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!