This week all over the Episcopal Church many of us clergy said to ourselves, “Sunday would be a great day to skip the Gospel lesson and preach on the Old Testament.” This Gospel text today is pretty strong stuff, I must admit, but Lent is for strong stuff. When the Church gives us things like this to deal with, I am often reminded of a famous line from St. Augustine: “if you believe what you like in the Gospels and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospels you believe but yourself.” So what might it do for us if we tried out believing this Gospel today?
At the beginning of this difficult text, some people – we don’t know who or how many – interrupt Jesus with a shocking story. It’s a shocking story that we who have followed recent news can relate to directly. The group comes to Jesus, who has just been teaching about the urgency of responding to God, and they tell him that in the Temple in Jerusalem, as worship was going on, someone came in and killed a group of Galileans in the middle of the sacrifices. Right there in a house of worship – a horrible thing to think of, and something we know all too well because we’ve seen it. Of course the mosques in New Zealand last week. Back in October, Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In 2015, Mother Emanuel church in Charleston South Carolina. Not to mention incidents that tend not to get reported here. There’ve been many attacks on Christians praying in Nigeria, for example, and many attacks on Muslims praying in Afghanistan.
It's terrible. It's shocking. So: Have you heard, this group of questioners press Jesus. Have you heard about those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices, right there in the Temple. (I assume they mean that Pilate, the governor of Judea, had ordered this killing, not that he literally came and did it himself.) At any rate, this was not an isolated act by a rogue person or an extremist group. It was not someone motivated by an abhorrent ideology like anti-Semitism or like white supremacy; but it was a state-sponsored execution, designed as a public reminder of Roman power, much like Jesus’ state-sponsored execution on Good Friday will be.
Now we don’t know what point this group was trying to make by bringing the incident up. But we can tell from Jesus' reaction that they have some sort of agenda. We’ve seen, after all, in reactions to the recent news from New Zealand and in other examples, how easy it is for us human beings to use other people’s pain to make our own favorite point. So they could have had a couple different agendas, as the commentator Justo Gonzalez notes. They could be trying to foster anti-Roman sentiment. Or they could be expressing anti-Galilean bigotry, which was widespread. We see throughout the Gospels that many Jewish leaders had contempt for people from Galilee; "you know, a few of them might be OK, but most of them barely try hard enough to count as real Jews at all. If they’d been better people, maybe this wouldn’t have happened to them."
Jesus’ answer does actually seem to imply that he hears the question that way. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you.” And the other example he cites has the same tone, again something we don’t have much detail on but that was clearly a well-known news item of the time. He refers to a disaster when a tower at the Siloam reservoir collapsed and crushed a crowd of innocent people. “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? No, I tell you.”
So whether or not the questioners thought that the Galileans had deserved what happened to them because Galileans were icky and Galilee’s culture was lowbrow and inferior, Jesus comes down solidly on the side of not dehumanizing the Galileans or blaming the victim. And whether or not the questioners thought that the Romans deserved to be hated because Gentiles were icky and Roman culture was brutish and inferior, Jesus also avoids putting himself in the role of a political commentator or dehumanizing the Romans. Two enemies of mainstream Jews, and Jesus manages not to demonize either one.
But the fascinating thing is what he does do, the proactive lesson he does draw from the topic, and the short parable about the unfruitful fig tree that he attaches to drive his point home. If you can say one thing for Jesus, it’s that when someone shows up trying to use him for an agenda, he sees right through it and sets his own agenda. Jesus is on message, on mission, all the time. He knows what God has sent him to do, what is consistent with it, and what isn’t. He knows what’s important, and what is a distraction. If only we churches who bear his name could emulate that more consistently!
There are lots of instances in the Gospels when someone approaches Jesus with a sincere and transparent need – say, healing, exorcism, learning more about God’s intentions -- and those Jesus answers simply, kindly, and directly. If on this day someone had come to him saying, “I am grieving for my brother who died in that terrible incident in the Temple,” he might have responded entirely differently. But this isn’t that kind of conversation. This is one of those other kinds of instances when Jesus recognizes an insincere or manipulative question, flatly rejects it as inappropriate, and comes back with his own framing of what matters.
Part of that framing, very often, is to point us back to our own issues. We see over and over again how Jesus will pull the spotlight away from abstract theories or political agendas or religious debates and turn it right back on us. And that’s what he does here. Again, this is pretty strong stuff, but Lent is for strong stuff. Remember St. Augustine: “if you believe what you like in the Gospels and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospels you believe but yourself.”
What does Jesus say? Listen to the whole thing: 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. Or 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
In other words, to paraphrase: you came to talk with me about death? Let’s talk about yours. Let’s talk about your window of opportunity to become the kind of person who doesn’t ask insincere questions and try to manipulate God in the flesh. Your best chance for that is standing right in front of you in the person of Jesus Christ. Take it while you can! And from there he swings right into the fig tree example, which makes the same point: you’re the fig tree. You can have a full and healthy life in God, but not by doing nothing. Not by refusing to look at yourself and tell the truth. Here it is: So the landowner said to his gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' The gardener replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
One more year, then cut it down! Do you like that, coming from Jesus? I don’t, but to go back to St. Augustine again, I would rather try to believe the Gospel than insist on believing myself. What does the Gospel promise here, positively? Jesus didn't come to bring bad news, he came to bring good news. What's the good news? What's the positive promise here? That fruitless, useless, isolated, entrenched ways of life can change. Human beings closed off to God can change. There’s a window open for transformation. There’s a time of opportunity when we can receive the nourishment God is trying to heap on us, open up the space for light and air he is offering us, let his forgiveness wash over us, be fed by the sacraments, have our minds renewed by the Gospel message, stop pointing at other people and start getting real about ourselves.
All of that, there is space in life for. But life is not endless. Every excuse we give for putting off doing the actual concrete things that are involved in following Jesus as Lord lessens the time we have to benefit from his guidance and healing. And the sooner we start doing the actual concrete things that are involved in following Jesus as Lord, the more every experience we have can become a way to benefit from his guidance and healing. Even the painful ones, even the incomprehensible ones, even the tragedies like we heard about earlier. He can make anything into a way to grow towards becoming our real selves, the flourishing healthy fruit-bearing creatures God made us to be, planted in the garden with all the other flourishing healthy fruit-bearing creatures who have told Jesus yes.
This is part of the point of Lenten disciplines like we’re doing together this season, that they train us to notice perhaps one of the most elusive things in the world, our own failings, our own self-deceptions. With these little daily interventions we make in Lent, we give God more access to us, more chance to fertilize our spiritual roots, to let the light and air in. They train us, in the classic word, to repent. And if we believe what Jesus says today, we have time to repent. But we don’t have forever.