I’ve been thinking a lot this week, as I’ve reflected on this text, about my recent trip to Israel. Our group took that short, 20 minute walk from the hill they call the Mount of Olives, down into the little valley and up the other side into the old city of Jerusalem, retracing Jesus’ path.
When you start out you are on the Mont of Olives looking across at Jerusalem, first you see the city wall, but the scene is dominated by that huge gold Dome of the Rock mosque. Actually the walls that surround the old city that you see today are built on the huge foundation stones that were there in Jesus day, but the rest of the walls were actually built by the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century after he conquered the Christian Crusaders.
The Land of dispute
Jews, Muslims, and Christians – we three, and each of our long histories, all come together in that one small place, like crowded riders in an airport terminal shuttle. I would be willing to bet that more human blood has been spilt on that location in Palestine than on any other piece of real estate on earth. Jebusites, Jews, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Crusaders, by the thousands and thousands and thousands have killed and have been killed over the centuries as that city has been built and captured and rebuilt and re-captured again and again. And of course it remains hotly disputed to this day.
No wonder that when Jesus took his ride that day, as the crowds started letting the word “king” sail from their lips, as in “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”, the Pharisees got nervous. For heaven’s sake, it was Passover time – the place was crowded like downtown Mobile, Alabama on Mardi Gras – of course the situation was volatile. Passover was an independence holiday (remember Moses and the Red Sea crossing?) – it got people’s hopes up; the Romans knew that. Like Mobile, they put extra police on overtime to be ready for problems. The Pharisees told Jesus to tell the crowds to be quiet – in effect saying, “Tell them to cool it; do you want to get us all killed?”
Jesus was not standing still with a bullhorn in his hands when they said that – he was on a donkey, in motion, on a journey he had been on for a long time before that day, and now, the momentum was unstoppable. Have you ever tried to stop a donkey going downhill, half scared to death, carrying its first passenger, surrounded by people shouting and waving? Have you every tried to quiet a Mardi Gras parade crowd? It wasn’t going to happen.
But the Pharisees were right to be worried. The people out there on the parade routes were playing with fire: spreading gasoline and lighting matches. Riding on a donkey colt down the Mount of Olives and up into Jerusalem was acting out a set of blocking instructions that came right out of the prophet’s play called “Here is how the king and his new kingdom will come” (actually it’s called the Prophet Zechariah). Everybody recognized that play. It was like street theater out there.
And this business of rolling out the “red carpet” made of everyone’s coats: come on! You only do that for kings! This is a “to the barricades” moment. There is no way to stop the inevitable conflict to come. The only question is who will be standing when it’s over?
What were they thinking?
Looking back, it almost seems crazy that the people waving and shouting that day thought that they could actually beat the whole Roman army, win independence, and install a new king. But they did think so. After all, not that long ago, they had beaten the “whole” Greek army (at least the Seleucids). Their conquering hero of that revolt, Judah (or in Greek, Judas) Maccabee had ridden his victory horse into Jerusalem in a strikingly similar way to the roar of the crowds. People who beat the Greeks could beat the Romans; right?
Is that what they were thinking? Was Jesus just getting swept up in nationalistic revolutionary fever?
I love the way Luke tells us this story, because he enables us to see the story behind the story. This is not just an out-of-control mob scene.
The Point of the Preparations
Did you notice how much time Luke spends giving us details about the preparation for this donkey ride? There is more information about the preparation than there is about the parade itself! Luke lets us hear Jesus giving his disciples directions – where to go, what they will find there, what to say if asked any questions. And then, we hear it all as it happens – how they go, what they find, the answer they give; what’s that all about?
Luke is helping us to see that behind the story of the fervor of the crowds, the downhill rush to an enthronement of a national hero, new-king story is a different story. It is a very methodical story, intentionally crafted down to the minutest detail. It is the story of what God is doing that day in Jerusalem.
God has a plan for a king to come into Jerusalem. He has been planning this for a long time – yes, since the prophets first wrote the script, casted the donkey and blocked out the stage directions. God’s well-planned, well-prepared story is not being rushed or pushed. It is coming along exactly to plan, down to the detail. But it is a different story. God’s story is not about violent revolution in support of a nationalist agenda, but it is indeed a story about a coming king.
So, because this is a “king is coming” story, actually it is right celebrate with a parade. It is right to take of your coat and throw it down to carpet the king’s path. It is right to sing, “Hosanna” and wave palm branches (even if those details come by way of other gospels). It is right to shout out the words of scripture:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
It is right, as long as you know the second line that cannot be separated from it:
“Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
Sounds a lot like what the angels sang at the birth of this new king, doesn’t it? And it should! Let the praises ring!
Jesus confirmed that praise was fitting on the day of that fateful donkey ride; in fact, if people stopped praising, he said the very rocks would cry out.
Well, in some ways the rocks do cry out. The rocks in that wall around Jerusalem, the rocks of Herod’s foundation, the rocks of the “Christian” crusaders, the Muslim Ottoman rocks, all cry out. Throughout the centuries they have all dripped with blood. If there is any place on earth that has known less peace, I cannot imagine it.
It did not have to be that way. There is an alternative to this ugly, brutal world of violence and death. A new king rode in to the holy city, not a war horse, but a young donkey, to start a new kingdom; to be its new king. It is a kingdom of peace because it is the kingdom of God.
The King’s Kingdom
In this kingdom, people from East and West, from North and South will learn to call each other kin and sit at a common table together. In this kingdom, dark skinned and light skinned people will learn to beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning hooks. They will share the land instead of filling it up with victim’s graves and building new dividing walls across it.
This will not be the kingdom of Me and Mine, and Us and Our Kind looking out for Our selfish selves. In this new alternative kingdom, God has planned down to the detail that there is special care for the weaker members of the family; the widows, the orphans, and the undocumented strangers.
Jesus has spent his whole adult life, up to this point, modeling the behavior that flows out of the values of this alternative kingdom. He has shared meals with outcasts, he has fed hungry people and brought healing to sick people. He has broken through barrier walls of gender and of age. And he has confronted every system of oppression that has been hurting people: traditions of discrimination, laws that enforced the status quo in favor of the powerful, and even religious institutions that existed mainly to perpetuate themselves rather than serve the needs of the people.
It did not have to be the way it was. By the time Luke wrote this story, those stones were crying out from blackened piles of rubble; the revolution finally found a champion who rode a horse into battle, and Rome was the one left standing at the end.
Today, Palm Sunday, is a day on which to celebrate the coming of the King, to sing Hosanna, to wave palm branches, and to shout “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” on one condition. That we have put our allegiance on his side. That we have bent the knee under his sword and become citizens in his kingdom. That we have repented of our selfish, waring ways, and have embraced his kingdom of peace. Perhaps the day should begin with surrender before the celebration. Perhaps we should wave the white flag before we pick up the palm.
Painting credit: GF [sam] W a g n e r
The Hair and the Poor Excuse
Picture a modest square house, about the size of a single car garage, made of mud bricks, whitewashed with a lime plaster – probably looks much like an adobe house. It’s evening, sun is setting; it’s very dim inside. Lighting is by oil lamp.
There isn’t much furniture at all. On the floor in the middle of the room is a thing that looks like a Japanese tea-ceremony table. It sits low to the ground. If you recline on the reed floor mat with your head close to the table, leaning on your left elbow, your right hand would be free to reach the table and take from it your food and drink.
Who is there?
This is the scene. The home belongs to two sisters and a brother; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Who is at that table? Most likely just men. The women were expected to serve – as Martha is doing. Her sister Mary is busy with something else – she has not made her appearance yet.
Lazarus is at the table – and this is the amazing thing, because Lazarus got sick and died. He spent four stinking days in a rock tomb before Jesus finally came and spoke those words that brought life back into his wrapped-up, rotting body: “Lazarus, come out!”
He did come out, and now, some days later, he is well. This is a celebration dinner! A quiet celebration. I picture it like Anne Frank’s family celebrating Chanukah in hiding; joy and foreboding sit together at that table. Lazarus’ life has been snatched back from the grave; Jesus’ life edges closer and closer, just as he said it would.
Taking Risks in Bethany
They are taking a risk there in Bethany; it’s just over the hill from Jerusalem where “the powers that be” are feeling so threatened by Jesus that they have already tried and failed to kill him once. If he gives them another chance, they will most likely succeed. In fact it seems so likely to the people in that little house, that at least one of them considers it a done deal. She has started making arrangements.
Who else is at that table? The scene in John’s gospel has lots of shadows and not much light; the only people we see are Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and Judas. If Judas is there we assume that the other disciples are there too, but like many things in this story, we cannot see them, so deep are those shadows.
Many mysterious shadows
There are other things we don’t see; things that don’t seem to make sense. Mary comes into the room – but not to help Martha serve dinner; she comes in with another purpose. She has an entire pound of perfume valued at one whole annual salary in her hands! Why does she have it?
They just had a death in the family; should she not have used that perfume to anoint her dead brother? Why didn’t she? Was she expecting him not to die because Jesus was certainly going to come to heal him – wasn’t he? Was she expecting, even in the hours after his death, that Jesus would show up and revive him? Did she keep hoping until it was finally past the time when it was possible to enter the tomb? Is that why, when Jesus finally did show up, Martha told him that Lazarus’ corpse smelled so bad, after only 4 days in the tomb – because he had not been anointed for burial? We do not see into those shadows; we only see Mary there, with the unopened perfume in her hands, and the vivid memory of that day in her heart.
Feet? Not head?
There are more shadows of mystery. Mary comes over to where Jesus is reclining, kneels down, and pours the anointing perfume on him, as if he were a corpse. She does not anoint his head, as one would the head of a living king to honor him; she anoints his feet. Jesus gets the message; to Mary, he is as good as a corpse already.
When Judas watches this and makes his snide remark, Jesus tells him, “Leaver her alone. She did this so that she might keep it for my burial.” Jesus understand her.
Mary is thinking, “May as well get him ready while you have the chance, because if the boots of those who are coming to get him kick in the door tonight, who knows; this may be the last we will ever see of him.
Deeper in shadows still is the explanation for what happens next. In a culture in which men and women have limited contact, especially unmarried men and unmarried women, Mary shocks the party. As if it were not outrageous enough that she has just poured out a year’s salary’s worth of perfume on the feet of a corpse that isn’t dead yet, now she does what is only done behind a wedding door: she lets her hair down in front of a man (in fact, men!)!
She leans down and works that perfume into the bare skin of Jesus’ feet using her hair in place of a cloth. Now she too smells like a freshly anointed corpse. Is she expecting to share his fate? Is she casting her lot “until death do us part” with a man who, she believes, may not live to see morning? This goes way beyond extravagance!
Are there words for what she is feeling? John leaves them off the page; in the shadows. We can only watch, amazed if somewhat baffled. And yet it was this man’s words that had brought Lazarus back to life the sole male in that family; if you were Mary, what would you have withheld under those circumstances?
The Poor Excuse
But now a new kind of shadow appears, like the moonlit shadow of a stranger on an unprotected door. It is the shadow that Judas’ dark hart pumps into the room as he speaks. Judas’ mother had named him for his country, Judah, and for the great hero of the not too distant past who had led the Jewish forces to victory over the Greeks, (Judas Maccabee); she had held such high hopes for her son, the thief. Judas aspires to a kind of greatness: a very personal, very ugly kind.
Like all con-men who know the soft-spots of their victims, the place where they are most likely to let down their guard, the place closest to their hearts, Judas knows where to stick his jab; he brings up Jesus’ famous concern for the poor. You can almost see the curl in his upper lip as he spits out the quickly cost-accounted calculation.
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (verse 5)
No greater opposite pair could be in the same room; Mary, who has filled the room with fragrance, sitting disheveled on the floor at Jesus’ feet where nothing remains to her that she has not given; and Judas, filling the room with the stink of his contemptuous self-interest, miserable that he hasn’t got more of what no one takes with them in the end.
In between is Jesus, who alone has the words of life.
We have entered that room today. We are among those other disciples witnessing this contrasting display from the shadows, just out of sight. We have a choice before us.
We all have been where Judas is – we have to admit that. We have all been there, believing that just “a little bit more” will solve our problems. We have all felt the impressive, comforting weight of those coins in the money bag and were afraid of the vulnerable lightness of letting them go, even when faced with needs we could have met. But we have all also recoiled in horror of becoming Judas, the betrayer. We want to make a different choice.
But can we be Mary? Is it possible? Can we see ourselves so utterly abandoned to Jesus and his cause that we relinquish every alternative source of security? Could we ever see ourselves taking on that kind of risk – of respectability, of reputation, of livelihood?
If so, it would be possible only after coming to one settled conclusion: that Jesus’ words bring hope and life into situations that otherwise are hopelessly dead. Look at Lazarus sitting there at table and remember that day when his name was called and he came out of that dark tomb. Look at yourself sitting there and remember your baptism on which day your name was called, and you were brought to life as a child of God!
Memories to deal withIt has not been easy; we have gone through valleys of shadows. We are like Mary; each one of us has in our hands a remembrance of times of deep disappointment with God’s plans for us. We had the perfume to anoint the dead but we didn’t imagine we would have to use it. We never expected to have had to go through that illness, that crisis, that divorce, that pain – we prayed to be rescued but rescue didn’t come in time, and the rock rolled over the occupied tomb. The perfume in our hands is there to remind us.
But that was not the last word, was it? The Lord of Life has a sense of timing that we do not understand; there are shadows of mystery that remain. But words of life from Jesus do follow the crisis; and here we are today as living proof.
And so, we want to be like Mary – joyfully giving back life for life. We are people who have committed ourselves, “until death do us part” to Jesus and his life-giving words.
This is why his soft spot is our soft spot that Judas identified. We are passionate about the poor, as was Jesus. We are passionate about social justice as Jesus was, even if the pundits mock us for it. We are passionate about the weak, the vulnerable, the outcasts, the suffering, because the Lord of Life on whom we have staked our hope was and is passionate about them.
The dishes are cleared, the oil lamps dim, the company rests. In the morning, at first light, the door will open, fresh cool air will flow in, and we will depart the house. Mary will go one direction; Judas the other. Which will we take?
Have you ever seen those “man on the street” interviews that Jay Leno does? He goes out and asks people simple questions, and they give the most foolish answers. He asked a man “See that American flag flying there? How many stars does it have?” and the man says, “I can’t count them, it’s moving around too much.”
Well, Leno never asked about God, to my knowledge, but if he did, if he asked people to answer, “What is God good at; what is his role?,” what do you think they might say? What is God famous for? Plagues? Fire and brimstone? Acts of judgment? How about commandments? God is famous for saying “Thou shalt not…” a lot, isn’t he?
That is what people expect God to do; it’s his role. Question: what is God like? Is he best at commandments and requirements?
What we are going to see today as we look at this parable, is an amazing story of God who never does what he is is expected to do; and this is going to be great cause for rejoicing – maybe. I believe we need this parable as much as the first people Jesus told it to, so let’s look at the text.
Two Son Stories
The story begins, “A man had two sons.” Professor Jon Levenson of Harvard pointed out that when a Jewish story begins, “A man had two sons” it is often a sad story that follows. Adam, the first man, had two sons; the elder killed the younger. Abraham had two sons, the elder, Ishmael by his Egyptian slave; the younger, Isaac, by his wife Sarah. The younger received the promise and covenant. He sent the elder one away. Isaac had two sons; the elder, Esau, sold his birthright to the younger Jacob who ended up with everything.
Our story begins inauspiciously, “a man had two sons.” It doesn’t necessarily end well. Is this is one of those “unhappy ending” bible stories, like Jonah? You remember: after the whole swallowed-by-the-fish bit, Jonah finally goes to the people he hates, in the city he hates, in the country he hates, and preaches that God hates them too, (unless they repent, which of course Ninevhites would never do). Except that they do repent. So Jonah goes to watch what he hoped would be the divine nuking of Nineveh, only to sit there watching nothing, miserable at God’s mercy. It ends right there – unhappily. Is our story today like that?
3 Stories of loosing and finding
Our story beings “A man had two sons” – but looses one. This is one of three stories in a row that Jesus told, of people loosing things of value. First there was a shepherd who lost a sheep, then a lady who lost a coin, and here, a man has lost his son. All three are stories of finding too. The Shepherd found the sheep, the lady found the coin, and the man found his son. So at the end of this “A man had two sons” story, the man, once again, has two sons. The question is, at the very end of the story, does he still have two, or does he loose another?
Just like the story of Jonah, the curtain comes down on the scene of someone who is miserable because God is merciful. Does the elder brother go back inside and join the joy at the banquet? We never get to see.
Did you notice that I just said that the father found his son, just like the shepherd and the lady found what they had lost? Is that correct? Would it not be more accurate to say that the son found his way back to the father?
Breaking expectations of a Fathers
No; this is one of those expectations that this amazing father does not fulfill. Normally, no father in that time would ever grant a child’s request to take his inheritance – it is tantamount to wishing the father dead already. A father would be insulted at least, if not angry enough to dis-inherit him on the spot. That son has just broken the commandment: “honor thy father and mother.” But this father does the utterly unexpected, and lets him have it.
We watch in this story of how the son pathetically and tragically squanders his inheritance, and ends up in humiliation, poverty, and hunger. What he has done is now worse than merely taking his inheritance; he has despised it. He is truly dead to his father now. Were he to return, he could never undo the shame he brought upon the family. A father would be expected to cut off all ties with him; remember “Fiddler on the Roof”?
But this father does the unexpected; his willingness to take his son back as a son is what “finds” that lost son. In the process he does a string of unexpected acts: he looses all dignity as he runs down the road to welcome the lost son. He does not make him grovel, as expected, nor even let him finish his little repentance speech.
He removes his shame by dressing him, restores his family status with the ring, and finally, rewards him with a huge feast. He has broken every expectation in the book.
It appears that what this father is good at is not requirements, but redemption!
The Other Son
But this is a story of a man who has two sons, not just one, and so far we have only seen the first one in action. Now it it time for the other; the “presbuteros” the elder.
I think he feels like Esau; his brother has just stolen his birthright and he doesn’t even get a bowl of goat-soup in the bargain. In fact, in a minute he is going to tell his father that he has been a slave to him all this time!
The father throws a feast for his foundling son, but the elder brother, it says, “became angry and refused to go inside” the banquet. Refused? Refused whom? Now who is failing to “honor thy father and mother”? How would the father be expected to respond to this new insubordination? He would be expected to command a servant to go out and drag him in.
Again he does the utterly unexpected thing and leaves the table – in front of everyone – and, in spite of the shame, now does what no self-respecting father would have done, he went out to meet his eldest son, outside. And once he is there, does he command him to shut up and require him to come in? No; he begs him to come in, and even provides him with a rationale instead of a bare requirement.
But as I said, the curtain comes down right there, and we do not see the response. Will he come in and join this newly enlarged family, or will he become the lost son?
What then, are God’s Requirements?
There is a doubling back of this story upon itself exactly at this moment. We suggested at the beginning that if Jay Leno asked people on the street what God was good at; what God was expected to do, they may say, “commandments.” We suggested that this answer is what the elder brother thought too, and what led him to feel like a slave. The younger brother broke all the commands, but he is back in the family. But now, at the end of the story of the “man who had two sons” we are faced with a requirement; if the elder son refuses to join the banquet, he may well be lost to the family. Remember, Jesus told this parable to
“the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
The great insight here is not that God has no requirements; that everything is OK with God in the end; that he is the ultimate push-over who can be treated with dishonor, disrespect, who is willing to be shamed and humiliated and still throws a party. Not at all! Rather, the God of this parable is radically committed to redemption. If you want to be part of this family, you must come in and sit at the table with the rest of us.
In the end, the kingdom of God itself is pictured as a great banquet, hosted by Messiah. The people sitting at that table are all foundlings. None of them are there because they met all of God’s requirements and kept all his commandments (they better not even claim to have!) Rather, all of them are there – all of US are there because in spite of being prodigals, in spite of often squandering our Father’s lavish grace and goodness, in spite of often blowing it on trivia and self indulgence, unexpectedly, God has searched us out and found us.
To sit at that table is to welcome the people at that table – the “sinners” eating there. Some of them have broken lots of the commandments. Some of them sitting there have gotten themselves addicted; some have had children out of wedlock, some have contracted HIV/AIDS, some have lived unhealthy lifestyles; most of them do not speak English and do not own a tie. They are already at the table; the question is, will we come in and have a seat with them? Will we finally understand that we too, have been found?
The story of Jonah ended badly – the story of a person who was miserable at God’s mercy. The story of the man who had two sons was supposed to end happily this time, with rejoicing at a great banquet – and it may; but it may not.
The story is unfinished. We are living this story now. God is at work right now, all around us, finding lost people and rejoicing over their redemption. There is a path to joy here: it is by joining his great celebration of redemption. It is by looking around and finding where God is at work finding and redeeming lost daughters and sons, and joining him!
We are not God’s commandment-slaves; we are his banquet guests, and his joy is our joy, finding people who need his love, in our families, in our community, at the Christian Service Center, at the ACTII meeting, in the tutoring program, and everywhere he is unexpectedly, happily at work. Join him!
Last September when I was in Israel, we went down to the region of the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is in a valley, surrounded by huge rocky ridges. It’s a desert there; dry, rugged; about as inhospitable as a place can get. But down there near the Sea is massive rise that somehow got separated from the ridges all around, so it stands there by itself. The top is flat – just begging for someone to build a solitary fortress up there.
That is exactly what Herod the Great thought. He figured that if he ever needed a place to escape to, not even the mighty Romans could get to him up there. So he created the great fortress of Masada, built storerooms and cisterns, bath houses – everything a king would need to wait out a siege.
Troubled Times of Revolution
Herod had reason to think he might need such a place. He lived in troubled times. Revolution was in the air. There were armed groups within the area he governed that wanted nothing better than to go to war with Rome for independence. If they ever did, his head was on the block. He needed a place to run to.
It happened, just as he feared, though not in his generation. In the year 66 AD there was a Jewish revolt. Predictably, the Romans responded with overwhelming force. They smashed the temple in Jerusalem, sending the rebels into flight. One group, called the Sicarii (to which it is possible that Judas Iscariot belonged) escaped to the Dead Sea and made Masada their last stand.
It all ended in 72 AD. The Romans built an earthen ramp up to the fortress, and finally burst through the gate, only to find that all of the rebels had committed mass suicide, rather than surrender.
Lesson learned? Oh no. Two more Jewish rebellions followed. The last was in 135 AD, and this time Rome had enough. They totally dismantled the Jewish state, a situation which remained until 1948.
Jesus and the Gathering Storm
The point is this: in the time of Jesus, revolution was in the air. Already independence movements were organizing. Plots were being made and discovered, by Rome. Traitors were being crucified, in line with Rome’s counter insurgency strategy of fighting terror with terror.
I have taken the time to give you this brief historical sketch because I believe that it is essential in order to understand what Jesus was saying, in one of his most misunderstood teachings.
3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Those words, “repent or perish” are the problem. Not only do they seem in general to be at odds with Jesus’ general teaching, but they come as a direct contradiction to what he has just said. Furthermore, to make matters worse, this concept has gotten into popular culture to the point that the expression, “I felt like I was being punished by God” is a commonplace. And of course, topping off the damage is the use of the concept of divine wrath associated with tragedies like earthquakes – even on the lips of supposed Christian leaders.
Is God punishing me?
How does God work? Is it “repent or perish”? Are bad things that happen a punishment from God? What about this recession? What about my sister-in-law’s unemployment? What about illness and suffering? It gets very personal, very quickly! Is God punishing me? We all need to understand this teaching!
So let us look at it together. Let’s take it step by step. What sparked that “repent or you will all perish as they did” comment? What was happening, in context?
Two events: one is reported to Jesus: Pilate, the Roman governor, had just killed some people from Galilee, where Jesus and most of his disciples are from. Apparently he killed them in Jerusalem, where sacrifices are offered at the temple, because the people telling Jesus about this say that Pilate mingled their own blood with their sacrifices.” Question: why would Pilate be killing Galileans in Jerusalem, in the temple? Only one answer is even possible: he believed they were rebel insurgents.
The second event what Jesus himself brings up: a tower, the tower of Siloam, has fallen, crushing 18 people to death. What is this tower? it is one of the towers in the Jerusalem wall. How would it fall? Perhaps in a siege. Who would be conducting a siege against a tower in the Jerusalem wall? Pilate’s Roman forces is the only answer.
This is so important because Jesus’ statement “repent or perish” is actually a misquote. What he said was, “ unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” The key phrase is “as they did” that is, at the hands of the Roman army, under the direction of Pilate.
It is clear that the repentance Jesus is speaking of is specific: unless you all stop participating in this armed violent rebellion, you will all get killed in the same way they did; compliment’s of Pilate and the Roman army.
They did not listen, and in a few years after Jesus, the rebels ended up trapped at Masada, and committed mass suicide rather than letting Rome kill them. Jesus was right: unless you “repent” or “change your mind” (which is what “repent” means) you will perish “as they did.”
So the point is this: “repent or perish” is not God’s script for all time for the human race. Jesus saw people rushing off a cliff and tried in vain to stop them.
But in fact, Jesus’ message was the opposite of “God is punishing you.”
These two incidents, Pilate’s slaying of the Galileans and the victims of the tower collapse both illustrate the same point, according to Jesus: none of those victims suffered as a result of punishment for their sins. That is Jesus’ whole point! Listen again:
Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; … 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you;
In each case of tragedy, the question is: did it happen as punishment for being bad? The absolutely clear answer from Jesus is “No, I tell you!”
Is my suffering a punishment from God? Jesus says, “No, I tell you!”
Are the earthquakes in Haiti and Chili a punishment from God? Jesus says “No, I tell you!” Is my family’s trouble retribution from God for our sins? Jesus says, “No, I tell you!” Is God against me? Jesus says, “No, I tell you!”
And then, to make it clear, Jesus tells the story, or parable, of the fig tree owner. The man planted it for one reason: so that he could harvest figs. He had waited three harvest seasons without anything. He told the gardner to cut it down. The gardner asks for one more chance, one more season to try every possible means he has to help it: dig around it, put fertilizer on it, go the extra mile, and wait for it to produce fruit.
This is the opposite of “God is punishing me.” This is rather what happens, even when we are off track, being worthless to God; even then he does not abandon us to destruction. Rather, it is just exactly in the moment of our complete failure that he redoubles his efforts: digging, fertilizing, going the extra, patient mile for our sakes.
God’s goal for us is our fruitfulness. His will for us is not punishment, but rather that our lives would blossom, flower, and become fruitful. He is patiently providing for us everything we need.
It is tragically true that some people squander God’s gifts and patience and waste their lives in selfish, trivial, meaningless pursuits. But that is not what God wants, and it is what God is doing everything to help us avoid.
God’s will: our fruitfulness
God wants our lives to be fruitful; to have meaning; to produce fruit that brings relief and aid to people who are suffering. He wants our lives to bring comfort to those who sorrow or are lonely. He wants our lives to be bring healing to sick people, food to hungry people, clothing and shelter to people who need it, to matter.
He is doing everything he can to help us. He is digging and fertilizing. He is giving us a community, the church, which strengthens us for ministry. He has given us Bible study and Sunday School and small group opportunities to grow and develop as his disciples. He has given us material resources, educational resources, community resources and personal resources so that we can be meaningfully, significantly involved in his Kingdom.
Are you being punished by God? No! And neither are the poor people in Chili or Haiti; neither are the people who show up on the door of the Christian Service Center. Neither are the people who show up for help at Family Promise. Neither are the boys at the Boy’s Ranch.
But all of these are opportunities for us to be fruitful fig trees in our world, bearing the fruit of righteousness, mercy and love, for the sake of our merciful, loving, patient God, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ!
We were in psychology class; the topic was B. F. Skinner’s theory called Behaviorism based on operant conditioning. We were learning the theory that behavior that is reinforced is learned. It started with Pavlov’s dogs who learned that the bell sound meant dinner was coming, and so began to salivate before a whiff of food was present. We learned many stories about how animals could learn new behaviors through conditioning.
During that time I heard a story that I have no way of knowing was true or not, but it seems it could be. It starts with a large fish tank. At first the tank is divided into two chambers by a glass wall. On one side is one kind of fish (we will call him the predator), and on the other is another kind, his favorite fish-food (the prey). The glass wall divides them. We were told that the predator fish tries repeatedly to get to the prey fish, but of course the glass wall that he cannot see nor comprehend prevents him. Eventually he stops trying. Then, the wall is removed. Both predator and prey swim freely together – the predator has learned that he cannot get to the prey, and so never tries, even when he is hungry.
We are the same. Inside all of us is a hunger. We know that there is something to our love of beauty, our feelings about music, our sense of justice, our yearning for perfection. But we experience a glass wall between us and satisfaction. All the art, all the nature, all the performances that stir us to the bone only fan the flames of yearning, but never fully satisfy. Justice is always the elusive goal, never fully achieved; perfection is out of reach, but we keep reaching.
The hunger, the ache, the longing, these are what philosopher Peter Berger called “rumors of angels” – signs pointing toward a transcendent world that we were made for, but do not fully live in.
This is where the ancient prophet Isaiah starts: with longing; with thirst.
everyone who thirsts, come to the waters
Thirst is real. The water is there. “Come” he says.
But then he contemplates the effects of the glass wall in the tank. What if the fish gives up on the idea that there is anything satisfying in the tank? What if the thirst has gone unquenched for too long? What if the tiny little world of my tank, my set of life’s experiences, my experience with faith or with church or with religious people has taught me that there is nothing there for me?
Isaiah contemplates his own context: there are people who are thirsty, and people who are hungry, but they are spending all their labor for things that aren’t food!
He asks them:
2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Consider B. F. Skinner’s theoretical answer: perhaps they do not believe that the bread on offer has anything to offer their hunger. Perhaps they have lived in the divided tank too long. They have learned, they believe, that there is no food there for them.
Limited data of one life
The tragedy of the tank is what we experience as the human condition. We only have one life; we only have one childhood, one adolescence, one personal history. We live in one tank. It’s not a very large data pool from which to generalize facts about an infinite universe, but we do. One child grows up being loved and becomes a person who believes in loving.
Another grows up without love, and believes the world to be a hostile, threatening place. One child is abused and so hates all men. Another is abandoned and forever despises women. We experience our own tiny little worlds and we draw universal conclusions.
But we are not Pavlov’s dogs, and we are not fish in a tank who are without options. There is a way out. Isaiah says, in effect, don’t stop looking:
6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;
Seek, but do not expect instant clarity or the QED of an air-tight syllogism. We live in a world of thirst and hunger and rumors of angels. God is there for us, but he is not grasped by any of us. Mystery remains; he is far bigger than our little tanks could ever contain. Isaiah knows this, and has God say:
8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
We have come here to bear witness to the resurrection of the dead. This is our faith. We make no claim to understand how it all works. All we do is gather to say that in Jesus Christ, we have tasted the living bread, and found it food for the soul.
We have tasted; this does not mean we have therefore escaped the human condition. We are still selfish, ego-centric, easily offended people who find it difficult to forgive each other. But we know that the life lived simply laying down and acquiescing to our fallen, sinful human natures is not a meaningful life at all.
We believe we have been forgiven by Jesus Christ, and are called to live a new quality of life as his disciples. We believe that though perfection will never be achieved, we are called to live into the values of his kingdom, living for him, and therefore sacrificing for others.
We would never presume that we can accomplish this alone, therefore we affirm the value of coming together as the church. We come together to admit our imperfect, fallen, sinful human condition, and to remind each other that our faith is not in ourselves, but in God, who, through Jesus Christ has redeemed us, and who one day will call us to be with him forever.
If you are good, you will get a treat. That works for my dog. It used to work with my kids, back when the treat they wanted was something I could afford, like an ice-cream. It does not work so well now that they want electronics.
If you are good you will get a treat. That is the positive side. If you are bad, you will get punished; that is the negative side. I must admit that my dog cowers when she hears the sound of a newspaper being rolled up – she knows.
Is this the way the universe works; rewards and punishments on the basis of good or bad behavior? Is this the way God works?
The answer is in this text from Luke’s gospel. Apart from the Easter resurrection texts, this is one of my favorite – one of the most important texts in the New Testament – for me. This is one of those incidents in the life of Jesus that Luke alone recorded – perhaps one that motivated him to write a Gospel, even though Mark already had; Mark did not have this – and neither did Matthew or John. But it is crucial, and I think we are lucky that Luke wrote it down for us.
There are two tragedies under discussion in the first part, then warnings from Jesus, and then a parable. It all fits together to make one point: No! There is no relationship between tragedy or survival and moral behavior. None. In Jesus’ theology (which I take to be correct) we should never make that ugly coupling of suffering and punishment, nor of success and divine reward.
Let’s follow this important text together.
Somebody reports to Jesus that some Galileans were killed in the very act of offering animals for sacrifice – their blood mingled with the blood of the lambs on the alter – a horrific scene.
What is more, their deaths were political. They were slaughtered by people acting in the name of, and at the direction of the Pontius Pilate. This could mean only one thing: this was Rome’s counter-insurgency in action.
Those Galilean Jews must have been (or were suspected as being) part of the Jewish resistance to Roman rule – perhaps Zealots. In other words, these men were executed for being terrorists.
Their goal was to make Palestine ungovernable; Rome’s goal was to make examples of them. The Roman strategy was to be more terrorizing than the terrorists – and they stopped at nothing – even using public crucifixions for the same purpose. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Pilate was infamous for this kind of brutal suppression of opposition.
What did the people who reported this to Jesus think about those Galilean Jewish terrorists? What did they expect Jesus to think of them? After all, Jesus had not joined the Zealot resistance – perhaps he was expected to say, “Yes, they got what they deserved: this horror was God’s judgment.”
No! He uncoupled that horror from sacred retribution, saying,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Then Jesus adds to the discussion a second horrific event. Apparently a tower, part of the defensive wall of Jerusalem collapsed and killed 18 people. Why would that tower fall?
We do not know anything more about this than what we have right here, so this is speculative, but it is entirely possible that this defensive tower came down in the same incident as the first: perhaps there was a failed rebellion against Rome which was crushed, and in the process, a tower in the wall came down – or was taken down.
Whether part of an insurrection or not, 18 people were killed. And Jesus asks the exact same question about them: .
4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus was saying, “their deaths were not God’s judgment – even if they were Jewish terrorists and even if I am completely opposed to their agenda.”
But now to the problem here: what is all this business about repenting or perishing? Does this not mean that if we do bad and fail to repent, God will punish us – make us “perish”?
No! This is exactly what Jesus says is incorrect! Then what does it mean? Simply this: Jesus could see the utter futility of the Zealot movement and predicted its total failure – which was exactly what happened.
In 70 AD, which was probably within the lifetimes of some of the people standing there that day, the Roman army would come in to smash the Zealots and they would not stop at mixing their blood with the animal blood at the alter and smashing a tower: they would smashed the entire temple!
One more important fact to remember: the word “repent” literally means to change one’s mind. The implication is clear: the ones reporting the tragedy and probably some of those listening to Jesus sympathized with the resistance. Jesus is warning them that if they do not end their violent quest, they too will perish in the process.
Repent or perish: change your mind or prepare for the (natural?) consequences. He says, unless you repent, (change your thinking), you will all perish just as they did.” Notice he did not simply say that they would perish, but perish “just as they did” at the hands of the Roman army.
But, they may have countered: this is not so clear. The Galileans perished, but we will eventually win; we have sleeper cells all over Palestine ready to join the battle; actually we are having a great deal of recruiting success – we are not perishing at all.
This is exactly why Jesus tells the fig tree parable. The point of the parable is this: just because nothing bad is happening now, that should not lead you to the false security that you are on the right path.
The owner of the orchard wants to cut down the unfruitful fig – just as Rome who owns Palestine, wants to cut down the rebellious Jews. But perhaps they will learn a lesson from the example of those Galileans – we are willing to give them a chance – but next year at this time, if they have not changed their thinking (repented) we will cut them down.
Do not feel like God is smiling on you just because things are going well today – that is the lesson of the fig tree parable.
So, let us put these pieces back together: there were some terrible tragedies – people were killed. Jesus proclaims: that tragedy was not God’s judgment.
On the other hand, there are people who seem to be getting off scott-free. That must not be interpreted as God’s blessing. Jesus uncoupled the events of life from God’s reward or retribution.
Why did those teenagers die, crushed under their own school in Enterprise at the hands of the tornado? Were they guilty of something? Jesus would say, NO!
Why did 3,000 people die when the Trade Center towers were brought down: was this God’s judgment? Jesus would say “No!”
The same is true with Katrina victims, same with the murdered Amish girls, same with the deaths of soldiers and citizens in Iraq, same with the deaths of Sudanese in Darfur, the same with every suffering and every death. It is wrong to read divine retribution into our suffering. Jesus said it is wrong.
Jesus was not being novel here – this is the message of the OT book of Job. But it is a difficult lesson for us. We learned so early in life that if you are good you will get the ice-cream, and if you are bad you get the rolled up newspaper that it is hard for us to understand that God does not work that way – but we must grow up in our thinking and be adults. Suffering is not God’s punishment.
And neither is the success of the fig tree necessarily God’s reward. Now, we are Protestants, and we have inherited ideas from our Protestant ancestors. Sociologist Max Weber wrote about us and invented the term the “Protestant work ethic” to describe us.
He asserted that the Roman Catholic Church assured their faithful of salvation by providing the mechanisms of the Church – the mass, the sacrament of penance, the last rites and so on. Protestants had abandoned these and by doing so, had no way to really know who would be saved.
They found evidence of their salvation in their earthly success. If they worked hard, they believed, and lived frugally, then they would be successful, and their success in life would demonstrate that they were saved; God was smiling on them.
This is exactly what Jesus is saying is incorrect. The fig tree may be living today but perhaps it is just on borrowed time – the evidence of your eyes is no evidence of God’s thinking at all.
Isaiah said it so well, “8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
God does not work that way. He actually causes his rain to fall equally on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45) – the crops of both grow up in the field. And so it is impossible for us to separate the wheat from the tares (Matt 13:24, ff.).
Then what’s going on in the world? Why do people suffer; even, or especially good people; innocent people; children?
No one, to my satisfaction, has answered that question. Perhaps the answer is beyond our understanding – part of that “my thoughts are not your thoughts” I do not pretend to know.
But one thing I do know – and this too is directly from Jesus: God is love. God is just. God is not a tyrant, nor even an abusive parent. God is good. God is merciful.
So why should we be good? What is the basis for Christian ethics? It is not fear of punishment – but, according to Calvin, it is rather that we live lives of goodness out of gratitude to God our savior and our redeemer.
People of God, believe the good news: in Jesus Christ we are forgiven. And we are not being punished by God – what a horrible idea. Believe the words of our Lord Jesus; uncouple the link between suffering or success and God’s retribution.
And live in the confident joy of the everlasting love of God, who came to us as one of us, lived among us, and suffering as we do – hunger, fatigue, sorrow, pain, humiliation and even death, like those Galileans, like the kids in Enterprise, Alabama, like the Sudanese.
In the name of the Father. and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.