Repentance and Lessons from Tragedies
I don’t know about you guys, but when I first read the Gospel reading, I had no idea what was going on and was a little taken a back like dang – repent immediately or you all perish seems a little harsh. And from Repent or Perish, without any transition, it leads right into one of those bizarre fig tree parables. However, after a little context and reflection, some very powerful messages can be gleaned from this short reading.
In the first part of the reading, Jesus seizes on two calamities that may have been subjects of recent conversation around the local watering hole--one an instance of state-sanctioned terror (Pilate killing Galileans), one a random disaster (a tower falling). To start, Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong, that they didn’t commit any sinful act that warranted their tragic end – sin doesn’t make atrocities come, they just come. And when Jesus says, twice, "unless you repent you will all perish like the others did,” he isn’t promising that the godless will be struck with divine punishment, a fire and brimstone type situation. Rather Jesus is emphasizing the sudden and unpredictable nature with which death and tragedy strike and the possibility of reaching the end suddenly and finding that we have delayed too long – that we have not repented. Tragedy and hardship have their ways of nudging people toward God, but these verses suggest that tragedy and hardship come so suddenly that they often mark the end of our opportunities to live lives inclined toward God. So the main message here is repentance.
In the second half of the reading, the parable reinforces ideas from the first half of the passage. In summary, a cultivated yet unproductive tree may continue to live even without bearing fruit, only because it has been granted help. Unless it begins to bear fruit (which is an image of repentance), the result will be its destruction. Like Jesus' earlier words in response to the two tragedies, the parable warns against false reassurance. Just because you have not been cut down, do not presume that you are bearing fruit. However, the tree has not been left to its own devices. Everything possible (mulch, digging) is being done to get it to bear fruit. Correspondingly, God does not leave us to our own resources but encourages repentance.
Now, aspects Jesus' words here about judgment and repentance can come off as off-putting or morose, but when reflecting on these words it is possible to appreciate our existence, albeit a fragile one, and our privilege. With repentance, we can find grace within the awful precariousness and strange beauty of our fleeting existence.
But what exactly does repentance look like? The common understanding of repentance is to feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one's wrongdoing or sin. But there is a lot more to it that just that. Repentance means a changed mind, a new way of seeing things, being persuaded to adopt a different perspective. It refers to an entirely reoriented self, to a new consciousness of one's shortcomings and one's dire circumstances. It also has moral applications and even calls to action. Repentance, in this context, demands that we recognize the fragility of our lives and points us in the direction to live in a way that honors God and all those around us near and far.
Jesus does not explain the causes of violence that nature and human beings regularly inflict upon unsuspecting and innocent people and he does not blame victims. At least in this reading, he offers little to no theological speculation. All he does is prompt us to think about tragedy and how we will respond moving forward. Such a context will always have relevance given the state of our world but it is worth recognizing the recent tragedy that struck the Muslim community of Christchurch. For people of faith, catastrophes like this raise all sorts of questions that deserve discussion and drive us to mourn and lament. However, tragedies should also arrest our attention - they should shake us out of the complacencies or stupor that we use to get through ordinary life and they show upon us the perils of our existence. Additionally, tragedies, like the one from March 15, remind us to repent and drive us to act in a way that recognizes the wrong and seeks positive change in the world.
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Skinner, Matt. Commentary on Luke 13:1-9. Working Preacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=530