By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 24, 2019
Luke 13:1–9 (ESV)
Repent or Perish
13 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
One of the age-old questions of faith is, “why do bad things happen to good people?” If you have ever had a conversation with anyone about faith of any type, you have probably been asked this question. If we are honest, we ourselves ask this question, we have probably asked this question every time something does not quite go the way we had hoped.
Albert will often inform me that I am not being nice, and if I keep saying “no” I will not receive any more hugs. Yesterday while I was making him a sandwich for lunch, we got into one such conversation, it all began when I told him he needed to eat something with his peanut butter and honey sandwich. Albert is a very active boy, he is constantly on the go, he plays hockey, t-ball, and participates in taekwondo. I never thought I would have a child involved in so many things, but I never realized that I would have a child that was so full of energy. He will play floor hockey all morning and afternoon, work his hardest in taekwondo and then want to play hockey again until midnight if we would let him. And when we say, “No, hockey players need their sleep too.” We are suddenly the worst parents in the world. When it comes to eating, eating takes time. Time that could be spent hitting targets or shooting pucks. In his mind eating more than a sandwich is a waste of time. Eating, like sleeping, cuts into his time, and when I mention that he should eat something more than the sandwich again I am a terrible person and am unworthy of future hugs. Children are often like this. They may not be as active as some, but when things do not go their way, it is often because those around them are just being mean.
Life rarely goes the way we want it to go. You may have noticed this over the course of your life. I notice it most significantly around this time of year. I work in retail and the first few months of the year hours are usually cut down, so the pay checks are smaller than normal. Then it is also the time to file our taxes, so I realize just how poorly I have managed things the past year. I want to cry out to God that he is not being nice, and he will not receive any more hugs. Yes, even as adults we tend to have a similar idea of life as our children do. The problems are different, but our response is often the same. I am being very simplistic in my example, but I hope you understand what I mean. Many people hold this type of theological ideology. We think if something bad happens that there there must be a reason, and that reason is either God is not good, I am not good, or someone else is not good.
We hear this ideology in many different forms. If you are sick, you just do not have enough faith to be healed. If you are poor, you just have not claimed the wealth of God. If you are not satisfied with your life, it is because you have been held in bondage by someone or some institution and you need liberated. If a natural disaster happens, it is God’s wrath being brought down on your area because you have sinned.
When I watch the news reports from the past couple of weeks, I see it. The problem with these ideologies is that they rarely liberate, they rarely encourage, and they rarely bring true healing. Why did a man go into a place of worship in New Zealand and kill unarmed worshipers? Why is there unprecedented flooding in Nebraska, Iowa, and northern Missouri? Why do bad things happen to good people? You have probably heard commentary on these, as I have. In many cases, there are leaders of faith saying that it is because of sin of some sort. The problem with the commentary is the sin they usually decry is usually attached to some agenda that that commentator is pushing. The agenda might be political, it might be social, or ideological but does it help? Does it encourage those individuals and communities who are suffering? Do the commentaries prompt us to respond with grace?
Today we meet Jesus in a discussion like those that we have had so often in the past few years. If we were to look at Luke as a whole, we would see something of a description of journeys. There is the journey from heaven to earth, which the commentators say is the first three chapters and about half of the fourth. This is the portion that leads us to Jesus’s call to ministry after his baptism. Then there is the Journey throughout Galilee, which is the second half of chapter four through chapter nine. Then from chapter nine to nineteen we have the journey to Jerusalem. The final chapters of Luke are regarded as Jesus’s ministry in Jerusalem. Why do I bring this up, does it really have any point? The point is that the geography can give us a glimpse into what is happening in the ministry. What is Jerusalem, but the center of religious thought. Jerusalem is the seat of their religious ideas and philosophies, the establishment of social and ideological standards. Jerusalem is a symbol of this high and unobtainable place out of reach of common individuals, it is the man, the capital, the religious empire. It is the place occupied by the elite, and the place where the youth dream of reaching. Galilee represents everywhere else, it is the land occupied by those that have not achieved their dreams or have been caught up in the trials of life. Jerusalem is the goal so to speak, and Galilee is where we live.
Think of the conversations you had or are having in high school. Where is your dream job, what place would you love to live, or your dream career? Jerusalem is the NBA for the basketball player, Galilee is carrying groceries because you did not make the team. Jerusalem is Hollywood or Broadway for the drama students, where the community theater is Galilee. Jerusalem is Washington DC for the student of Law and Galilee is the local school board. Jesus first traveled through Galilee, he walked with those whose dreams were dashed before he made the Journey to the land of dreams. And most of the teachings we find most encouraging came from the journey throughout Galilee.
Today though, Jesus has left Galilee and he is making his journey toward Jerusalem. He is confronting the gatekeepers of life and challenging those that occupy the seats of power within a culture. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem he challenges the religious leaders and commonly held beliefs to a greater extent. The leaders make increasingly deeper demands on Jesus’s teaching and Jesus turns those questions back on them pointing out that most of the interpretations they are promulgating have less to do with devotion to God and more to do with maintaining power over others. They use fear, judgement, interpretations of law to promote personal gain and political power.
There are some present in this conversation, we do not know who they are, and we do not even know what it is they are talking about. But these people bring up some instance of where Pilate slaughtered Galileans, the context of the conversation leads us to believe that this slaughter happened when these people were going to offer sacrifices, because their blood was mingled with the blood of the sacrifice. Some people say that this is not talking about Galileans geographically, but it means those that live outside Judea. Because there was an instance recorded in history where Pilate did kill many Samaritans while they were making a Journey to their holy mountain. The context also infers that the idea or the cause of this slaughter was because those that were offering the sacrifices deserved it because of their actions. Jesus asks those that mentioned it to him if those Galileans were worse sinners than the other Galileans because they were cut down before they had an opportunity for absolution? They then mention the collapse of a tower by Siloam. Again, there is no record of this tower falling during the reign of Pilate, but it is thought to be an accident during the construction of the aqueduct that brought water into the city. In any case there was talk concerning these instances that those that died, died because they deserved it.
These ideas are deep in the minds of many faithful. We develop these ideas because we are trying to make sense out of those aspects of life that do not offer an easy conclusion. We do not want to think, we do not want to face possible truth, so we spin the idea that God’s wrath demanded their lives. Yes, sin might have been part of the problem, but whose sin?
In both cases Jesus challenges the idea that the victims were responsible. He questions the ideology that bad things happen because they have done something terrible. He then turns that ideology back to us. Why did the Galileans die, were they greater sinners than the other Galileans? He answers his own question by saying, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” What is his challenge? He is challenging us to not look at the struggle at face value, not to look at the victim but look at our attitudes. Are we beyond struggles in life? Are we too good for trials? Jesus himself, the son of God, the messiah suffered. He suffered the shame of the cross. He faced the injustice of the cross. He died for no other reason but we as humans want and need a scape goat to take the blame for the trials we face.
Those eighteen people who are mentioned in this conversation did not die because they were greater sinner than the rest of Jerusalem, they died because someone some where did something wrong, and to get out of personal responsibility they placed the blame on the ones that have no voice. The Galileans that died in the conversation were not greater sinners than the others, we only think they are because they were not part of our group. They were wrong, we are right and the fact that they died proves it.
These attitudes cause our minds to stop inquiring and closes us off from actual change. Jesus said to the people there that day to repent, to turn around. He said this because they were getting too comfortable in their self-righteousness. They stopped moving and working. What did they do after the tower of Siloam fell? Nothing, because there is nothing to do if God caused the collapse to kill sinners. But the reality is there is much to do. When an airliner crashes like the one in Ethiopia recently they ground the planes and figure out what went wrong. The manufacture is working tirelessly to find out what caused the problem so they can prevent it from happening again. But when people start saying the plane crashed because they were sinners, we no longer care what happened and we get upset when they waste time trying to fix it because we have places to go.
Jesus says repent, because if there is a problem in your community the solution is more complex than we think. Jesus says repent because at times our attitudes are part of the problem. And he is telling us to repent, because we cannot pass the blame to others. Repent.
After this conversation, Jesus told those who gathered there a parable:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Do you find the timing of this parable a bit strange? Jesus had just been having a conversation with the group about why people faced tragedy and then he tells them a story about a fig tree. It seems odd, but it ties right into the concept I was telling you about, the solution is more complex than we think. Many plants, especially trees, take time to mature. And for that maturity to occur certain environmental conditions must be met. If you are unaware of these requirements you might think the plant is defective and should be destroyed. Even simple grasses have environmental conditions that are necessary for them to produce fruit, for example the grass we know as wheat requires a certain period of cool or cold temperatures before it will begin to produce a head of grain. If that temperature is not met it will continue to lay dormant, but once that threshold has been met the plant will begin to push the grain head up and the stock will begin to develop. Certain vines and trees have certain factors too. They will not produce fruit until their root systems are developed enough, or they wait until there is adequate branches to produce the sugars needed to produce the fruit. In many cases this requires years of development. If we do not take the time to understand the plant and to provide what that plant needs to produce the fruit, nothing will be produced.
Likewise, our relationships require work. They need encouragement, they need time, and they need nourishment. Jesus tells those people listening to him that day to repent, because they had stopped participating in the relationships around them. They had deemed that the problems were self-inflicted and therefore none of their concern. They withdrew from living life with the community and concentrated on their own self-righteousness. And as a result, they cut off any opportunity for true growth. They deemed the Galileans, or potentially Samaritans, too sinful and not worthy of their time. Like a fig tree in the vineyard they were cut down. The laborers working in Jerusalem killed in a tragic accident were looked upon as sinners, so they did not look at their own community or culture to see if there was anything, they could do to enhance safety or perhaps improve construction. Repent, Jesus says, encourage those around you. They may be reaching out for truth but all they receive is judgement, so they turn away. They may be so close to salvation but all they hear is fear and hate so they turn away. And maybe they may have faith, but have not matured enough to produce fruit yet, and our attitudes are cutting them down before they have a chance.
Why do bad things happen? There really is not a good answer for that. Bad things happen because we as humans so often fail. We look out for our own interest and often do not look at things from a different perspective. And when things seem to go badly, we often shift the blame to others with the hope if we drive them away it will open opportunities for us. Repent. Slow down, take a breath and turn to God. Seek to see that of God in those around you and seek to love that in them and in yourself. Cry with those people who have lost their homes in Nebraska, cry with the families who have been broken due an airline accident and mourn the loss of life at a place of worship. We do not know why everything happened, but if we will just slow down and readjust our focus to resemble that of Christ: worship, prayer, and ministry we might find a way to be part of the solution that brings the love of Christ to our community.
Let us now enter this time of Holy Expectancy and communion in the manner of Friends considering and examining our lives with Christ. Seek out those areas where we might be caught cutting down the trees instead of nurturing growth.