Luke 13:1-9,31-36 begins by talking about some terrible things that have happened. Good and faithful people have been killed. How do we make sense of that? Is it because they weren’t as faithful as everyone thought? Jesus ties these events directly to repentance. And there’s judgement in this passage. There’s an underlying sense that if you do not repent, God will cut you down—just like the fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit.
In the passage, Jesus is going around teaching and healing. As he does this, he continues to accuse the Pharisees of being hypocritical and of leading people astray. He accuses in ways that are sometimes very direct and sometimes by telling parables or stories. Some people come to Jesus and tell him that Pilate killed some Jews while they were offering sacrifices. Jesus is very mater-of-fact about these events. He responds by reminding the crowd that things like this have happened before and things like this will happen again. The people who were killed did not do anything to deserve these deaths. It simply happened.
And then he places responsibility onto the people telling him the news. “Unless you repent, you will perish just like they did.” During Lent, we are invited into deeper self-reflection. We are invited to think about our actions and lives. Sometimes sin and repentance can be uncomfortable topics because we connect them to “worm theology”—a belief that we are horrible people. This theology suggests that we are the lowest of the low and we need Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to prevent us from rotting in hell. It’s an icky theology and the way we avoid talking about this theology is to get rid of the words and concepts associated with it.
So let’s start in a different place. We are not bad people. We are good people, created in God’s image who make mistakes. These mistakes, in theological language are called sin. The Song of Faith (a statement of belief from the United Church of Canada) describes sin this way:
Yet we choose to turn away from God.
We surrender ourselves to sin,
a disposition revealed in selfishness, cowardice, or apathy.
Becoming bound and complacent
in a web of false desires and wrong choices,
we bring harm to ourselves and others.
This brokenness in human life and community
is an outcome of sin.
Sin is not only personal
to become habitual and systemic forms
of injustice, violence, and hatred.
These mistakes–or sin–do not make us bad. They do not lessen our worth or value but the behavior of sin has the potential to destroy life. If we continue to sin, it eats away at us. It destroys our relationships.
A way out of sin is through repentance. Repentance requires self-reflection. It requires us to look within ourselves and take responsibility for our words and actions. An Israeli soldier describes repentance as being in the same situation and behaving differently. He was witnessing and participating in the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. He recognized his role in the violence and then refused to participate in violent actions. He is still an Israeli, living in Jerusalem but his behavior changed. Repentance isn’t about beating ourselves up or get stuck in wishful thinking. Repentance invites us into a true change of heart which leads to concrete change in our behavior. If we know we made a mistake and we keep repeating it then we haven’t truly repented.
In the parable of the fig tree, the owner comes looking for figs. It takes three years for a fig tree to produce, there was a law forbidding eating the fruit for three years. In the seventh year, the figs could be eaten. The owner of the vineyard is impatient and wants figs immediately. The gardener urges patience. We also need to have patience with ourselves and with others as we seek to lessen the impact sin has in our lives.
The Song of Faith offers these words of hope:
We sing lament and repentance.
Yet evil does not—cannot—
undermine or overcome the love of God.
and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings
with honesty and humility.
and calls us to repent the part we have played
in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other.
Finally, in the scripture passage Jesus continues to do what God calls him to do: cast out demons, heal, teach. He knows that his path will take him into Jerusalem and into direct confrontation with the authorities. This confrontation has the distinct possibility of leading to death. Jesus recognizes that even in death, evil does not and cannot overpower God’s love. We need that assurance as well. We need to know that we are never beyond God’s love—regardless of what we’ve done or the mistakes we have made. God always calls us to repent and find new ways of living that are faithful.
In all our lives, may we acknowledge sin in the mistakes we make.
In all our lives, may we seek repentance by behaving differently when confronted with similar situations.
In all our lives, may we know that we are always held in God’s love.