The Third Sunday in Lent

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Luke 13:1-9

If you have lived long, you’ve either experienced human tragedy personally or heard countless reports of it—9/11. Earthquakes. War. Fires. Tsunamis. Hurricanes. Airline crashes. Murderous rampages. In fact, you haven’t had to have lived very long at all to have witnessed (in person or through news reports) all of these events occurring.

Such tragedies create moments of reflection on the question of “Why?” These events jar us into contemplation of our own mortality. We obsess over cause and effect in the wake of troubling times. We long for some tangible answer to make sense of the bad circumstances…Why bad things happen.

And inevitably, someone, often a religious person, announces that the latest catastrophe is a sign of God’s judgment. We are told that the pain and suffering is the direct result of personal or national sin. Such answers are only comforting for insiders—the “real” followers of God—who are confident of their own righteous standing with God and intent on pointing the finger at others (the guilty ones) for the sake of self-justification.

This is just the sort of thing Jesus is confronted with in today’s gospel lesson. People looking for easy answers to a horrific event in which some Galileans had been killed by Pontius Pilate while worshiping in Jerusalem. This unsettling state-sanctioned murder had led unnamed persons to carry the gory details to Jesus, and as was his usual modus operandi, Jesus turned this encounter on its head. The inquisitors were likely looking for self-justification in the face of unspeakable horror. They wanted a simple answer to make them feel better and deserving of God’s favor—something like “blessing comes to the righteous and disaster to the sinner,” (for that was the heartbreaking doctrine of the day) but Jesus would have none of it. He turns the conversation into a call for repentance as the only ground for hope and mercy in the face of God’s judgment.

In response to the crowd, Jesus asks a question that surely was on the minds of all in his presence, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Then he cites the deaths of 18 people due to the collapse of the tower of Siloam as a second example and asks, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”

The persons in the presence of Jesus surely wanted the answer to be “Yes.” Such a response is in keeping with the popular theology of Jesus’ day (and, sadly, still among some Christians today). Some unwittingly suppose that life would be less messy if we could explain every tragedy based on the victim’s (or someone else’s) sin.

This was the approach of Job’s friends as they questioned him about the wrong he must have done to bring about God’s displeasure and Job’s misfortune. In another Gospel story, it’s the assumption of the self-righteous who blamed the sin of the parents for the affliction of the man born blind. Recently, one prominent Christian leader blamed Haiti’s earthquake on the local practice of voodoo. But life isn’t that simple. God’s creation is not so mechanical that every good experience is the result of an individual’s righteous actions, and every bad experience the result of sin.

So Jesus will have none of this popular theologizing. He presses the issue more deeply. Were the people who died worse sinners than others? Absolutely not. This claim is as unsettling as it is unreasonable and it raises the question, “How should we then understand tragedies and hardships and how should we order our own lives?” Jesus answers the question as a warning, but with the assurance of God’s mercy as well: “… unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Jesus suggests that the ugliness of life should propel us to God rather than send us into a posture of self-justification. Tragedy can strike any one of us at any moment. The only sure way through this world, in peace, is the way of repentance and dependence on God.

Now, don’t miss the nuance of Jesus’ words. He isn’t talking about a one-time “I repented back in 1995” act of penitence. Jesus is calling on his hearers to adopt a lifestyle of repentance.There is a profound difference between a one-time repentance and an ongoing response of repentance to God. The first assumes a static approach to life; the other is dynamic. One says I have been forgiven and can earn worthiness by my own goodness and works. The other says I am a sinner, in constant need of forgiveness, dependent on God’s mercy and grace, and made worthy only through that mercy and grace.

When Jesus talks about repentance here, he is offering a warning, but also a way. Repentance is not merely a one-time change. It must be an ongoing way of life in our walk with God.

As long as we make decisions, some of those decisions will be bad ones. We will always be confronted with new situations and challenges and mistakes will be made. But if we are willing to repent, to turn from wrong ways and past decisions and follow Jesus as best we can, God will forgive us and show us a better way. This is the essence of the dynamic life of repentance. It is a key marker of a vital, moment-by-moment relationship with God.

So, rather than offering an easy answer, Jesus uses the question about a tragic event as a teaching moment to call his inquisitors to a deeper relationship with God. That will come for them by their committing to a lifestyle of continual realignment of their lives with God. Of recognizing their continual need for God’s mercy and grace, rather than trying to claim righteousness before God by their own good works.

And to drive his point home, Jesus concludes his exchange by offering a parable. He tells the story of a fig tree that does not bear figs. The landowner has patiently waited for the fig tree to produce. But after three years of waiting, he orders his gardener to cut down the tree. The gardener responds by asking the landowner to give the tree one more year to produce fruit. “Let it alone for one more year,” he says. “Let me dig around it [and water it] and [fertilize] it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, then you can cut it down.”

This story represents the chief message of today’s gospel lesson. The goal of our life with God is not merely repentance or realignment as an end in itself. God desires something more.

Jesus’ parable suggests that the purpose of repentance is fruitfulness. Just as a fig tree’s purpose is to produce figs, God’s people exist to produce the fruit that God desires.

Repentance—realigning ourselves and following Jesus— involves serving as witnesses of the Gospel to those around us. It represents a life of fruitfulness. And Jesus understands this as the natural result of being God’s people.

But what happens when a fig tree doesn’t bear fruit? It is likely to be cut down so that its place in the garden may be occupied by another. Don’t miss the warning AND the promise of hope in Jesus’ words. He is calling his hearers to examine themselves on the question of their fruitfulness. Jesus is looking for persons committed to an ongoing relationship with him. It is not about asking, “Am I less of a sinner than another?” But rather it is about asking, “Am I committed to realigning with God daily as a means to living faithfully and producing fruit for God’s kingdom?”

The good news of this text is its testimony to the patience of God. The warning here is deadly serious: It is a call to repentance and fruitfulness. But the hope and promise is in a generous God who cares for and desires the best for his people.

Jesus calls us to a day-by-day, moment-by-moment realignment with his work in the world. & This way of life unleashes us—frees us—to live fully and unafraid as God’s holy people. To live the life that we were created to live: A life of fruitfulness; a life of blessing; a life where, come what may, God’s kingdom will reign.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.