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First Impressions: Luke 13:1-9

March 2, 2010

This week’s gospel lesson provides a pleasant parable (13:6-9) and an unpleasant discourse (13:1-5).  I usually focus on the patience of the gardener since we all prefer pleasant sermons, right?  Who needs a sermon about Pilate’s murders and disaster in Jerusalem?  That’s why I watch the news, not why I go to church.  As I think about the text, however, I think the first half of the lesson helps to interpret—or perhaps to give better focus—to the second half of the text.

13:1-5 I can imagine people coming to Jesus and breathlessly sharing the news about Pilate’s murder of the Galileans.  Our interest in tragedy and disaster is not simply a modern invention of the 24-hour news cycle.  Those who brought the news to Jesus probably wanted either a revolutionary rant or a theological discourse on the matter.  Jesus gave them the latter, but not in the way they expected.

Jesus didn’t care why the unfortunate Galileans had been killed.  They were dead, and speculating about the cause was futile.  If pressed, Jesus might have told the crowds that the deaths said more about Pilate than about the Galileans.  What he did say was that they had not suffered because their sin was worse than anybody else’s sin.

The same, Jesus said, was true about the people killed when the tower of Siloam fell.  The victims had not been punished.  The laws of physics did them in.  Things like this happen.  If you go to Sermon Suite, in the children’s sermons section, you can find an idea from Leah Thompson about dice and games of chance.  She writes that with dice we “cannot control the results,” just as in life.  We may have some small measure of control, but neither you nor I can predict when the tower of Siloam will come tumbling down.  You must be a subscriber to read the full text, but the dice idea could work.  I think I will use it in the children’s time in worship.

Instead, perhaps we should be more concerned about ourselves.  Death will find each of us one way or another.  If we are not careful, we will all perish just as they did.  What do you suppose Jesus means by this?  I assume he does not mean that by repentance we could avoid some terrible destruction such as that suffered by the Galileans or those buried beneath the tower of Siloam.  Repentance does not have that magical power of protection.  Just ask Jesus as he hung on the cross.

He must mean, then, some other sort of perishing.  Could it be something like the “second death” of Revelation 2:11?  Perhaps Jesus is speaking about saving ourselves from the coming fire to be kindled upon the earth (Luke 12:49) or the consequences of judgment were we to be deemed unworthy.  The problem for me here is that these ideas do not seem consistent  with the emphasis of grace in Luke’s gospel—the story of the Prodigal Son, or the shepherd/woman who seek the lost sheep/coin until they find them (Luke 15:1-32).

It is possible—and I think I will be preaching this line—that Jesus is encouraging us to repent sooner rather than later.  Yes, God is gracious and patient, but life is precarious and fragile.  Why should I waste the years of my life on wasted living?  Through repentance, I can embrace true life at any time.  Maybe this means that “perishing” isn’t a one-time event.  Just as I can be in the process of growing and living throughout my days on this earth, I can also be in the process of perishing.  Living isn’t a one-time event, but it is ongoing.  So is perishing.

13:6-9 This parable illustrates the point.  Our lives—however long or short they may be, and we have no idea whether they will be long or short—have become the “one more year.”  I choose whether or not to be wasting the soil or attempting to be productive.  Again, however, my main concern is the seeming disconnect between the grace that sustains us because we can’t truly do it ourselves, and the necessity to repent and be fruitful.  I usually end up preaching something like “I do the best I can, but leave it all up to God.”  I know it’s not very creative or theologically sophisticated, but I’ve got to preach something!

A while back I preached this section of the text and played with the idea that the Church could be the gardener in the parable.  The Church’s job could be seen as cultivating and digging manure into the soil.  Our task could be to create an environment where others can grow and bear fruit.  We tend God’s vineyard (and the fig trees therein).

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