Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
Does your Bible use headings before sections of scripture? Many Bibles will have a little subtitle inserted by an editor before each chunk of text to give you an idea of what it’s going to talk about, like a sort of mini-chapter heading. In one of my Bibles, the description that comes before this passage in Luke 13 is: “Repent or perish”.
This is one of those “scary Jesus” sections. Most of us prefer the warm, gracious Sunday School Jesus best. But, as one of my seminary professors kept reminding me, I don’t get to choose what Jesus I get. I have to be honest about the Bible’s full picture of Jesus. Sure, Jesus preaches love and wholeness. But I can’t pretend that Jesus doesn’t also get… cranky. Hard to understand and even harder to like.
And that’s exactly how this passage feels at first. People ask Jesus about two terrible tragedies. Why did those people die, they wonder? What does it mean? We do the same thing when awful things happen. We turn to our faith as well: what should we make of this? In this passage, Jesus doesn’t really answer except to say – what, do you think they did something worse than the rest of you and deserved to die? Not a chance. You all deserve to die for all the wrongs you’ve done.
Next, Jesus tells a parable. A landowner wants to pull down a fig tree that isn’t producing. A fig tree’s only job is to make figs, so when it can’t do that after three years, he insists that the gardener get rid of it. Instead, the gardener doubles down. He will work twice as hard on it and give it one last chance. It sounds a little like Jesus tells me I get a chance to bear good fruit – but really only one chance.
And finally, this last lament from Jesus, where we cannot but hear that Good Friday is coming. Jesus makes it clear that he knows he will be betrayed and he will die, and that the ones he loves are the ones to blame, that we are the ones who kill the prophets and murder those sent to us, and that still, still Jesus wants to gather us all together, gently and lovingly, the maternal hen gathering her chicks, but we will not permit it. His gracious offer, his compassionate embrace, and we are not willing. We are most in need of his redemption and protection, and we will not let him.
But then, that’s the whole point of these passages, isn’t it? It’s why they all make me uncomfortable. They all remind me that I need God’s forgiveness, that righteousness is not a thing I create, but rather a handout that I don’t deserve and can never pay back. I want Jesus to tell me that I can do it on my own, that I can work hard enough to be worth it. But it’s not what he does. Instead, he tells the truth. He tells me that because of my sins I deserve death, or worse. He tells me that God is a loving mother hen, desperate to gather her babies together, but I am the one who refuses God’s compassion. I am what’s wrong.
So that’s the bad news. It’s not Jesus who is cranky, condemning, and cantankerous. It’s me. I’m mad at Jesus because he’s holding up the mirror and showing me just what I deserve. I want Jesus to tell me I’m pretty and nice and precious. Instead Jesus tells me the truth. He tells me I’m a barren tree, a willful chick stranded outside the henhouse. “Repent or perish”, my Bible heading said. Face the truth of what you are, or you die.
But that’s the good news, even though it might not sound like it just yet. The good news is that the truth is out there now. Jesus knows who I am. I can stop pretending. I don’t need to paint a thin layer of piety over my mess, like Jesus can’t see where it’s all chipped and cracking. Jesus tells me the truth I already know. This sin is killing me. This sin is killing us. This sin grieves God. My actions mean something not only to God, but to me, and to my neighbor, and to the world God loves. My sin is death.
When I choose short-term economic gains over long-term environmental protection in spite of God’s repeated demands to tend to creation, I poison not only the water and air I need to live, but I also poison my own heart. When I choose fear and scarcity as an excuse not to follow God’s clear, explicit demands to care for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, I kill not only the refugee fleeing to safety, but also my own trust in God’s providence. When I choose to deny basic rights to other races or religions as if I’m justified in doing so, my refusal to love my neighbor dehumanizes not only the men, women, and children I oppress, but it also makes me less than human.
Our sin is in front of us, in the newspaper, in our homes, our neighborhoods, in this room with us now. Get over it. I mean it. You can wallow in shame if you like, repeating the script that you’re not good enough. You can prop yourself up with pride if you like, telling yourself that what you’re doing isn’t so wrong and how dare I say otherwise. You can cover yourself with denial if you like, tuning out what I just said because Jesus is totally not talking about you. But those are all lies just like the lie that Jesus should be sweet and kind and that mean Jesus isn’t the real Jesus. Mean Jesus isn’t even really mean. Mean Jesus just tells the truth.
But here’s the rest of the truth that Jesus tells: Jesus comes to us in compassion when we don’t want it, in love when we can’t see it, with forgiveness when we don’t deserve it. This image of our God as a hen, stretching to get her wiggly, willful brood under her wings – this is how our God comes to us. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or left undone. You don’t have to be perfect to be worth it. God’s offer to repent is a gift of compassion. Christ came for us when we were still sinners, and continues to reach for us still today. Repent. Bear good fruit. Find your place in the warmth of God’s compassion. For the gift of truth, the gift of repentance, the gift of life, thanks be to God.