The texts we have just heard read aloud effectively explode two commonly held assumptions. There is firstly the idea that the Hebrew Scriptures are all about judgment—and by inference, that the God pictured in the Old Testament is one who strictly weighs and measures sin, and delivers punishment—while the New Testament is all about grace and mercy. Yet today we have heard the prophet Isaiah’s words of deep hope and abundant mercy, while it is Jesus who speaks of the urgency of repentance; “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
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Not that the two texts contradict each other, for underlying both is God’s call to embrace the merciful invitation to follow His way, and to begin now. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near,” says Isaiah. “[L]et the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Jesus essentially echoes the message of Isaiah in his short parable of the fig tree in the vineyard; a parable in which the gardener is prepared to do everything he can to help the barren fig tree to bear fruit, and so to save it from being cut down. “Don’t cut it yet it down yet,” he says, “give it another year, and I’ll loosen the soil, fertilize it, and see if it can’t be brought around.” In this gift of time and care, we’re given an image of grace abundant. Yet even this patient gardener knows that there are limits: “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” he says, and it is on that note that Jesus ends his parable. Real things are at stake here; there is such a thing as judgment in the Gospel.
Which bridges us to the second commonly held assumption challenged in this reading, namely that suffering and adversity always have some logic to them; more specifically, that there is a direct line between sinfulness and suffering. If you are sick or have lost your job—if you’re living with depression or a tree has been knocked down in the wind and crashed through your living room window—you must have done something to deserve it. There is a divine order and rationale for everything, so this thing I’m dealing with must be due to my spiritual and moral failing. Nothing is random.
The flip-side of that, of course, is the idea that because you’ve got a good job, almost never get sick, and your kids are all well-behaved, God is clearly rewarding you for your faith. Or to push things to the absurd, because someone gave me a pair of premiere tickets to the Jets’ game and I found a free parking space just steps from the MTS Centre, God is clearly blessing me or rewarding me.
Guess what? Jesus is not interested in that sort of thinking. “[T]here were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” This is apparently a reference to an incident in which Pilate had sent his troops into the temple to deal with some problem—or maybe just to intimidate the people—and some Galilean blood had been shed, right there in the most holy and revered of places. “Jesus asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No.” And then he offered another example. “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.” Whether these people were killed in a vicious act of violence or in the collapse of a shoddily built tower, Jesus is simply not prepared to entertain the idea that their deaths were the result of some sin, or that they were being punished by God for a moral or religious failure. He is, in fact, pointing to the “wrong place, wrong time” randomness that so often characterized tragedy.
Not that we should hear this as a defeatist view of the world, in which we are all merely potential victims of randomness, with no real freedom and no real choices to be made. We do have real freedom, and we do make real choices, even if we can’t control everything or hedge ourselves against that which is random. The person who has great health is also probably making all kinds of decisions about how they’re living; the person who has a job they love has made all kinds of decisions about education, vocation, and priorities that have led him or her there; to push things a bit, the person who found that great parking space at the hockey game has probably gone downtown two hours early. And for people living with real adversity, they still continue to make all kinds of choices about how to live with that. The person who struggles with depression, for instance, can still make choices about taking medication, eating well, making sure they don’t just hide in their apartment, and reaching out for support when things get really rocky. Not that any of that is a quick-fix solution; just that there are choices to be made.
Which is where the other part of Jesus’ very clear “no” comes to the fore. Do you think those who died at Pilate’s hands or in the collapse of that tower were worse sinners than you? “No, I tell you,” Jesus says, and then adds, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Where is his logic here? He seemed to be saying that the death of those in the temple and at the tower of Siloam had been random, and not tied in any way to sin or offense. Yet now he seems to suggest that a failure to repent will lead to death; to “perishing just as they did.” Is Jesus trying to have it both ways here?
He is pointing, I believe, to the very real choices that are involved in the act of repenting; to the very real freedom to “turn around” as it were, and to take a new path. We might quite naturally hear that in terms of renouncing certain practices or habits and amending our ways, and of “returning to the Lord, that he may have mercy;” of placing our lives in the hands of the One who “will abundantly pardon,” to borrow from the language of Isaiah. That’s not a bad way to hear this call to repentance, though a very real question remains. Do I repent—and the literal meaning of the Greek word metanoia is “to think differently after,” or to have a change of heart and mind—do I repent in order to avoid being punished? Is Jesus pressing here for a fear-based conversion—a changed mind and heart—in order that we might avoid God’s punishment? Here I find the reflections of N.T. Wright to be truly illuminating. “What does ‘repent’ mean in this context, then?” Wright asks, and by context he’s pointing to the politically charged climate of the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day; a context in which many were working toward revolution as that which will free them from the tyrannies of the Roman Empire.
What does “repent” mean in this context, then? Not simply “give up your private sins”; rather, “turn from your headlong flight away from God’s mercy, from your quest for your own national salvation by rebellion against Rome.” Unless you give it up, Roman swords and falling stonework will be your lot, not as an arbitrary punishment from a vengeful God but as the direct result of the way you have freely chosen, following your own thoughts rather than God’s thoughts. (Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays, Year C)
In other words, keep choosing that path you’re on and it will all come crashing down on you, not as punishment but rather because that’s the way the military and political machine works. Change your minds and hearts and follow God—God whose “ways [are] higher than your ways and [whose] thoughts [are higher] than your thoughts”—not out of fear, but because it is true. And it is pressing… even the patient gardener in the parable has but a year to get that fig tree to bear fruit…
It is interesting, by the way, to note what follows this passage. There is first a healing story, and then there are two little parables—the mustard seed and the leaven in the dough—both of which speak to the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. It looks insignificant, this little movement; it will never topple the Empire; it will never change or effect anything. A peasant carpenter teacher, and a rag tag group of followers. I mean it’s a bit dangerous, because the peasants are beginning to take him seriously, but it isn’t actually going to do anything or change anything.
Nothing is going to be changed. Nothing, that is, other than minds and hearts. And in God’s way, changed minds and changed hearts are like yeast hidden in the dough or the tiny mustard seed dropped in the soil. Which is why under the reign of God the call to repentance is so very real and pressing… in the strange economy of God’s kingdom, it is changed minds and changed hearts that matter. Not Roman swords
In this season of Lent, we are called again to look deep inside ourselves, at the changes needed in our own heart and our own minds. And to trust that in God’s strange economy those changes can do great things, not only inwardly, but beyond.