Anthony Phillips’ sermon for Sunday 28 February 2016
To-day’s Gospel is not the easiest of texts on which to preach. Perhaps that is why I rather than your usual preachers have been given it. The passage is unique to Luke. Clearly it refers to two well known catastrophes of which we know nothing. The first concerns an outrageous act of Pilate’s: the second a natural disaster.
Nor is it clear why those present first brought up the Pilate incident. Did they want to provoke Jesus to condemn Pilate and so precipitate his arrest for sedition? Jesus was after all a Galilean. He would naturally have felt outraged at Pilate’s vicious action towards his fellow countrymen who had evidently been obscenely slaughtered when they themselves were engaged in sacrifice and whose blood was subsequently mixed with the blood of the sacrificial animals.
But if that was their motive, Jesus does not take the bait. Instead he turns their gossip back on themselves. Instead of treating the incident from a political point of view to condemn the Roman Governor, Jesus uses it to reject the common assumption that people get their just deserts, that suffering of whatever kind must be due to sin. ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered thus?’.
Jesus then goes on to raise another recent incident, this time an unforeseeable accident when a tower in Jerusalem collapsed and killed eighteen bystanders. Were these victims specially picked out as worse sinners than all other men and women who lived in that city?
In both cases Jesus rejects such a simplistic notion which in any event the Hebrew Scriptures had already tackled in the Book of Job. There a man of exceptional virtue is subjected to a succession of horrific disasters until left alone on a refuse pit, an outcast of his city. His wife tells him to curse God and die, that is in effect commit suicide. He calls her foolish. Then his three so-called friends, assuming that Job’s fate was due to his sin, urge him to repent. But Job refuses and instead takes God on accusing him of acting unjustly.
The book ends with Job vindicated because unlike the friends he has spoken rightly. Though God never explains why some people suffer unjustly, he praises Job for maintaining his integrity by refusing to admit he is at fault. Why people suffer unjustly is never explained. But what Job discovers is that while he cannot know everything about God – he is after all man – he can know God. That is sufficient in this life no matter what disasters confront us. We have in the end to be agnostic believers if we are to believe at all.
Jesus is though not prepared to let matters rest with a rebuttal of a theology which denies the reality of accident or tragedy. Instead he goes on the attack. Never mind the moral state of Pilate’s victims or the eighteen killed by the falling Siloam tower, what about the state of his audience?: ‘unless you repent you will all likewise perish’.
This leads Jesus on to tell the parable of the fig tree which for three years has borne no fruit. The owner asks the vinedresser to cut it down. But the latter pleads that the tree be given a last chance. He will do all in his power to make it flourish. If he fails, then the tree can be cut down. Although there are no obvious allegorical references, this has not stopped scholars finding some. Are the three years, the three years of Jesus’ ministry? Is the tree Israel? Is Jesus the vinedresser giving her her last chance? Is God the owner poised to cut her down?
But Jesus is engaged in conversation with particular people: ‘there were some present’. He has called on them to repent. The parable reinforces that call and must be seen in the light of Luke’s general theology as found throughout his Gospel. For Luke the kingdom of God is not something remote and in the future. For those who have eyes to see, it is already breaking in. His audience are living in the last days. They must act with urgency, get right with God now before it is too late.
But what are we to make of all this some 2000 years later? Clearly the last days have lasted a long time. We know that the early Christians’ expected the imminent return of Jesus. He still has not come and the world looks very much the same as it did in his days: ‘And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars….for nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places’. Has the urgency of the Gospel call to repentance evaporated as the fig tree remains standing?
Not at all. For whatever views we take about the end of the world and the possibility of Jesus return, our presence here will be terminated. Like the explanation for unjust suffering, we cannot know what follows death. There is only one saying of Jesus about the life hereafter: ‘They neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels’. What Jesus means is stop thinking of the next world in terms of this world. It is radically different. We shall be like the angels, creatures who constantly focus on God, act on his command.
What Jesus is calling his audience by urging them to repent is to anticipate this future life. The Greek word for repent means to turn round. What we should be doing in preparing for life after death is a turning round, ceasing our preoccupation with self and instead concentrating on God and God’s will for us, anticipating being like the angels. Repentance necessarily involves facing facts about our selves. Its not a pleasant exercise but a necessary one if we are to be whole, holy, at peace, fit for the heavenly court.
And we can be encouraged to do this by the very nature of the God who calls us. For as in Luke’s most famous parable, the parable of the Prodigal Son, as soon as we turn round we shall find God not just waiting our return, but running out to embrace us with his blessing. We can of course just shrug our shoulders, regard to-day’s Gospel as no longer relevant. The last days seem to be going on and on. But if we do that we shall remain unfulfilled of the possibilities which God freely gives us. For the consequence of repentance is always transformation as the oracle that follows our first reading emphasises.
For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you, shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress,
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle:
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial
for an everlasting sign which shall not be cut off.
Who in his, her right mind would not relish such a transformation?
Its yours for the asking this very Lent.