Who Needs to Repent?
Lent III; March 24, 2019
The question is, "Who needs to repent?" The answer is: I do. You do.
No, the Lord's not letting us off that easy. The three pieces of today's story from the Gospel of Luke will do very nicely to elaborate on the question and its answer, and the prophecy in Isaiah (55:1-9) will do very nicely as an invitation to hear it through.
Jesus has a crowd around him and he's been teaching them things and doing a little question-and-answer time as well. And while that's going on, some folks mentioned the latest atrocity from the Roman Governor: that Pilate had had them attacked right in the Temple, so that their own blood was mingled with the blood of the sacrifices they were offering to God. I imagine the folks who brought it up were hoping that Jesus would wax indignant about the government. I was at a pastors' lunch when one of those present asked why pastors do not speak out more against the unchristian nonsense coming out of Washington; I said something along the lines of having decided to stick with a discipline of Biblical preaching rather than giving in to the "outrage of the week." Jesus resists the temptation to denounce Pilate and instead asks the crowd, "Okay, something really bad happened to these folks. Does that mean they are worse sinners than everybody else? (read: worse than you) No, it does not. You also have something to repent of."
Hardly anybody in our day believes that bad things happen only to bad people, but it's still worth taking a minute to point out that you and I should not believe that. The people who were massacred in Christchurch, New Zealand are not greater sinners than those who peacefully attended their Friday prayers and were not shot. Indeed, the man who shot them said that he chose New Zealand because it is considered a safe place and he wanted to be sure that Muslims knew there is nowhere on earth they are safe. Thus you and I need to ask ourselves whether we have ever said and done anything to fuel Islamophobia.
Jesus says that the people who were attacked by Pilate's troops simply serve as a warning to us all: repent. They were no worse than the people who brought their sacrifices to the Temple and then were able to leave in peace. Likewise, when the Tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people: did Nature choose those eighteen people because they were particularly bad? No, you too have something to repent of.
There may be people – nobody here, I imagine – who think that the people of Valley and Fremont and Hamburg and other communities devastated by the floods are worse sinners than we are, perched up here on our hill, but they should know better. Jesus makes clear that natural disasters do not pick and choose their victims. Franklin Graham, you may recall, said that Hurricane Katrina was God's judgment on New Orleans for being such a wicked city. Pastor John Hagee said it was God's way of going after New Orleans for being so friendly to gay and lesbian people. But of course they are ignoring their own Bible and their own Lord Jesus, who says right here that you and I all need to repent, that if a disaster strikes a place it doesn't mean the people there are worse than the people anywhere else. Stuff happens (or the bumper sticker of your choice).
Let's stop for a moment around that question of all of us needing to repent. We're all likely to agree that we're sinners, but we'll have trouble identifying just where our sin is and getting specific about our need to repent. Let me drag in two ideas from today's song from Isaiah to think about. First, consider the first few lines (vv. 1-2):
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
And you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
And your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
And delight yourselves in rich food.
"Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" We know well from experience that bigger, newer, and more expensive stuff does not make us happier, but it's what we spend our money on anyway. Maybe we devote time and money to our screens and social media, but we forget that research shows that heavy use of screens and social media is associated with an increase in loneliness, isolation, and depression. If you're not doing that, then perhaps you're devoting your time and attention and energy and money to leisure time pursuits that give you momentary pleasure but have no lasting positive effect. The point is that we tend to know better, but we do it anyway. We spend our money for that which is not bread and our labor for that which does not satisfy. What is bread? What satisfies? A living relationship with God through Jesus Christ. A loving family. Enriching friendships. Meaningful work and volunteer activities. You and I know, but do we do it? We need to repent.
The other line from Isaiah that helps is the last part (vv. 8-9):
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are my ways higher than your ways
And my thoughts than your thoughts.
Jesus tries repeatedly in his teaching to get us to think God's thoughts, but we continue stuck in our own thoughts. He tells stories about forgiveness, but we hold grudges anyway. He talks about finding our meaning in relationships rather than stuff, but we overload our closets and storage units anyway. You get it. We give lip service to the thoughts of God, but when it comes down to it day after day we are stuck in our thoughts and are forced to admit that the Prophet is right: God's ways are higher than our ways and God's thoughts than our thoughts. We need to repent. After all – and I hope you've heard this before – the word "repent" in the New Testament simply means "change your way of thinking." It's a Greek thing. We need to repent, to practice thinking with God's thoughts.
I'll fire one more salvo before wrapping up with the fig tree and the manure. If you are sure that you are guilty of none of what I'm talking about, that your way of thinking is completely Godly, and that you give your time, attention, and money only to that which is meaningful and satisfying, I'm sure there is still something of which you need to repent. Sin is not only individual; it's also something we share. Sometimes we're simply guilty of being part of a structure of sin. Here's an example that's far enough from home that none of us will get irritated. I listened recently to an interview with an historian who asked the question, "Who was guilty of slavery?" And his answer was: everybody. Sure, owning slaves was legal only in the South. But where did the ships come from that brought the slaves? New York, Maine, and Rhode Island. Who provided loans to southern plantation owners? Northern banks. And who benefited from the cheap cotton produced by slaves? Customers in the North. So all those righteous northerners who felt themselves too good to own slaves were, nonetheless, beneficiaries of the institution of slavery.
You don't have to think too hard to think of corporate sins that you and I benefit from. We need to repent.
Jesus, being who he is, finishes with a funny story that is good news to end with. He tells about a fig tree that hasn't produced any figs. After three years it's mature enough to be producing fruit; since it hasn't, the farmer has every reason to believe that it never will. But his gardener convinces him to give it another year; he'll put manure around it and tend it, and perhaps then it will bear fruit. If not, then Judgment Day can come for the fig tree.
Again, I'll let your imagination have fun with the notion of God spreading manure around your life or God spreading manure around our society, but you get the point. If you haven't yet been judged for your sin, the day will come. Our corporate sins will catch up with us. Our individual sins, that we keep hidden even from ourselves, will catch up with us. Unless we begin to bear fruit. In the meantime, if you're being nurtured and nourished, that isn't a sign that God is overlooking our sin. It's a reminder that God is merciful and is giving us time.
Remember that: God is merciful. And the challenge question for this week? No, it isn't "Who needs to repent?" I've already answered that: you do. I do. Here's the question: Of what do you need to repent?
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master