Third Sunday in Lent: March 24, 2019
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
The Gospel today raises some interesting questions as we seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus and not merely in passive resignation to what we find swirling around us. As Jesus continues to move toward Jerusalem, the place of his execution, the context reflects the commonly held conviction of the day that illness and misfortune were God’s punishment for sin.
Now, lest we think that this understanding was held only by ancient and unsophisticated people who did not know better, think again. Can we debunk this kind of thinking, at least among us, once and for all? Last hurricane season, in the face of natural disasters, we heard some popular TV preachers say that certain storms were sent by God to punish us for our sins. Or more to the extreme, we get people of Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas (not fair to all Baptists by the way), who demonstrate at military funerals and scream out epithets saying that the reason these dedicated soldiers have died is God’s punishment on the United States for its tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Even last week, there were Islamophobic rants from people blaming the victims of the murders in the two mosques in Christchurch, NZ, saying that they deserved what they got.
Those are attitudes that are rather easily seen as nonsense if we use our brain just a little bit. Why isn’t God zapping us for how we treat the planet in the pollution of our water and soil as we continue to feed our addiction to fossil fuels, or sending major calamities on parts of the international banking industry for its collusion with the governments of Iran and Iraq, in effect stealing from the pockets of people like you and me as well as aiding and abetting terrorist activity? Or again, unless we think we are too sophisticated for such thinking, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone say from a hospital bed, “I wonder what I have done to deserve this,” thereby linking personal behavior to being punished by God with sickness and misery.
Jesus is saying – there is no necessary connection at all! And he uses the story of the horrible murder of some Galileans and the tower of Siloam falling on the eighteen people to say that their sin was no worse than anyone else’s. So the first thing of which Jesus is asking us to repent, in order to walk in a new direction, is theological thinking that makes God into a terrorist going around looking to pick off who God can pick off when you or I or anyone else misbehaves or even is perceived to have misbehaved! Jesus says, “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
Even more, he points us to shift our attention toward impending catastrophes for which human beings, not God, bear total responsibility. While wanting to give comfort and assurance for a person who stumbles, he is also looking to light a fire under the too comfortable, the self-righteous, and other unproductive disciples. We have work to do in the life of faith! Look again to the commitments to which we are called in our baptism and the vows those being received today are making with us: calls to be disciples of Jesus’ justice and peace; standing for the dignity for every human being. Let’s go back to the story. What was happening there when Jesus says, “Repent, or you will all perish as they did?”
Pilate, the Roman governor, had just had killed some people from Galilee. Apparently he had killed them in Jerusalem, where sacrifices are offered at the temple, because Jesus is told that Pilate “mingled their own blood with their sacrifices.” So a question – why would Pilate be killing Galileans in Jerusalem, in the temple? Only one answer is possible: he believed they were rebel insurgents. He had brought the power of Roman rule down on them.
Even the tower of Siloam falling on the 18 people is most probably one of the towers of the wall of Jerusalem that had been toppled in a siege attempt by the Roman soldiers under Pilate’s command. Key here, again asking the question of what to repent or change one’s mind, is when Jesus says, “…unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” AS THEY DID, that is, at the hands of the Roman army under Pilate’s direction. The repentance, or change of mind and new direction Jesus is calling forth here is not personal sin. He is saying, and get this, unless you stop participating in this armed violent rebellion, you will all get killed in the same way they did; compliments of Pilate and the Roman army.
Jesus saw people caught in self-destructive behavior and was seeking to warn them, pulling them back from the edge of the cliff. His message was precisely the opposite of “God is punishing you.” We see this in the parable of the fig tree where the owner is looking to cut it down for its non-production, but the farmer wants to give it more time. The image conveys God’s patience with us, God’s never failing mercy, giving us always the opportunity to change course, to adjust behavior, like giving a gardener another chance to fertilize a fruitless tree.
So what at first glance today may have looked like a word of threat is in fact a word of promise and hope. Jesus, on the Cross, is our intercessor. He is the Gardener who in the act of the Cross and Resurrection accomplishes the new chance you and I and all of creation has to be made new. Jesus is working the soil, if you will, so that new life can happen and the sign will be when you and I have a change of heart and mind, when in response to God’s patience we are more awake to the Spirit’s movement, more just and more compassionate in God’s service.
In Lent, Jesus recruits us for this work of insisting on a collective repentance for policies, plans and attitudes, that are threatening entire systems on which human well-being depends. It is the work we are called to do as Christ’s people. Who will do it if we don’t?
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.