By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 20, 2022
Luke 13:1–9 (ESV)
1 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.” 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.’”
I think I am going to nerd out a bit this week. I have mentioned often that I think studying scripture is one of the most entertaining hobbies one could have. I say this because there is always something new to learn. I literally spent every evening studying for this week’s sermon. I read this passage many times. And took enough notes to probably speak on this for a couple of weeks. But you are lucky that about ninety percent of everything I learn, I do not put into my messages.
When I speak. I speak only on the things that I find to be the most interesting or the things that have convicted me the most. If anyone were to think I might be reading your mind, I don’t, I can’t. What is going on is that you and I just happen to be on the same wavelength. The things God is convicting me of today might be the same things that God has been working with you.
There is rarely a week that I am not fascinated with scripture. And to study scripture is not just to look at the words on the page. It is to learn about the people, the places, the surrounding history, and cultural influences that interact with the people writing or even reading what was written. It is looking at our own history, our own culture, the things that we are encountering and considering how all of this seems to intertwine. Scripture is not a book of answers. Scripture is not exactly a book of laws, although you can see that within it. Scripture is a conversation. It is a call to look deeper into yourself and to imagine yourself in someone else’s place. Scripture is inspired, it is infallible not because God sent the words directly from heaven, but because when we truly engage with scripture in study and in prayer, we do not leave unchanged.
I start in this manner for a reason. This past month has been challenging to me. My emotions have been all over the place. I pull up the news on my phone, I watch reports from various news outlets, I have watched commentaries, interviews, history presentations and pretty much anything that I could to gain a better understanding of why things are happening in our world.
I spent two months in Ukraine. I went to Ukraine during a very important time of my life. I went in the summer of 2000. I was an unmarried father, still in school, trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be. I was in a crossroad of life. Was I going to be like every other person I knew my age, would I just pay child support and do my own thing or would I be a man? Would I become someone that stood for something important or would I just live for my own self-indulgence? I went to Ukraine that summer, I went to help organize and teach conversational American English classes to college students. I went to help, but I never imagined that those two months would change the course of my life.
I was a small-town farm kid. The largest city I have ever spent a large amount of time in was Wichita, Kansas. And I lived for two months in Odesa, Ukraine. I spent my entire life in the center of a continent and I spent a some a short walk to the shores of the Black Sea. I spent twenty-one years of my life speaking only if I had to, and that summer I taught classes, interviewed students, attempted to make calls to set up meetings using an extremely broken Russian language, and I also first began studying scripture in a more in-depth manner.
I was a painfully quiet person. It would not be uncommon for me to spend the entire day without say more than ten words prior to that summer. But that summer something changed. Seeds were planted deep within my being that began to sprout. And by the next December in less than six months my entire life changed. I was studying crop science, and as I sat in my car eating lunch one day, I heard a pastor read from John 21. “Do you love me more than these,” Jesus asked Peter. God took me to the other side of the world to show me something. He took me across the ocean and to the eastern regions of Europe to show me that no matter where I am there is something the same as what I am used to. Ukraine is flat. Ukraine in many ways is just like the rolling hills of Kansas. He took me across the world and showed me that people no matter where they live are basically the same and once, we can get through the barriers of language and our own oddness we are all interesting and have more similarities than differences. I heard that pastor read the words Jesus spoke to Peter, and I did not hear anything else that pastor said. All I heard was Jesus asking if I loved wheat more than him, if I loved corn, sorghum, or sunflowers more than him. I heard Jesus calling me out of everything I thought I knew and he led me into a life I have embraced for the past nineteen years. God called me to study scripture and to share what I have learned. God spoke to me, but he first had to get my attention by taking me to the other side of the world and showing me that we might all be different and yet we are the same.
I have spent many evening near tears as I have watched tanks moving down roads, and buildings being turned to rubble because those were the places I had once traveled. Places that to me and my life’s story are holy ground. It was in Ukraine that God really got my attention. It was in Ukraine, in a field of sunflowers where I began to realize that there was more to life than I first imagined.
Today we see Jesus in a conversation. He is again talking with the people within a community and during this time of conversation, like many others, Jesus teaches something profound. We might not get the teaching at first, we might look at these words and simply see Jesus giving some weird altar call. “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”
There is something very interesting about this verse. The sense of the wording is that these people had just returned from one place and were sharing the current events that had happened along the way. This is something that had seemingly happened recently. This is intriguing. If we were to investigate the works of the Jewish historians, we can find a couple of instances where something like this has happened, although many scholars would be quick to point out that the timing makes it seem a bit off. Some would say that this would make this portion of scripture less accurate, but the thing is that this historical source places events like what is described both before and after the accepted time frame of Jesus’s ministry. This tells me that it is probable. The depictions are so similar that we can determine that these events most likely happened during the feast of the Passover because that is the only time the sacrificial animal is slaughter by the worshippers.
This is important to note because Passover is one of those feasts where the entire Jewish community comes to one place, the temple. They travel from the far reaches of the world, from western end of the Roman Empire as well as from the Eastern regions of what we would know as Persia. I want us to think about this. The Roman Empire stretched the entire Mediterranean and as far north as the British Isles. And the Empire of the Persians stretched as far east as India and up into the areas we would be bordering what is now consider Russia and Ukraine. The entire known world at the time had pockets, communities of Jewish people. And many of them at some point would make their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the feasts. Imagine now you are a Roman official charged with the security and taxation of this land. Imagine three times a year people from all over the world were congregating in your province, carrying with them ideas, news, and goods. It is a security nightmare. And the annuals of history tell us this. Several times the Roman soldiers used deadly force to keep the peace.
Now at that very time, men that had just returned from Jerusalem had come to talk to Jesus. They told him about this injustice that had just occurred in their holy city. These Galileans are also interesting people. For those of you who have visited Israel, you know that the land of Galilee is beautiful. Galilee is filled with rich farmland and other resources. This is the land that was coveted by the various occupying empires. As these occupying forces came in, they would displace the current inhabitants and place their own people into those areas. People were removed from the homes their ancestors occupied. And they were given a couple of options. Either they had to pay rent to continue to farm the land they had always farmed or they would be removed.
This caused great social, political, and economical unrest in Galilee. The people of Israel were forced to live in towns, they were forced to go into debt, they were forced to find jobs that they were not accustomed to. Disease was rampant because people were living closer together than before. Work was hard, poverty was high, and archeology has found that nearly fifty percent of those buried in Galilee died before they reached adulthood.
From the writings of Josephus, we know that it was from Galilee that the rebellion against the Romans began. From the Book of the Maccabees, we find that is if from Galilee that the rebellion against the Greeks began. Galilee was known as violent and rebellious people. And Pilate sees a group from Galilee congregating in Jerusalem. Imagine what you might think, this group had a stereotypical reputation, and Pilate acted with swift ferocity.
These men came back to Galilee and they shared the news. They brought the news to the synagogue. They shared the news with the men within their community, and they began sowing the seeds of rebellion. But Jesus does something profound. He does not let the talk of nationalistic pride take root around him. He does not speak about these men as martyrs of the faith. He listens to their words and says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?”
Jesus is doing two things with this question. He is pointing out their pride as well as their hypocrisy. The teachings of the Pharisees at this time were that the reason bad things are happening in your life is because you have sinned. If you got an illness, it is your fault because you were not following the law faithfully enough. If your crops failed, you were not righteous enough. If your husband died, it was because you were not a good enough person and God was judging you. We often get into this trap even today. There are teachers within our churches that will preach that the only reason you have not overcome an illness is because you do not have enough faith. There are teachers that will say that the reason you are in poverty is because you have not claimed your receipts in heaven so the blessings are not flowing. And yet these good men of Galilee died. Their blood was mingled with the blood of their sacrifice.
Do you see the hypocrisy? These men died in such a terrible way because they were sinful, and yet those same teachers would rile their countrymen up in nationalistic and religious pride saying that these men were martyrs of the faith. They were holy and righteous and we should take up arms to defend their honor. Jesus asks, were they sinners? Were they worse sinners than everyone else? “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Jesus answers.
What is he saying? He is not holding these men as being martyrs, and he is not condemning them as heretics. Jesus is calling the people within their community to take a step back and consider what they are doing. He is calling not for war, but peace. He is calling not for fire and brimstone, but repentance among the righteous. Look at yourselves.
Twenty-two years ago, I boarded a plane that took me to Ukraine. In the months leading up to this trip, I remember my grandfather tell me that he would be praying for me because I was going to the frontlines to face the enemy. He told me that he would pray for their repentance and my safety. I love my grandfather. I think he is one of the greatest men that on Earth, but that statement has never really sat well with me. I boarded that plane nervously. I boarded that plane with the self-righteous fervor that I was about to embark on a holy crusade against the heathens. I quickly found out that nearly every student I spoke to were Christians. Most attended worship multiple times a week. I was not converting heathens, the only thing that I was engaged in was mutual discipleship. They taught me just as much about God as I taught them.
Jesus that day encouraged the people of Galilee to stop looking at the people around them as enemies. He encouraged them to stop looking at everything that happened to them as a sin against them or a sin they had committed, and instead to look at how they were living their own lives with each other.
To me Russia has invaded the holy land. They have desecrated that thin space where God got my attention, they have contaminated my holy mountain. I am angry. I am furious. I, at this moment am not a great example of the Quaker testimony of peace. But then God speaks to me, “do you think that these Russians were worse sinners?” And I am taken aback. I listened to their political leaders use scripture in their speeches. I remember that they are the largest Christian nation. We might not agree because they are not Evangelicals and they do not believe the same things that we believe, but that is not the point. They are who they are and they believe that they are following Christ. I listen as the leader of this invading army used scripture to justify something offended my faith to such a degree that I shook with anger.
And I read this passage again. “Are they worse sinners?” We too misuse scripture to manipulate others to do what we want. We too believe our actions are just and our cause is righteous. I still think Putin should withdraw from Ukraine, and I think it in words that are more colorful than I should utter, but I too have sinned.
Jesus is telling us, “Are they worse sinners? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” My demands for better service, my snide comments at the customer service desk, the words that I utter out of frustration and anger, are an invasion of sacred ground. When I demand a refund beyond the true value I am contributing to the violation of God’s sovereignty. Why? Because each human being on the face of this earth is created to bear the image of God. When I think of myself as greater, I have declared war on God. I need repentance, and if I do not repent, I contribute to the continuation of sin and death in this world. I am damning those around me from the blessing of life with God because I speak in God’s name, but I reflect something else. What they see is no better that what they see all around them. What they see in some cases is worse than the things I declare as ungodly.
Over the past few weeks, God has shown me my own hypocrisy. I say I am antiwar, and yet I will get into a shouting match with my own child. I say that I believe all people are created in the image of God, yet at times I will make sure the doors on my car are locked when I come to a stop light. I say a great deal of things, but how do I live? Are they worse sinners?
As we enter in our time of Holy Expectancy we will listen to No Man’s Land by Eric Bogle
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