Repent or Perish
Rev. Michael Trask
In Today’s Gospel lesson, We learn, that events which bring about the horrendous loss of human life are not simply a modern thing. We sometimes imagine that our time is more dangerous and deadly than former times. But Todays’ Gospel tells a different story.
Jesus was going about his ministry, and someone told him about a horrible thing that Pilate did to some Galilleans. Apparently some Jews from Galilee had gone to offer some sacrifices in Jerusalem….. Nothing really out of the ordinary about that. However on this occasion Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor sent soldiers into the temple grounds and killed a whole bunch of them. This horrible mass murder was wrong on many levels: moral, religious, political, racial. It was a big deal.
I’m guessing that since it was Galileans who died, that people from Galilee were especially up in arms about it. Jesus was from Galilee. Maybe that’s why they talked to him about it. They wanted to see how he would react to this moral-religious-political-racial event. What would this famous guy say about this controversy?
Jesus didn’t do what they expected him to do. Instead he answered a question that was on their minds. He said “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?” No, I tell you.” Then he adds his own news piece about the the tower in Siloam, in Jerusalem which collapsed and killed eighteen people. “Do you think these were worse offenders then all the others who live in Jerusalem, No! I tell you.” Did you detect the number one question that was on peoples minds in those days? They thought that when something bad happened to people, that God would blast them in real time. We see this sort of thinking also when Jesus met the man born blind. The disciples asked him who sinned to cause this man to be blind. That’s how people thought.
A Pastor named Charles Henrickson , published a piece on the Interent were he points out that modern people don’t think like this anymore. And he gives a couple of examples. On 9/11 for instance, 3000 people killed in a terrorist attack. There was an interfaith prayer service. And for some reason, Oprah Winfrey was allowed to speak. And she said “You know I believe that when you lose a loved on, you gain an angel whose name you know.” And she assured the crowd that now all those who died were added to the Roster of angels. The theology of Oprah is this: “Being an innocent victim of a terrible tragedy gives you and automatic ticket to heaven.”
The other example Pastor Henrickson gave was the Sandy Hook shooting of 2012. Twenty Children and six adults died. there. Full of grief, they had one of those interfaith prayer services agains. Unfortunately the Theology of Oprah was present there too, this time proffered by Catholic Clergy, one Monsignor Weiss who said in a prayer to God “We bring to you 20 new stars in the heavens, 20 new saints, 20 new angels.” The message is the same. “Innocent victims are automatically saved.” Although very different to the way that people thought in Jesus time, still very false. A false hope, based on magical thinking. I thank Pastor Henrickson for this insight. I agree with him.
So how did Jesus speak to this tragedy? First he made it clear that it wasn’t any particular sin on the part of the victims that caused their tragic deaths. But then he said something that put it all into the proper perspective. He punctuated both the Galilean story and the tower story with the exact same words: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Repent or Perish. This is not one of those all-time favorite quotes of Jesus. This is not on any of the Christian plagues that you receive on your confirmation day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any precious moment figurines with these words on them. And yet they are important words. One philosopher I read once, I can’t remember who said, that in order for us humans to live happily we must be in a constant state of denial of our death.”, and I think that’s what most people do. That’s why we are so surprised by our own death. We go “What? It’s my turn? No it can’t be.”
Some would say that these words of Jesus are harsh, and they are harsh to those who live in denial. But they are the most important words a person can hear. Our time is limited. And something worse than having a tower fall on you awaits us. We need to connect up with the God who saves us! We need to repent.
To demonstrate this, Jesus then launches into a parable that, for all the world, seems unrelated to what he was talking about. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none.” He then said to the gardener, “cut it down, I come seeking fruit for three years now, and I find none… why should it use up the ground? But the Gardener said “Let it alone this year also, I’ll dig around it, I’ll fertilize it. If it bears fruit, we’re all good, if it doesn’t, then you can cut it down.”
So Let’s review: Jesus takes these great tragedies and says, “no people don’t die because of some particular sin they committed. The truth of the matter is that you are all dying and you better be prepared to meet your maker….. you need to repent.”
And this parable he offers, about a fruit tree is a picture of repentance. This is what repentance looks like. It’s a tree beginning to bear fruit. John the baptist, who preached a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins said to those who came to listen to him: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8). Repentance brings fruits. What kind of fruits? A change of heart…. a change of mind…. a desire to do what God would have you do…. to Love….. to Love God and to Love your neighbor. If you are in God’s Garden, there should be some outward manifestations of that in your life. If not, you really don’t belong in the Garden.
This parable seems harsh I suppose. Oprah wouldn’t like it I’m sure. But All I see in it is grace and patience. Just as people who are worse sinners don’t get blasted in real time, trees that don’t bear fruit are allowed to go on living. I see the owner of the Vineyard waiting a whole three years for a tree to bear fruit before he said anything. I see a gardner, pleading for the tree and securing another year for it. I see furthermore the tree given everything it needs to start producing… a good cultivation and a load of fertilizer.
When God calls us to repent he gives us everything necessary for it to happen. He gave us his word to instruct our hearts. He’s given us pastors and teachers. He’s given us our fellow Christians to cheer us on. He’s given us devout parents. Most importantly, he’s given us his Son, who bears away our sins to the cross. Which means that when we own up to our sins…it is not the end of us. Jesus endured the end that we deserve when he went to the cross. So when Jesus calls us to repent, he calls us to avail ourselves to all that he’s done to secure our salvation. He’s calling us change our minds. To agree with God that sin is wrong and righteousness is good.
So how would I summarize this entire gospel lesson? What is Jesus saying to you and me on this day? You’ve been given time. You’ve been given mercy. You’ve been given grace. However your time is limited, so make use of what you’ve been given in the time you have been given. seek to bear fruit. AMEN