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March 14, 2004

"Repentance and Grace" - March 14, 2004

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C
Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13:1–9

The message of these two linked passages in today’s gospel – Jesus’ comment on arbitrary deaths and the parable of the unproductive fig tree – is clearly proclaimed by headers for this section in many bibles: “Repent or Perish.” Or is it? I don’t find that reading entirely satisfactory.

“Repent or perish” doesn’t work for me as a summary of today’s gospel first and foremost because those in power in these stories are not like God; they pay no regard for who is penitent or unrepentant. Pilate slaughters Galilean pilgrims who had committed no crime. This portrayal of Pilate agrees with what we know of him from other first-century sources, most notably Josephus: Pilate was a brutal ruler who did not hesitate to kill hundreds or even thousands at a time, especially when he thought it might make an example to dissuade others from causing trouble.

It’s a helpful corrective to the kind of portrait drawn of Pilate in places like Mel Gibson's The Passion as a principled but waffling man who is deeply concerned with whether Jesus is innocent. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus (who himself is a Galilean) uses Pilate as an example of how oppressive Rome's rule could be, how arbitrary the “powers that be” in Palestine used their power. He notes specifically that the Galileans Pilate slaughtered were as innocent as any of their countrymen. Pilate came down on them like a ton of bricks, as it were; he didn’t check to see who was guilty and who was penitent any more than the tower in Siloam did before it fell. Indeed, it’s likely that the Galileans Pilate murdered WERE penitent, that what brought them out of Galilee, where Pilate had no authority, and into Jerusalem, where they died, was specifically their repentance. They were pilgrims, not tourists; they were in Jerusalem to offer the sacrifices required of the penitent. Repent or perish? More like “repent AND perish.” Pontius Pilate didn’t stop to ask whether those he killed were good or penitent any more than the collapse of a tower does, or a virus, or a cancer.

Luke continues with the theme of unjust and capricious authority in the parable of the fig tree. The historians K.C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman (p. 106) present the setting as one that pops up repeatedly in Luke: the estate of a wealthy landowner – only the wealthy owned land worked by hired hands in Jesus’ and Luke’s society. The landowner mostly lives amidst the comforts and more cosmopolitan environment of the city while his staff and tenant farmers run the estate. In this parable, the gardener knows how to grow figs; like many peasants in Galilee, his family has grown them for sustenance for generations. The wise gardener counsels patience, letting the fig tree live. But the authority the gardener faces is not so wise. The landowner, whose ignorance of how fig trees are customarily handled is shown in his desire to cut down the tree rather than dig it out, as would usually be done, is inclined to kill the tree immediately. It was a common situation in first-century Palestine; wealthy and absentee landowners were eager to move on to crops like grapes or olives, which were more valuable for trade. But these crops were of far less use to the poorer people who actually planted, cared for, and harvested them. Although they paid exorbitant rents for the chance to work the land, they still could not control how it would be used; all they could do was to try to persuade the landowner to do what was best for the community. And the choice of a fig tree is also significant in this parable. In the Hebrew bible, the fig tree was often used as a symbol for Israel. In the languishing fig tree under threat from an authority not of the land, the audience would recognize Israel's own precarious situation, subject to the whims of an authority that, especially in contrast to the gardener, is not shown as being particularly reasonable.

That’s one reason the parable doesn’t quite work as an allegory for God’s judgment. God isn’t an absentee landlord who’s going to decide to sell out when it profits him most, any more than God is a capricious and brutal ruler like Pontius Pilate. The two stories in today’s gospel don’t reflect God’s character so much as they reflect the character of the world we build when we set unjust rulers above us, or when we ourselves use our power in ways that fail to care for the poor and vulnerable as God does.

We live in a world with a lot of pain. Millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia, and in Haiti, and in North America are infected with HIV, a virus that does not know or discriminate between the righteous and the unrighteous, the penitent and the unrepentant. The commuters in Madrid who died in the bomb attack last week weren’t any more or less sinful than anyone else. And then there’s all of the suffering that doesn’t make the headlines – illnesses like depression, or M.S., or Parkinson’s, or cancer. None of these are punishment for wrongdoing, and penitence neither prevents nor cures them.

So the first reason that “repent or perish!” doesn't work for me as the overriding theme of this Sunday’s gospel is that being penitent doesn’t seem to be any guarantee of not perishing. One could say that this is the bad news of the passage – even for those of us fortunate enough not to live under a brutal dictator like Pilate, even if we’re pious and hard-working and we play by the rules, there’s no guarantee in this world that we can avoid tragedy.

But there’s another way in which “repent or perish” doesn’t entirely sum up today’s gospel, and this one is good news: the parable of the fig tree comes up short on the perishing side of the equation. That’s especially clear when we compare today’s gospel in Luke with the cursing of the fig tree in Matthew 21:19. In Matthew, Jesus comes upon a fig tree that isn’t producing fruit, Jesus curses the tree, and it immediately withers and dies. In this Sunday’s gospel, the landowner has waited three years for fruit that didn’t appear, and still the gardener is willing and able to care for the tree and to intercede with the landowner to save it. Not bearing fruit is, in today’s gospel, no guarantee of destruction by the end of the story. Mercy is still possible.

Don’t get me wrong; I definitely think that repentance is a major theme in today’s gospel. We are called to repent. But there’s a flip side to the sense of loss and danger running through this passage. There’s an invitation. Repentance is not entirely about a conviction that transgressions are invariably and immediately punished any more than it’s about a conviction that this world will immediately and invariably reward virtue or repentance. That just doesn’t hold up. Bad things sometimes happen to good people. Good things often happen to people whose conduct doesn’t deserve them. Repentance is not our means to homeland security, to prosperity and physical health. We respond to Jesus’ invitation to repent not as “fire insurance,” to escape suffering in this life or after we die, but as a response to the grace Jesus offers. And the flip side of how indiscriminate disasters and illness can be is that Jesus’ offer of grace is made not just indiscriminately, but universally. The prosperous and the poor, the righteous and the unrighteous, those suffering from illness and the rest of us, the “temporarily able-bodied,” are equally in need of forgiveness and healing. We are equally offered the radical freedom we find in Christ to start over, to stop punishing ourselves and one another for real and imagined transgressions and to get on with living in a way that gives everyone around us – and sometimes even people half a world away – a glimpse of God’s grace.

Every circumstance – every hardship and every blessing – offers opportunities for us to experience grace and to extend it to others. Blessed with abundance, we have the opportunity to share – much as St. Martin’s support of La Resurrection in Haiti extends grace to people born into poverty, affected or infected by HIV, subjected to violence and deprivation. Blessed with an abundance of God’s love, we can take the time to share that abundance with young people in SMART [the parish high school youth group] or MSYG [the parish middle school youth group], and in the process we are blessed all the more richly by young people extending God’s love and exercising their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church and the world. And there are openings for some adults to do just that in both SMART and MSYG now and next year. It’s not a “do this or perish,” or “do this or the program will perish” thing; it’s a response to the grace we experience and a chance to experience a lot more of it. Our lives are full of such opportunities. When we feel blessed, we share. When we are hurt, we forgive. When we suffer, we give others the opportunity to minister. When we rejoice, we invite our friends, our neighbors, and our enemies to experience our joy. And when we realize that we have missed the mark, that we have done hurtful things and failed to do what’s helpful, that also is a moment of grace. We let go, we ask for forgiveness, and we thank God for the opportunity to start again.

In every moment, the invitation to us springs from grace, from an awareness of how precious this moment is, this life, this mercy, this chance. We’re not just fleeing from future wrath, and we’re not trying to behave in a certain way because of the reward we think we’ll get. We’re embracing God’s mercy in the present. That’s a fruitful life, regardless of our fortunes.

Thanks be to God!

March 14, 2004 in Current Affairs, Exodus, Justice, Lent, Luke, Parables, Pastoral Concerns, Repentance, Year C | Permalink

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