This was the shorter reflection on Luke 13:1-9, given at Morning Prayer on 28 February 2016 at St. George the Martyr Anglican Church.
What we believe about the character of God makes all the difference.
“At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” says our Gospel for today. Can you imagine Jesus with tears streaming down his cheeks as he hears the news? “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.”
Maybe he wipes his eyes, maybe his voice shakes a little even in its strength. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them”—mentioning another local disaster— “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.”
This is the way I hear Jesus: “Do you really think that ‘those people over there’ were bad sinners, and you’re OK by comparison? Do you really think God decided those people had it coming, but you’re going to be fine? Not a chance—it doesn’t work like that. What kind of a god is that? While there’s time—repent!”
When I was growing up–even though I would never have admitted it–I understood repentance as ‘moving in the opposite direction of my favourite sins.’ But for Jesus, it means something much more basic and comprehensive: “Leave your agenda, and join me in mine.” Repentance is about allowing God convince us of His character, and allowing him to place us in a new story and a new community—which, of course, means that God shapes our behaviours to match our new reality.
Let me turn for just a moment to the parable of the tree with no fruit. Most of the time when I hear this tale, I find it vaguely threatening: “One more year, and I’ll cut it down,” says the man who owns the vineyard.
But maybe that “man” isn’t God. Maybe the gardener is God, even Jesus himself. God in Jesus has been doing everything he knows to help that tree—to help the people of God—be the fruitful organism it’s supposed to be. But just like Luke’s story that we call the Prodigal Son, there’s a cliff-hanger ending. The question is not, while biting our nails, “Will I finally grow this year?” The question is, “Does the gardener know what he’s doing?” And I suspect that our answer has to do with whether we trust that we have a Christ-like God, that God’s character looks and smells and sounds like Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if the cliff-hanger is in God’s heart: will we repent, and trust him? What is our answer?
That answer, my friends, is why what we believe about the character of God makes all the difference.