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The Third Sunday in Lent
Scripture Reading: Luke 13:1-9
Repent or Perish
13 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
Sermon: “LOTS of Manure”
Our Scripture lesson today opens with people who thought they knew the will and intention of God questioning Jesus. Let’s back up and see what brought us here.
In chapter 12, Jesus told several parables of readiness, warning people to be prepared for the unexpected times and ways that the Kingdom of God would break into their lives.
Then Jesus said:
“When you see a cloud forming in the west, you at once say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ And indeed, it does. And when a south wind blows, you say, ‘A heat wave is coming.’ And it does. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:54-56)
No sooner had Jesus issued this challenge than some of the crowd stepped forward. “Don’t say we can’t read the times. How about that terrible tragedy in the temple, the one where Pilate’s police slaughtered some innocent worshipers from Galilee?”
“No,” Jesus responded, “it isn’t a sign. And don’t bother bringing up the eighteen people killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed,” he added. “That’s not the kind of sign I mean, either.”
Those folks were heavy into what we call these days “retributive theology.” Everyone gets what they deserve. What goes around comes around.
If the Galileans murdered by Pilate had it coming, if God deliberately toppled that tower on a bunch of unsuspecting sinners, then the world makes sense.
Better yet, since Pilate didn’t murder me and a falling tower didn’t crush me, that must mean I’m better than those filthy sinners.
All of which brings us to victim blaming. Here’s a video from, of all places, MTV, that explains it pretty well.
Unfortunately, victim blaming carries over into matters of faith. The title of an August 3, 2017 Washington Post article gives one example: “Christians Are More Than Twice as Likely to Blame a Person’s Poverty on Lack of Effort.”
The survey asked just under 2,000 American adults this question. “Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?”
Forty-six percent of all Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person’s poverty, compared with twenty-nine percent of all non-Christians.
Parsing it down even further, Americans who are atheist, agnostic, or have no particular religious affiliation said difficult circumstances are more to blame when a person is poor rather than lack of effort, sixty-five percent to thirty-one percent.
The problem with some of us Christians is that we don’t stop to think that people may find themselves poor because of things beyond their control.
- A father and mother each holding down full time, minimum wage, jobs don’t earn enough to support a family.
- Women continue to receive less than men for doing the same work.
- The effects of slavery and segregation are still playing out.
- Discrimination against people of color as well as those of differing sexual orientations pushes some people down while lifting others up.
Add to all of that personal disasters such as unexpected doctor or hospital bills, a car or appliance breaking down, accidents, layoffs, and plain bad luck. Very few want to be poor. Even fewer stay that way.
Research shows that 45% of poverty spells last no longer than a year. Seventy percent last no more than three years. Only 12% last a decade or more. Guess which part of those statistics folks focus on?
All of which brings us full circle to the people who first questioned Jesus, those so comfortable dividing up the world into spiritual “winners” and “losers.”
Why are we so much quicker to blame or shame than reach out in compassion?
Maybe we don’t want to accept the fact that, when it comes to suffering, we won’t always be on the outside looking in. Maybe we’d just like to ignore the simple truth Jesus states in these verses: death is coming for us all.
That’s not all Jesus said, of course. “You think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
“No,” Jesus said, suffering and calamity aren’t God’s punishment for sin.
On the other hand, just because suffering isn’t punishment for sin doesn’t mean that it’s disconnected from it. Pilate’s murderous acts of terror, as well as those of tyrants today, are sinful. What if a contractor cutting corners built the tower of Siloam? Sin has consequences.
All kinds of bad behaviors make the world a far more miserable place than it has to be. The more we confront sin, Jesus says, the less suffering there will be.
God doesn’t cause suffering and calamity, nor does God enjoy them. Look how Jesus pictures God in one of his most famous parables, that of a father scanning the horizon day after day, waiting for his wayward son to come home.
Or, Jesus says, God is like a woman who, after sweeping her house all night looking for a lost coin, throws a party costing even more than the coin is worth just to celebrate that she’s found it.
If there’s one theme in Luke, it is, as Jesus said in chapter 15, “There’s more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”
In the parable that ends this morning’s Scripture lesson, Jesus lays out three ways of looking at the world and living our lives. There’s the landowner, quick to give up and even quicker to condemn. He sees waste, not possibility. He sees laziness, not courage, strength, or grit.
Some are like the fig tree, dismissed by others as fruitless, hopeless, and lifeless, fit for nothing more than ripping out by their own worthless roots.
Then there’s God the gardener, who sees possibility where others see impossibility, who says that the answer to sin isn’t punishment, but time to nurture and grow, along with a good dose of spiritual manure—mercy, reconciliation, and new life.
God is at work, Jesus says, not in murderous tyrants or collapsing towers, but in the gracious, patient hand that reaches out to stop the ax. God’s voice isn’t one of hatred and division, but rather of mercy, that says, “Let’s not give up just yet. Who knows what a little loving care can do?”
So why do dreadful things happen to good, and sometimes not so good, people? Why do some of life’s real stinkers skate by, seemingly unscathed? Jesus doesn’t say, and so neither should we. But Jesus doesn’t hesitate to use questions like that to urge us to repent, to turn our lives around and see the world in a different light.
Jesus tells us to see that life is a gift, that God seeks us out, and that we can do a lot of good with the time we have. We don’t know how long that time is. We don’t know how it will end. But we do know it’s a gift that, with God’s nurturing grace, should be spent bearing fruit for God’s people, thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold.