Scripture: Luke 13:1-9
So here’s the situation: a man gets T-boned at an intersection by a car that runs a red light. Numerous bones are fractured, he loses a lot of blood, and he’s hospitalized for several weeks. As he reflects on what’s happened, here’s the question that keeps haunting him: what did I do wrong to deserve this? This must be karma. So why am I being punished?
We hear variations of this in a light-hearted way when the car won’t start or the dishwasher breaks just before a big party, and we say, “I must not be living right.” I was standing with my father years ago, and turned on a light switch. As I did, the bulb burned out. And I said, “Whenever that happens, I always wonder what I did wrong.” And my father said immediately, “I never wonder that.” So clearly, not everyone wonders what they might have done wrong to provoke a certain misfortune. Some of you are free of such burdens!
That sense of self-doubt and self-blame lurks just under the surface for many of us, though. Or maybe right on the surface. What have I done to bring on the hard luck I’ve just suffered? What sin have I committed to bring about the calamity I’ve just experienced? Skulking around somewhere deep within many of us is this sense that God is out to punish us for our shortcomings, that God is ready to penalize us for the countless mistakes we’ve made. We’re going to get what we deserve.
And maybe much to our chagrin, the strange and perhaps discomfiting fact of the matter is that we are all guilty. We’d like to pretend it isn’t true. In fact, when I’m talking to someone who’s having a marital breach or a workplace tension, I’ll sometimes ask, “What’s your role in the breakdown?” And all too often, the answer comes back, “I didn’t do anything. It was all him or her.”
I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’m smart enough to know that few disagreements are the fault of one person alone. There are almost always multiple factors. We’re all part of the dis-ease. In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul puts it this way: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” or, as the version called The Message puts it: “we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners” (3:23).
So it always strikes me as somewhat fatuous for someone to say, as our children did and I’m sure I did too, “It wasn’t my fault.” Yes, it was your and my fault. Or if not in this particular case, then in another case: with great regularity, you and I make mistakes and hurt others. Sometimes, as the traditional formulation goes, it’s with acts of commission—things we did wrong, like insulting someone or telling a lie—and sometimes it’s with acts of omission, things we neglected to do—like failing to respond to the world’s starving people or not being attentive enough to the environmental degradation that is eating away at the earth. There’s no avoiding it, though: we all fail, again and again, to measure up to God’s hopes for the world. What Lent does is remind us of our shortcomings.
In Jesus’ eyes, though—and this is paramount—those failures and shortcomings don’t trigger some sort of diving vengeance. God isn’t punishing us for our waywardness. Lent isn’t telling us to avoid sin so that we’ll persuade God not to throw darts at us. Lent is instead inviting us to turn away from our shortcomings, and to seek earnestly to remake ourselves in the divine image.
The word we traditionally use for this, of course, is “repentance”: repent from your sins. And when we hear that word, most of us blanch a little, I think, because it sounds so harsh. We hear a punitive tone and a wagging finger when that word is spoken. It has a kind of dire quality about it: “repent, or else.” It feels more like a threat than anything else.
The biblical word doesn’t have that connotation, though. The Greek word means something like “turn.” Meaning turn to God; turn to what’s light and good; turn back to your heart’s true home. When Jesus urges us to repent, it’s because it’s for our own good, and for the world’s good. We turn because that’s the richest possible way to live life.
Think of it this way: if I’ve hurt Mary with a harsh word or a dismissive attitude, the only way to deal with it is to turn toward her and, in the process, to turn toward God. I do this not because I’m damned if I don’t do it, but because it’s the fullest way to be in my marriage. I do this because I feel broken and inadequate without it. I do this because restoring that relationship is paramount. I turn, not because I must, but because I may.
When Jesus talks to his followers about some Galileans who have been murdered by Pontius Pilate and eighteen others from Jerusalem who have been killed by a falling tower, he’s very clear: it’s not their fault. They didn’t cause Pilate to be such a brutal dictator, they didn’t make the tower fall on themselves. These things simply happened to them. Jesus is essentially saying to them, “Bad things happen to good people. The world is a fickle place. It’s not your fault.” This is Jesus’ way of saying, ‘When you suffer, it’s not because you did something wrong. Your suffering isn’t divine punishment for your sin.’
True as that unquestionably is, though, Jesus doesn’t let them off the hook entirely. No, the accidents of life are not their fault. And yet, at the same time, Jesus says to them, “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (Luke 13:3, 5). And of course it’s sentences like this that give repentance such a bad name. Repent or perish? Really?
Jesus, though, is simply trying to give his followers a sense for just how important it is to turn toward God. As he so often does, Jesus uses hyperbolic language here to make a point. You will perish not because God will punish you for your evil ways, but simply because not to turn to God is to live a barren and futile life. Not to turn to God is to be deeply impoverished.
Let’s go back to the earlier scenario of my hurting Mary. If God or a friend says to me, in the wake of my insulting her or dismissing her, “Repent or you will perish,” I can hear that one of two ways. Either I’ll be punished for my refusal to turn. Or my life will be but a pale shell of what it could be if I don’t do the one thing that is truly necessary, which is to turn to Mary in contrition and remorse. Is that sentence of Jesus a threat? Or is it more like a kind of plaintive pleading—‘please turn, or your life will wither away’?
I am convinced by the Jesus I know from the gospels, the Jesus who is unimaginably tender, that the word Jesus speaks to his listeners is not a harsh word, but rather a word that conveys to them vividly that they will be missing out on something absolutely crucial if they don’t turn again and again to the source of their lives, if they don’t keep returning to the fold, that place where all is lived in God’s light. I think Jesus speaks here with an aching, yearning plea that those who follow him will find again, or for the first time, the source of life and grace.
And the reason I’m convinced that’s the tone Jesus takes is because of the short parable he then tells. The owner of a fig tree wants the gardener to cut it down because the tree isn’t bearing any fruit. And what does the gardener tell him? He says to the land-owner, ‘No, please don’t cut it down yet. Let me water it and fertilize it and see if it bears fruit. And if it doesn’t, then you can cut it down next year.’
And I hear in that gardener’s voice the voice of Jesus. ‘No, the tree isn’t right yet—no arguing that—but let’s give it a little more time. It’s going to be OK. With the right tending, the right sort of care, I know that things will straighten out. Don’t give up on it yet.’
I just got a new pair of glasses about ten days ago. A day or two after I got them, I went back to see the optician because they sat crooked on my face. Then a couple of days later, they were hurting my nose. Then I had to go back yet again because they still weren’t quite right. I’m sure the optician sees me coming and says to herself, “Oh no, here he comes again—lock the door!” Actually, though, she never acts impatient. She tells me she just got her own pair of new glasses and she’s had to adjust them several times, as well. And here’s the thing: we both trust that, with a little more tending, with just the right adjustment, the glasses will work. The fig tree will be fruitful. All shall be well!
This is the way it is with Jesus. Yes, there’s an urgency about the need to turn to God—no life is complete without a grounding in the giver of life. The reason we turn to the Holy One, though, is not because we’ll be punished if we don’t, but because who else can nurture us in our deepest need and forgive us our manifold faults and hold us close when everything falls apart? We turn because God is always with us, because God is like the gas station of life, the one who fills us and sends us on our way.
In his gem of a book, Tattoos on the Heart, Roman Catholic priest Gregory Boyle says that in the book of the prophet Isaiah, God declares, “‘Be glad forever and rejoice in what I create . . . for I create my people to be a delight.’ God thinking we’d enjoy ourselves. Delighting is what occupies God, and God’s hope is that we join in. That God’s joy may be in us and this joy may be complete. We just happen to be God’s joy. That takes some getting used to” (p. 158). Which means, he says, that we have our marching orders. “The task at hand is only about delighting—with joy at the center. At ease. We can all relax” (p. 157).
And where and when does this delight happen? It happens here and now, at every single moment. Boyle quotes the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn, who says that “‘our true home is the present moment. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment.’ The ancient [Christian] Desert Fathers, when they were disconsolate and without hope, would repeat one word, over and over, as a kind of soothing mantra. And the word wasn’t ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ or ‘Love.’ The word was ‘Today.’ It kept them where they needed to be” (p. 159).
God delights in you and me. Not just yesterday or tomorrow, but today. And not just if we do the right thing, but no matter what. Father Boyle works with gang members in Los Angeles, and one night, a young man Boyle calls a “homeboy,” or a “homie,” named Willy, who’s something of a charmer and a con-man, with a frenetic, nervous energy, comes to him needing some money. Boyle drives him to an ATM, and tells him to stay in the car while Boyle gets the money. As he goes inside, Willy, motions that he wants the keys so he can listen to the radio. Boyle motions back suggesting exaggeratedly with his hands that Willy pray instead.
When Boyle returns to the car, the atmosphere has changed. “Willy is quiet, reflective, and there is a palpable sense of peace in the vehicle. I look at Willy and say, ‘You prayed, didn’t you?’
“He doesn’t look at me. He’s still and quiet. ‘Yeah, I did.’
“I start the car.
“‘Well, what did God say to you?’ I ask him.
“‘Well, first He said, “Shut up and listen.”’
“‘So what d’ya do?’
“‘Come on, G,’ he says, ‘What am I sposed ta do? I shut up and listened.’
“I begin to drive him home to the barrio. I’ve never seen Will like this. He’s quiet and humble—no need to convince me of anything or talk me out of something else.
“‘So, son, tell me something,’ I ask. ‘How do you see God?’
“‘God?’ he says, ‘That’s my dog right there’ [meaning the one he can rely on].
“‘And God?’ I ask, ‘How does God see you?’
“Willy doesn’t answer at first. So I turn and watch as he rests his head on the recliner, staring at the ceiling of my car. A tear falls down his cheek. Heart full, eyes overflowing. ‘God . . . thinks . . . I’m . . . firme.’
“To the homies, firme means, ‘could not be one bit better.’”
And Boyle says, “Not only does God think we’re firme, it is God’s joy to have us marinate in that” (pp. 23-24).
Is it true that life’s challenges and struggles are little “God-penalties” for all the things we’ve done wrong? Not on your life. Accidents happen, and we’re not immune. At the same time, though, have we all marred the fabric of this precious world? Undoubtedly. We don’t live lives that are pure and unadulterated. We all sin.
But ultimately—and here’s the heart of the matter, the truth we dare never forget—ultimately, we abide in the hands of the God who never leaves us, the God who unfailingly adores us, the God in whose ocean of love it is our joy to marinate. And so, as God stands with us, may we stand with each other, and convey that blessing to all, in the name of the God who could not be one bit better.