Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
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Through the stop start of the lights down Fullarton and along Greenhill Road, we tracked alongside a Jeep stripped down to its roll cage and painted non-reflective black. It was a machine which could have been dropped alongside us from any battlefield in the world. The young owner had added expensive aftermarket rims and tyres, and other bling, to upgrade his projected persona to something truly perverse. For the eye which had sculpted this monstrosity had an obvious aesthetic skill. Yet what had been created was a prettified killing machine, an homage to the myth of redemptive violence. Only the machine gun in the rear tray was missing. We were on our way to a vigil for the victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack, which was held at the Marion Mosque last night. I do not know where the jeep was taking its driver.
More than a thousand people overflowed the undercroft of the Mosque. In the heat, a young Muslim woman offered her water bottle to my daughter, and then to me. The Master of Ceremonies began his welcome with the formal listing of dignitaries: "Your Excellency the Honourable Hieu Van Le, Governor of South Australia..." and then took several minutes to complete the list. And so began a long series of speeches as South Australia repudiated terror and hate, and mixed raw grief and pain with an affirmation of humanity's best hopes for itself. Here was a place where young men distributed cups of cold water amongst the crowd, where little children played at our feet, where feminist anglo women wore scarves out of respect, and those who had not were still respected; where those who were faint in the heat were cared for; where Muslim, Jew, Christian, and those of no faith stood together: old, young, women and men; where children played catch in the side street with a couple of plastic water bottles, and good natured police stepped into the Marion Road traffic to allow pedestrians to cross.
This was glory. In the heat, and on sore feet, we were standing somewhere close by the Kingdom of God, the place where "the wolf shall live with the lamb... and a little child shall lead them, [and] they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11)
Why start a reflection on Luke 13:1-9 here? It's because the reading is suddenly very clear, and full of pathos, and promise, if we read it from the perspective of the Kingdom of God.
In this text, Jesus repudiates any idea that the Galileans murdered by Pilate, or that the people killed in the collapse of a tower, were in some way deserving of death. God does not punish people like that. God does not use ungodly state sanctioned terror, much less fundamental cowards like the Christchurch terrorist, to punish people. We are all, in fact, little different to those killed by Pilate. We are little different to those who happened to be nearby when the tower fell; God does not punish like that. "Suffering is not a form of punishment." (David Lose) We all die in the end, obviously, but we may, warns the text, also "all perish as they did." I think Stan Duncan captures very well what is happening here:
I don’t think [Jesus] means that if you are a sinner, you will die in the same manner that they did. That is, you’ll have your blood mingled with some kind of Jewish blood-offering in a temple. And I don’t think he means that if you don’t repent, you’re going to die too. That one doesn’t actually make any sense, because of course you’re going to die. Everyone dies. It’s the end of life. It comes. Get over it. It doesn’t mean you’re a sinner if you die. It means you are mortal and your clock ran out.
But surely [Jesus] does mean that if you don’t repent then you will die in some way that is similar to those guys. And that’s your biggest take home for a sermon from this passage. If you die and you have not turned your life around (Greek: metanoia) then it could, in fact, be argued that you will die cut off from God and from hope and peace in your bones, the very way that these people (might have) died. I say “might have” because since none of them lived to do interviews about their spiritual life we have to just say, “for the sake of argument, let’s say that none of them had a meaningful connection with God, and if you don’t turn your lives around, then you will die with the same lack of meaning.
The same lack of meaning...
There is a mystery of grace here. From where does meaning come? How is it that I can ride through the night down the edge of a distant desert range— probably there was no one within a hundred kilometres of me— and feel transported into glory, while my friend is alienated and filled with fear by the same isolation? How can I stand in the crowd at the Mosque and feel glory, when others see only people to fear and hate? What brings us to see a deeper meaning and purpose in life, and removes the fear of life which blinds us to its glory?
The answer Jesus points to is repentance: unless you repent... Repentance is not about confessing some list of petty sins. Repentance is the wholesale turning around of life. It is the recognition that the tough 4WD which I drive (I had one, too) is part of a lie, part of a life constructed to live less with God, and more on my own terms, and on my own resources. Or without God at all. Repentance is the recognition that such a life lowers my horizons, lessens my vision, and impoverishes the meaning I will find in life. Repentance recognises that the things I have lived for, and the ideals I have lived for and by, are idols. Repentance is the lifetime's work of turning to another way.
There remains a question: Where does that all start? What gives the impetus? Why, in my life with guns, did I begin to regret the taking of life, while the terrorist thought that it was life?
I have no answer to this question, but it has something to do with the faithfulness of the gardener. Mark D Davis puts this beautifully:
I am often very reluctant to assume that the landowners or vineyard owners of Jesus’ parables are descriptive of God. They are rather severe folk and sometimes I’m inclined to think they are more a description of “this is how things seem to operate” to which God’s kingdom offers an alternative course.
God is the gardener. God is not controlled by the way people and "things seem to operate." God is the one who waters and fertilises and digs around the roots to allow us to bear fruit; to encourage us to see things differently; to give us time to turn in a new direction. God is like the gardener who intercedes with the way things seem to operate to give us another year.
And if we have travelled a while along the paths of the Faith, we begin to realise that the Gardener gives us all the years we need. We are all saved. God will wait for as long as it takes us to realise this, and come home.
There is a parable that pictures a group of people waiting several millennia until, finally, a nervous Judas Iscariot pokes his head around the door because he has realised they are holding off from the feast— the eucharist, until he arrives— because even he is welcome. And Jesus springs to his feet and runs over and embraces him, crying, "Judas, at last! Welcome! What took you so long?"
The implication is that he is also waiting for Hitler, and Pol Pot, and Stalin... and me.
The question is what we will see in life, and what we will do with it. Will we see glory? All of us, in our human finitude and fear, live a limited life. There is only so much reality that we can manage. Ringo Starr shops each weekend at my local supermarket with his aged mother. He lives life in the sixties clothed in his Beatles suit and haircut. A lad drives his dreams of glory down Greenhill Road living fenced in by the myth of good guys' violence. The terrorist imagines that by the most cowardly of murders he has become a man. Becker thought that "the most one can achieve is a certain relaxedness, an openness to experience that makes [them] less of a driven burden on others." (The Denial of Death, pp259)
There is a repentance which seeks to drive another way home instead of being driven by the fear of around us. It rejects hate, and seeks to remember Jesus' words just prior to our text:
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. 7But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12)
It also remembers these words:
"19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ 22 He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. (Luke 12)
This repentance comes to a place where it sees at last that "it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12)
And it finds it can drink deeply, and eat fulsomely of life, and feed on glory. So that while the terrorist is forever trapped in his cell, I may drink from the same open water bottle as a Muslim girl, and be made whole.
And what about the trucks, those boy toys beloved of men? My brother in law lives way up in the desert; seriously, you need a tough truck. But Dave has pulled the badge off the front, and has replaced it with a chromed logo across the grille, which says: Tonka.
God lets us laugh at our serious selves as we pretend to be somebody. And we are more and more free of the fears and myths and hates— if we repent.
Andrew Prior (Lent 3 - 2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
* "Mosque: مَـسْـجِـد, masjid, lit. place of ritual prostration..." which might just be a good description of the persistence that characterises a true repentance.