Third Sunday in Lent
LUKE 13:1-9 (see below)
(some of this material also appeared here)
Today’s Lectionary Gospel reading bristles with the potential movement of GOD’s judgment. As such it is a fitting text with which to sense the heaviness of the Lenten season, for as much as Lent is a time of taking stock in one’s own spiritual house, it is just as much a season of warning as well.
Following here the understanding of N.T. Wright, we see in today's pericope that Jesus is being confronted by the question of his own safety -- “Will you really go to Jerusalem? Look how Pilate slaughtered the Galileans so that their blood ran red and mingled with the sacred blood of the sacrifices?” And, second, Jesus’ original hearers are wondering -- “You’ve been talking about judgment all along, is this it?”
Jesus’ answer reveals what is at stake. This exchange is not about final judgment at all, rather it is about the the judgment Jesus has been predicting all along. That is, if the chosen people fail to heed GOD’s warning then they would perish just like the the Galileans. Jesus said to his hearers:
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”And if you think that you will escape GOD’s judgment, think again because just like buildings fell on those eighteen people who were killed when the tower fell, buildings will fall on you as well.
This is hardly a message of joyful living, you know the usual preaching fare of three easy answers to five difficult problems. Much more seems to be at stake in this text than how to have a full and meaningful life.
So, what gives? What is here for us? Or, may we disregarded this pericope and view it as only necessary for the first century?
The key for us is in the parable of the fig tree:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’”
Dr. Wright explains that there are two possible interpretations of this parable. The first is found if we see Jesus as the orchard owner. He has been seeking the repentance from the nation. He has been seeking their willingness to turn toward him and to walk his way, aligning with his understanding of what it means to be Israel and truly human. So far no one will have ears to hear him. Still, he is willing to give Israel and Jerusalem on more opportunity to repent. After that it would be too late.
The second way to understand the fig tree is to see the orchard owner as GOD the Father and Jesus as the gardener. Jesus is proclaiming repentance that bears much fruit, but so far the fruit has not come to reality. The nation would have one last call to repentance, but if they refused that call they would be cut down just like the fruitless fig.
Well, we know the rest of the story, don’t we? In 70AD the Roman empire destroyed the nation, leveled the temple and brought ruin to the people. Humanly speaking this occurred because the nation refused to submit to Roman rule. They sought not the way of peace that Jesus offered -- "turn your cheek, carry the burden a extra mile."
In fact, listen to the words of Jesus spoken later in Luke, which make perfect sense now, within the context Dr. Wright has given us:
31 A few minutes later some Pharisees said to him, "Get out of here if you want to live, because Herod Antipas wants to kill you!" 32 Jesus replied, "Go tell that fox that I will keep on casting out demons and doing miracles of healing today and tomorrow; and the third day I will accomplish my purpose. 33 Yes, today, tomorrow, and the next day I must proceed on my way. For it wouldn't do for a prophet of God to be killed except in Jerusalem! 34 "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God's messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn't let me. 35 And now look, your house is left to you empty. And you will never see me again until you say, 'Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord!' " (Luke 13:31-35)
OK. What, then is the point for us?
First, the message of repentance -- turning away from idols to serve the living GOD -- is the very message for the West in this moment, but sadly, we as the church in the West are the very least prepared to proclaim it! We who have named the name of the Galilean carpenter have lost our way. We are the idolators! We are the spiritual adulterers!
Too harsh? Perhaps. But think about it...
The cultural captivity of the church -- its being a sub-culture and not a counter-culture -- has meant we have been seduced into acquiescence by the dominant culture of personal peace -- I care not what else you do, but leave me alone; and, affluence -- the heaping to ourselves of things, things, and more things. (Francis Schaeffer)
We thus are allowed to major on minors, but we dare not challenge the culture at key points of the common good. We offer political bromides and neglect the unfed hungry and the unclothed naked! We ignore the captives of addiction who line our streets and as we do our own humanness and that of the culture leaks away from our hearts until people“made in the image of GOD” becomes a memory more and more meaningless before our eyes.
Unwilling to take the unantiseptic risk, we opt instead for theological propositions from notebooks of learning, shedding our Jesus-humanness for a mess of denominational pottage.
Second, this message of repentance and the one more chance for the fig tree must challenge us to prepare for the time of judgment that is to come. I cannot see how this nation, once so blessed with GOD’s bounty, but now so introverted and self-absorbed, can escape the judgment of GOD’s light now rejected.
We who name the name of Christ must now, prepare ourselves for the calling of sorrow and brokenness before us.
And how will we know that judgment has come? Brothers and Sisters it is already here! GOD, the Almighty, has allowed us to self-destruct. He has allowed us to exclude him from consciousness. We didn’t want him in our consciousness, so we left him behind. We sowed to the wind and we are reaping the whirlwind!
What do I mean by this?
Marie-Francoise Allain, in her book of interviews with the British author Graham Greene entitled, The Other Man, asked the famous author if he still felt "hounded by God." Greene, a lapsed Catholic, said:
"I hope so. I hope so. I'm not very conscious of His presence, but I hope that He is still dogging my footsteps."
Besides saying much about the author -- whose world-weariness with the human condition and whose struggle with faith seems to ooze from every page of his prose -- I think his thoughts may give us a clue to much of the current American sensibilities toward the Almighty as well.
The present economic troubles, besides causing steep suffering among common people, has also exposed the deep fissures and fractures of our social structure. Self-doubt like an acid is eating us. But there is a deeper problem exposed here. There seems also among us a sense that there is something wrong with us in the core of who we are. It seems that we have not only lost our way, but that God may have left the building.
As some of you know, my father passed away in 2011 after an extended illness. He spent the last two years of his life watching reruns of Gunsmoke, partly I think because he longed for the simpler days of his youth, and partly because he longed to be able to recognize the good guys from the bad guys. But those days are gone forever, for we have met the enemy and he is us.
Said differently, we are a long way from a revival of "the faith once delivered to the saints." Here, instead, we are looking at what Os Guinness calls "sunset values," meaning values are the brightest just before they set.
In fact, it may be time to bring out of mothballs the famous quote from Arthur Koestler: "Nature has let us down, God seems to have left the receiver off the hook, and time is running out."
And time is what acutely convicts our conscious. We desperately want more time, but there is none for us.
Like Greene, we hope that GOD continues to hound our trail as we blunder off into the darkness, we hope we are not alone, but most of the time we are not very conscious of the Almighty being there. As a culture, we walked away from that location a long, long time ago. And, while we may mouth the words, our hearts are not in it.
In this Lenten season is it a bridge too far to think the church might allow judgment and repentance to begin in her heart? May the church turn her heart toward home. May the church rekindle the fire of love for the Jesus-way, the truly human way. May the church, during this Lenten observance, find her way back to the narrow way that leads to life, so that all those with ears to hear may find the way to that sacred life-path from the echos of Christians feet!
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”
And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.’”