The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Our Gospel lesson from Luke today is in three parts. The first two are about a Roman slaughter of Galileans by Pontius Pilate, and of a tower collapsing and killing eighteen people. They are events that seem to be well known to Jesus and his audience, but regretfully not recorded in any extant documents so that we can verify them. The third part is a parable about a fig tree, a topic Jesus uses on several occasions in the Gospels.
Parts one and two make clear that people attributed these tragic events to acts of an angry God against people who had sinned.
“At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’” (Luke 13:1-)
It was a deeply held belief in the Judaism of that time that sin lead to suffering. This belief of sin leading to punishment found its origins in Moses and the Ten Commandments. In Exodus Moses tells the people, “The Lord [is a] God merciful and gracious and slow to anger . . . but by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children, and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex. 34:6b, 7b) In other words not only is sin equated with suffering, but its stain carries from one generation to another. People suffered for the sins of their forbearers. Just like Christian theology long held that the original sin of Adam and Eve is passed onto all successive generations.
Yet, centuries after Moses, the Prophet Jeremiah dismisses this harsh and difficult belief. Offering hope for the restoration of Judah after the decimation the Hebrews had suffered during the exile, Jeremiah proclaims to the people, “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.” (Jer. 31:29-30)
So, there was a theological split in Judaism, with some Jews believing that your sins, and the sins of your ancestors, would result in personal malady or even death. With other Jews seeing sin as something one was personally responsible for. Regardless, both camps saw a correlation of sin inciting God to bring harm, illness and even death in a person’s life.
Jesus confronted this belief on several occasions. In the Gospel of John Jesus is about to heal a blind man. His disciples ask of him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (Jn. 9:2 NIV) Jesus replies, “"Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” (Jn. 9:3)
The connection between sin and bad behavior by you or your parents, resulting in some tragic punishment by God was one that Jesus said was not true.
God doesn’t cause life’s calamities. If humans die by the sword or accident or natural disaster it is not because God has arbitrarily chosen to punish them for their sins.
Those Galileans were not killed because of their sins. They were brutally murdered by the Romans. Which is definitely sinful behavior on the Roman’s part. The Tower of Siloam did not fall and kill eighteen people because God punished them for their sins. It fell because it was either weakened from an earthquake, or more likely, poorly constructed – maybe with watered down mortar to save money by an unscrupulous contractor. Which again was definitely sinful behavior on his part.
The Muslims at worship in their mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last week did not have their blood mingled with the sacrifice of their prayers because, as some egregiously postulate, their faith is sinful. They were murdered by a deluded, hate-filled, white supremacist whose deology and faith are so deranged and distant from the ways of God, it caused him to engage in the heinous sin of taking human lives.
God did not cause these events.
We need to stop blaming God for all of life’s ills. We need to take responsibility – both individually and corporately – for the sinful behaviors we engage in and visit upon others. Of “what we have done and what we have left undone,” as the Confession states. And we need to make amendment of life to correct our sinfulness. In other words, we need to repent. God is totally about all these things, especially repentance and returning to right relationship with God.
This is why Jesus adds the story of the fig tree to the references of the two tragic events. God is the God of redemption, of second and more chances. God gives even an unfruitful fig tree another chance to produce good fruit. You see the tree’s unfruitfulness indicated it was not in right relationship with God. Yet it gets another chance to repent of its unproductive, sinful ways and amend its life to live in relationship with God, as God desired it too.
Let me paraphrase the “God is still speaking” slogan used by our friends in the United Church of Christ. God is still calling; God is still calling us to repent and amend our lives from our sinful behaviors. God does this by using the manure of forgiveness. But that opportunity for repentance is not infinite. Which is why Jesus is so insistent, even strident, for us to engage in repentance. There is a final judgement, and how we have lived our lives matters.
As we repeatedly hear in Advent, none of us knows the hour when the final judgement will occur. There is ultimately a final chance, and then no chance, we just don’t know when. This means every day we have to live as though the next thing we do is our one last chance to put things right- to reject our sins - before the judgement comes. There really is no hedging our bets here. God is the ultimate bookie and knows the odds way better than we do. If we refuse to change despite God’s repeated appeals, there comes a day when we are shut out. Not by God, mind you, but by our own deliberate choices.
Just ask those five foolish virgins in the parable how that feels!
And our own deliberate choices impacts us corporately as well as individually. Communities of faith, cultures, political ideologies, and nations are not exempt. Israel as a religion and as a nation-state repeatedly confronted this truth. We are all called to turn away from sinful things that violate God’s purposes such as idolatry, injustice, and exploitation of others. We are called to repent and turn towards faithful living centered in worship of the most-high God, and in the practice of justice, mutual commitment, care of the most vulnerable, and showing compassion and respect to all people.
The nation and its leaders who choose the wrong way will suffer. And make no mistake about this, we are living that painful reality right now. People are suffering because of sinful behavior, idolatry, lack of compassion, apostacy and a blatant, thumb-your-nose attitude toward any desire for repentance from these sins. But judgement will come. We can rest assured of that. And righteousness will prevail. We can rest assured of that, as well.
Repent. Live your life as if today was your last. Turn away from the assumptions, attitudes and actions of sinfulness, and live into the values and practices of the Realm of God as taught by Jesus. Your life depends upon it.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.