March 6–Evening after the Game Night at church.
News reports on Haiti and Chile continue to dominate the news. One of the more heartening trends, however, is the number of stories concerning aid to the victims. Last night, Paul Farmer held a live webcast about his efforts with Partners in Health. Tonight, the evening news reported on other privately funded philanthropic efforts for Haiti.
Tomorrow we’ll hear Jesus recount two unhappy events in the Gospel lesson from Luke. One is the story of Pilate’s attack on some Galileans; the other an accident that took the lives of eighteen Galileans. Both are tragedies, not on the scope of earthquakes, but sad and frightening for those who heard about it. Jesus uses the two events to illustrate the frailty of human existence, and the suddeness with which unforseen happenings change the course of our lives. Matt Skinner, New Testament professor at Luther seminary, calls these verses examples of “when bad things happen to unsuspecting people,” at www.workingpreacher.org.
Skinner draws out the comparisons between the examples Jesus uses and the recent earthquakes and their aftermath.
Sometimes after something sudden and tragic happens, like a car accident, or a catastrophic illness, I’ve heard people say that such things shake up their sense of security. “It just goes to show, you never know,” some have said. Jesus’ point in the gospel emphasizes the radical uncertainty in which we live. The point has to do with living a life more attuned to God while we still have time. If you are ever wondering when the time to change your life will come, Jesus’ answer is now. It’s never too early to turn back to God (Lk13:1-5).
Jesus’ tone is urgent in these lines, and his urgency may stem from his own awareness of what will happen to him, as he goes toward Jerusalem. Pilate’s violence is revealed here, too, and the reader won’t be surprised by it when Jesus is on trial.
But then in the next portion of this lesson, Jesus talks about a patient gardener, who persuades his master to postpone cutting down a barren fig tree. (Lk13:6-9). The gardener forstalls the master’s judgement. Prof. Skinner writes
“The tone of the parable emphasizes that patience and mercy temporarily keep judgment at bay. The role of the gardener offers a crucial characterization of this patience and mercy. The tree has not been left to its own devices. Everything possible is being done to get it to act as it should. Correspondingly, God does not leave people to their own resources but encourages their repentance.”
What are we to make of these two passages, the urgency about repentence and then the parable of the fig tree? How do they go together?
Repentence as we understand it is a radical reorientation of our selves toward God, a life-changing turn. We see differently, hear, speak and do differently, when our lives are oriented to God. Jesus shares his urgency with that of the ancient prophets before, with Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jonah, Daniel, all those who pushed, cajoled, invited, and called God’s people back to right relationship.
One way of thinking about this lesson is to see the whole of scripture, from the beginning of Genesis to the final lines of Revelation, as a witness to God’s urgency for us, God’s willingness to go to any lengths to save us, sending us messages through nature, through sacred histories, through angels, prophets, sages, teachers, and finally his Son. I love the passage from scripture that appears in our morning and evening prayer liturgy: “In many and various ways God spoke to his people of old by the prophets. But now in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Heb.1:1-2). In many and various ways God calls us to return.