsaken by God.[1]

            And now, there were some present with him who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices, and following right on the heels of that tower accident that killed eighteen in Jerusalem. And the question on Jesus’s mind – not theirs – was, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Do you think that those crushed by the tower’s collapse were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem, that they deserved it more than others?”

I suspect that for those who ask such questions, there is little desire for an esoteric theological inquiry into the matter in hopes of a good theory to propound at the opportune time in the future – like over the casket of a child or in the wake of national tragedy or environmental catastrophe. Those theories are for freshman philosophy courses, not for right in the middle of tragedy and suffering and pain.

In the midst of tragedy and suffering and pain, these questions have much deeper roots in our visceral experience of life and our own humanity. It’s just easier to ask, “What about these tragedies and atrocities that happened in this or that place and the sufferings that so and so experienced? What do they mean? Where do you think God was in the midst of their experience?”

It’s much harder to ask, “What about these tragedies and atrocities and sufferings that I’ve experienced or that I know I will experience? Where will God be then? When I pray, will I hear only silence? If I ask for a bread, will I get only a stone?”

            Our most loving and liberal impulses are to make sense of things so that God isn’t the “cause” but is, instead, a “comfort” in times of tragedy. “God is present with you in your suffering,” we say. “God weeps with you,” we tenderly volunteer. All fine and good, theologically appropriate and pastorally sensitive things to say to the questioning sufferer in times of dire need. But this isn’t where Jesus went with the matter. Jesus – like the preachers we all tire of hearing in the midst of national tragedy – preached repentance.

So I’m as surprised as you are to stand here this morning and say, I think these preachers’ impulse may actually be a good one. But, like all impulses, they hold the potential lead us someplace helpful. And, like all impulses, in following them there is also great potential we can go awry. Jesus seems to start much like they do:

‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

He may have been thinking something like the Prophet Isaiah said before him: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” But Jesus also knew how hollow those words could sound against the background noise of tragedy taking place in our midst – walls tumbling down, breaking bone and crushing breath, tyrannical rulers breaking the backs of his subjects and letting their blood mingle with the blood of their devout offerings to God.

Perhaps he suspected that even he would perish soon enough, just like they did, and never hear the voice of God again. Praying and hearing only his own voice. Asking for bread and getting a stone. Believing himself forsaken by God.

Maybe he saw it on their faces, a wincing look that told him he had been a bit harsh – that they didn’t understand why repentance was his reply to these tragedies. The scholars say that, in the New Testament “repentance is conveyed primarily by the noun metanoia…and denotes the complete reorientation of one’s whole being to God.”[2] Of course, it refers to turning from sin, but must more than that, “it refers to a changed mind, to a new way of seeing things, to being persuaded to adopt a different perspective…it refers to an entirely reoriented self, to a new consciousness of one's shortcomings and one's dire circumstances.”[3]

Something we all need from time to time. But to those gathered, it may have seemed a harsh message in the midst of tragedy – just as it does to us. The impulse may have been a good one, but things were about to go awry.

            Maybe he knew their propensity (and ours) to get caught up in these theoretical debates – to preach too harshly in the wake of tragedy because we know that God must be making a point, to say things we’re not sure we mean over the casket of children because we’re not comfortable with God’s silence. After all, it was Jesus who had the impulse to ask such a question in the first place, not them.

And still, so much tragedy – evil rulers and shoddy construction, innocent death all met by the silence of God. And now, it was Jesus who experienced that silence. Not since the Mount of Transfiguration had he heard the voice of the Divine.

Repentance was the message he tried – the impulse was good, but Jesus also knew, especially now, how hollow those words could sound against the background noise of tragedy taking place in midst of silence from God. So he said something about repentance that could only be said in parable form, with no heavy-handed explanation of it’s meaning:

A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 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?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

There are lots of ways of interpreting parables. That’s their beauty, really. They are inherently meaningless and, therefore, so full of possible meaning that they overflow with it. Taylor says that stories, as Jesus told them, are more persuasive than advice or exhortation and are more courteous and respectful of the listener. She says, “[stories] create a quiet space where one may lay down one’s defenses for a while. A story does not ask for decision. Instead, it asks for identification, which is how transformation begins.”[4] To say more would be presumptuous. Much more would be trespassing on the silence of God.[5]

            So Jesus invites them into this parable, he asks for their identification with the story – into a posture of lowered defensiveness where transformation begins.

            In the midst of the precariousness of life, right in the middle of catastrophe, reminded of the fragility of life in light those who seek to end it through violence, amid questions about the nature and silence of God in the midst of the tragedies and catastrophes, where do you locate yourself in this story?

A man had a fig tree that he planted in his vineyard, fully expecting that soon he would have a glut of figs to delight his palate. He doesn't know how fussy fig trees can be when you’re trying to get them to bear fruit and how fragile they are when they’re first planted. So he said, three years is enough – what a waste – let’s cut it down.

            There’s a tree, which isn’t doing anything wrong in its treeness. Sometimes trees don’t produce fruit for a very long time – it’s perfectly normal for a tree. It’s just being a tree – sometimes fussy, sometimes fragile, but it’s just a tree, doing what trees do in all of their finicky and fragile treeness.

And there’s a gardener, who knows that fig trees need a little time to produce their fruit, who doesn’t know if this tree will produce any fruit or not, because sometimes they just don’t and it’s not their fault. But it’s not his tree and it’s not his decision whether to cut it down or let it grow.

But he persuades the vineyard owner into a new way of seeing things, to change his mind and to adopt a different perspective on the matter and to let the tree alone for a while longer. And the tree just kept being a tree – there was really nothing else it could do anyway but embrace all its shortcomings and fragile circumstances. Maybe it produced fruit and thrived, maybe it was cut down in a year’s time. And the gardener – because he knows the fragility and fussiness of trees trying to produce fruit – is entirely reoriented toward this tree, committed anew to its health and survival, redoubling his efforts to nurture the tree in all of its fragile treeness by digging round it and putting manure on it, all the while knowing that, in the end, its fate is out of his control.



[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1998), 77-78.



[2] Francis Taylor Gench, “Repentance in the NT,” New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2, ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfield (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007),, 762-3.



[3] Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Luke 13:1-9, Working Preacher, online at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2789



[4] Taylor, When God is Silent, 114-15.



[5] This phrase belongs to Taylor, When God is Silent, 112.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • February 28, 2016