[March 3, 2013] On this Third Sunday of Lent we turn our focus on ourselves, on our own need to turn our lives around and to stop procrastinating about it, and this in view of our lives being held up for an accounting before the searing light of God’s judgment.
Jesus had been speaking in previous chapters, to His disciples and the crowds, and even His opponents, about the reality of God, of human opposition to and obstinacy against God, and the force of God’s judgment on the human project and on every individual of the human race. In particular He has been facing opposition from a movement of zealotry in Israel fueled by a faction of puritanical Pharisees, who are full of themselves and intolerant of others, who believe zeal includes the use of force against their fellow Jews and, if necessary, against non-Jews. This movement has been building in occupied Israel since before Jesus was born. Its hotbed is in Galilee and its focus is on Jerusalem, the symbol of Jewish aspirations, as it is to this day. But Jesus as a prophet knows that it is not going to bode well. This movement will eventually erupt in rebellion against the Romans, and that war will be devastating to Jerusalem and will end with the destruction of the Temple. Jesus foresees this, though He does not yet speak of it, not until He arrives in Jerusalem for the Passover. He is on His way there now.
At the end of chapter 12 Jesus, frustrated with the crowds, said to them, “You hypocrites! You know how to analyze the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why do you not analyze this present time?” Then He told them that they were on their way to the magistrate and soon, if they do not settle with their opponent, they will be dragged before the judge who will have them thrown into prison. “I say to you, you will not get out of there until you have paid the very last cent.”
This is the background of today’s reading.
Worse Sinners Than Others? (Luke 13:1-5)
“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.” Aside from this single verse, we know nothing else about this incident. Apparently it took place on the grounds of the Temple in Jerusalem, over which Pilate, being the Roman governor of Judea, had jurisdiction, and these Galileans were religious pilgrims come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice. Probably they were suspected insurrectionists who thought they were safe within the Porticos of Solomon. Apparently not.
Those who reported this incident to Jesus obviously wanted to hear Him comment about it. Perhaps they thought this little massacre collaborated what Jesus was saying. Here were some insurrectionists who got what was coming to them. Jesus says that on some level they suppose “that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate.” What befell them is what they deserved, and therefore if nothing happens to us, we must not be as guilty as they.
But Jesus plays one-upmanship and matches their story with another incident. “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?” The tower was part of the old wall of Jerusalem near the pool of Siloam, an important spring and reservoir. If the eighteen who died were building a tower of Pilate’s aqueduct, they were being paid from Temple funds that Pilate had confiscated. The crowd might suppose that they had received their just reward. In the first instance those who died were probably rebels against Rome. In the second instance those who died might have been benefiting from Roman oppression. Yet in both cases the crowd—Jesus assumes—draws the same conclusion that they got what they deserved because they were worse sinners than others, implying that those who do not suffer as they did are therefore not as guilty. Apparently the best course is to lay low and not get involved in these things at all.
This is not the conclusion, however, that Jesus draws. Whether Galileans or people of Jerusalem, were they greater sinners than others because they suffered these things? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In the first case those who died were murdered by a tyrant; in the second it was “an act of God” that killed them. Therefore the word “likewise” here refers to “you all,” not to the way in which you all will “perish.” The people who died are not more guilty because they suffered these things. In fact, the fact that any person suffers does not mean that they are more guilty than others. A person can suffer for many reasons: it may be for reasons that have nothing to do with them; it might also be precisely because they have done the right thing (Jesus Himself is an example of this). The sorry comforters of Job could not grasp this. We are not in a position to judge others.
Jesus goes further than this, however. He says “you will all likewise perish.” He might have in view the war with the Romans which will be a disaster for every Jew, but this would be hyperbole. They certainly did not all perish in the conflagration. For this reason I think Jesus has in view the great Day of Judgment before the throne of God, as He often does in these chapters. Not only is the nation threatened by the historic judgment of God, because of the movements within it and the course it is on, but every individual is threatened by the coming judgment of God from which no one can hide. Jesus the prophet calls the nation to repentance—they must give up their violence and their self-righteous and intolerant ways (I wonder if this sounds familiar to us Americans)—but He is not just generating political commentary as we like to do. He is calling every individual to repent.
Why? Do not miss this point. It is because we are all guilty, without exception. It is not that those who fell in Jerusalem were not guilty; it is that everyone else is guilty as well and as equally. If there is a greater or lesser degree of guilt, that is known to God. What ought to be clear to us is the fact of our guilt: that we are all under the dark and ominous cloud of God’s condemnation and wrath.
We are “good people,” and we try hard. Yes, our lives and relationships may be more or less disordered, and we may not get along with everyone, but it is surely not all our own fault. So why does Jesus have this negative attitude towards us all? Is it that we violate God’s rules on sex? (I am proposing this as a question others ask, not as my own question.) Surely the repression of those who are sexually pure often makes them worse people when it comes to love. (Though let us not fool ourselves, for there is hypocrisy either way!) In fact, our obsession with sexual rules is our own. What we are in the light of God’s reality is besides this. We live inside a false self that we have manufactured, which participates (is involved) in a psychic landscape that we share with others (the world), and we make every attempt to hermetically seal this bubble off from reality—the reality of God and the creation itself, the reality of which we fear dreadfully, but which is our only salvation. We not only seal ourselves off from God in this false realm out of some crazed attempt at self-defense, but this self actively rejects and opposes God. It does not seem like this from the inside because we have going so many mechanisms of self-justification that we cannot see it. We may even hide from God by being “spiritual” or, for some, at least “religious.” But our spirituality is a delusion which we have manufactured to ease the existential discomfort that we sense but cannot quite identify. After our spirituality is our cynicism. This too is a delusion, and a refusal to be open to what exists beyond our “bubble.” In terms of our created being, we are indeed good and beautiful. But what do we know about this? We live in a bubble of self within a constructed world; we live in it and identify completely with it. And this self and the world of which it is a part cannot stand up to the judgment of God. We are utterly, radically and without compromise condemned by it, and its light will consume our delusions completely, leaving us with nothing—that is, nothing of what we have attached so much value and importance. Even our relationships with others are not what they seem. We have been in love with our own mental constructions; our perceptions of them are nothing but our manufactured images of them.
Perhaps I speak too absolutely, but on one level I do not. There is a place for the soul, the psyche. There is a wonderful place for our creativity and imagination. Illusion does not necessitate delusion. But the imagination has been bound up with the chains of our misery and we use it to reinforce our delusion instead of to unravel it. Psychoanalysis goes far to unravel it, and shows the possibility of it. But even such a useful tool by itself leaves us on our own.
We can perish. The soul dies, but it does not disappear. One day it will be resurrected and it will have to face what it is in the light of reality; and the question on that day will be this: What is left? Are we left only with our misery to work out “until you have paid the very last cent” (i.e., hell)? Or is there a “name” that represents the childlike yet wise original self of our created being imbued with something more—participation in that which is eternal?
Jesus says, “Unless you repent.” That word tends to have negative connotations, and not incorrectly. To repent certainly means that we judge ourselves; that we see ourselves in God’s light and that we actively agree with God’s judgment of us—that we embrace this judgment and surrender to it, not avoid it. If we recognize that in this world we are under God’s judgment we cannot go around with a loud mouth defending our right to own an assault weapon (the purpose of which is to kill people). We cannot live in this world asserting our right to be greedy and avaricious, or to have excess when there are those around us who suffer from a lack of bare necessities. This notion of “rights” cannot be at the service of our selfishness. It is there to protect the defenseless and to ensure that the poor are provided for. But these ought to be obvious (though apparently they are not). Likewise, we do not have a right to bully others, to impose our will on them, even if we think we are imposing God’s will on others. The way of the cross gives the lie to our whole way of thinking.
The judgment of God cuts to our most unconscious motivations (Hebrews 4:13). Modern psychology has proven that we are for the most part unaware of our true intentions. We live by justifications. What we think are our motives very often are not. We are often in denial of our motivations and true intentions or completely unaware of them, certain that the motivations that we are aware of are the true ones. Perhaps our true motivations, if they were allowed to be what they are, could be seen in a compassionate light. But the rationalizations with which we deny them or cover them over—these are probably what come under condemnation.
But the word “repent” is not just negative. The word in Hebrew means to turn around; in Greek it means to adopt a new mindset. We are going one way; we need to make an about face and go the other way. We have a particular way of looking at the world, a set of values by which we measure and choose things; we need to see the world in a different way. Our definition of reality needs to change; our whole mental landscape needs to be transformed. This is an inward, not merely an outward change. Perhaps it is really a change of perception more than anything else; a change in perception that turns our life around. Unless we can make a life-change based on this perception, we have not repented.
So there is a negative and a positive thing going on when we repent. But how do we make it happen? Can we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps? Is it a question of willpower, of steeling ourselves up for the fight against ourselves? Or is it more like a switch, a choice that comes out of “seeing” something? If I see the danger I am in, no one has to tell me to try to avoid it; I will do everything in my power to do so. It is not a question of willpower but of perception. We do nothing to avert environmental disaster because our greed refuses to allow us to really see it. So what is it that we have to see that enables us to repent? It is reality. But how do we see it?
Jesus offers us Himself. By allowing ourselves to be addressed by Him, by becoming a person by being faced by His Person, by yielding and submitting and presenting ourselves to Him in a relationship of faith and trust and fidelity, we open ourselves to the possibility of revelation, the revelation of reality. Such a revelation is a gift over which we have no control, a gift given by God, by the Holy Spirit acting within our spirit. We see Him, and in Him we see all the facets of reality, of God, of the dynamism and love that is God, of creation, of ourselves …
“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
No More Procrastination! (13:6-9)
In the Scriptures the vineyard is a symbol of the people of Israel. The fig tree represents God’s blessing in the land. Moreover, the fig tree also symbolizes Jerusalem, representing Israel’s settlement in the Promised Land, for there is the throne and the center of nation’s worship. Yet God is also looking for it to bear fruit. In view of what Jesus just said, perhaps more than anything else, God is looking for the “fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Again the nation may be the first thing in view here, but the parable applies equally as well to the individual. The society needs to change, but outward changes for the good will rot if the heart of the people remains unchanged. This is the reason that I find so much partiality and meanness in prominent social activists who imagine that they are the paragon of justice and goodness.
Matthew Henry points out that what He is looking for is fruit. “Leaves will not serve, crying, Lord, Lord; blossoms will not serve, beginning well and promising fair; there must be fruit. Our thoughts, words, and actions must be according to the gospel, light and love.”
God, the owner of the vineyard, keeps coming looking for fruit and finds none. He is ready to cut it down. It is using up resources useful for the other plants in the vineyard. This is the demand of the divine judgment. But the vineyard-keeper intercedes, “Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer.” Then “if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.” The tree does not have forever to bear fruit; only another year. The axe of judgment will fall if there is no fruit at this time next year. The extra time is not owed to the tree; it is a mercy granted.
The same is true for all of us. We can be cut off at any time and when next we arise we will be facing God’s judgment for the fruit or the lack of fruit that our lives have borne. If we are given more years, nay, if we are given another day, it is the mercy of God. God desires our repentance, and our Intercessor pleads for us on the basis of His sacrifice; He begs that we might have more time to repent. Our whole life will be evaluated on the basis of this repentance. If it is not there, our whole life will be seen in that light. If it is, even our wrong-doing can be overturned.
So He who works on our behalf digs around us and puts in fertilizer. The Jews have the advantage of being a member of the Messiah’s people; they are the vineyard. Yet the Gentiles too potentially have the advantage of being able to join the Messiah’s ecclesia, the church, planted in every town. But attaching ourselves to the synagogue, the traditions of Israel, or the people, or even the church, is not enough. The owner is looking for fruit. And, “Why does it even use up the ground?” If we do not bear fruit, we are blocking the sunlight and drawing nutrients from the soil that others could use. We are a burden to them and therefore cause harm. Whatever energy the leaders exert on us is wasted when it could be given to others.
Our prayers must join with the intercession of Christ on behalf of others and ourselves that we all may be spared more time. But even with such interceding, the time cannot extend forever. We must not only pray for the mercy of time, but we must also work to ensure access to the means of the grace that can bring repentance. We need to break up the fallow ground of our hard and sometimes cynical hearts. And we must feed our hearts with the fertilizer of the Gospel. The hardships that come into our lives can hardness us further or can soften us; we need to endeavor that our hearts be broken open and not broken apart; so the severe comfort of the Gospel works along with lives trials and tribulations.
We come to the Lord’s Table, hearing the Word and receiving from the One who gives us Himself. If our receiving the bread and wine is accompanied by faith in Him, in His personal Presence and His ability to confer on us all the benefits of His passion and the power of His life, we can go on another week, dwelling in Him and He in us, and perhaps by grace bearing some of the fruits of our repentance. We depend on His grace, but we must also avail ourselves of it by prayer and the Word and by how we cope with the difficulties that life brings us, whether we allow them to do that work in our souls by surrendering ourselves into the interior hands of the Holy Spirit. We must allow the fruits of our repentance to come forth in the conformity of our behavior to the way of Jesus, the way of the cross—in flat contradiction to the ways of the world—not by willfully forcing it, but by allowing it to grow like something living, like the fruit of a tree.
But the parable is really about how we have been procrastinating. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” We have dawdled away “three years” already, probably unaware that our Master has been coming over and over looking for fruit from us and not finding any. He is patient, but has grown impatient, for there is no excuse for our failure. The time to repent then is now, immediately. If we are granted more time, then let us not waste any of it with reckless and delusional living, for the life we are given is the only opportunity we have to make good of it. Otherwise we will find ourselves unconsciously drifting in the netherworld, waiting in a restless and thirsty sleep for the day when we will be resurrected and face our exposure on the Day of Judgment.
Remember that Jesus gives us Himself; He is our salvation. God gives us Himself in Him; God pleads with us through Him. And the beautiful Holy Spirit is there hovering over our waters of chaos, waiting to enlighten us and break us out of the hardened shell of our delusion, and give birth to us into the light of Easter.