Sequesters, Syria, and suicides. Financial setbacks, family fights, and fickle friends. Current events, much like our lives, leave us fearful, hopeless, and uncertain. Whether external or internal, sometimes we feel caught in the crossfires of forces beyond our control. Spiritual faith doesn’t whitewash away these realities. Instead, faith helps us perceive God in the midst of life’s hardships.
I was reading my favorite Gospel this week and something jumped off the page. No doubt I’ve read it hundreds of times because it’s right before the very familiar fig tree passage. Nevertheless, it caught me by surprise.
Repent or Perish
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’ (Luke 13:1-9)
Once again, Jesus is getting pulled into a conversation about a recent news cycle. Apparently the Roman forces had slaughtered a group of religious pilgrims … again. Everyone is waiting to see how he’ll react.
In typical fashion, Jesus responds by saying what everyone is thinking, but won’t say out loud: Do you think this happened to them because they’re bad people? It’s called “blame the victim” mentality and is often used to explain horrific situations. Unfortunately, tragedies don’t usually follow any moral logic. They just happen.
Jesus rejects that line of reasoning, no matter if the violence is perpetuated by an oppressive political system or a random accident that he cites about the tower falling on eighteen people. He also refuses to use this incident to speculate on the deep mysteries of the universe or why a loving and just God doesn’t magically intervene.
Jesus’ response isn’t comforting. Instead of giving sympathy to these poor people, he says, it could have been you! Jesus doesn’t downplay life’s harshness. He’s essentially asking, Why should any of you survivors sleep any easier tonight? To top it all off he adds, if you don’t repent, you’ll perish too!
Jesus follows up this cheery thought with the story of the unproductive fig tree that’s given one last chance – helped by some horticulture – to realize its purpose. The parable clarifies Jesus’ motivations for previously exhorting people to “repent.” It’s not that repenting will extend our lives or offer a miraculous shield against tyrants, superstorms, computer hackers, and disease. Rather, our repentance will lead, figuratively, to our bearing fruit. True living is about fruition, coming to the place of experiencing God’s intentions for us even in the midst of a sometimes menacing universe.
I know most people cringe when they hear the word repent. Most people erroneously associate repentance with behavior and guilt, as if Jesus’ goal is to reform personal morality.
The word translated for repent, is at it’s root, about thinking and perception. It refers to the wholesale change of how a person understands things. It implies an utter reconfiguration of your perspective on reality and meaning, including a reorientation yourself toward God. Your behavior might change as a result of this new perception, certainly; but repentance first involves seeing things differently and coming to a new understanding of what God makes possible.
Jesus, then, is promising an alternate perspective on the cycles of violence, pain, and meaninglessness. To miss out on this way of seeing — to neglect to “repent” — is to miss out on other dimensions of our existence. It is to pass by one’s purpose.
Jesus’ summons to repent is not escapism or a minimization of life’s hardships. It means coming to discover God as the source of sustenance, belonging, meaning, and hope in this difficult life and into future existence. Repentance names the change that occurs within us when God meets us and reshapes our understanding. Repentance results from an encounter with God.
What are the things you’d like to be different than what they currently are? What are the things that erode hope and make it difficult to see through the mist?
Jesus doesn’t promise to change the world by providing instant relief. His coming did not put an end to tyrants or stop buildings and meteorites from falling upon random passers-by. But he does offer a new perspective on what’s possible for us and for our world. He insists God can be encountered, even within this fragile human existence.
Elsewhere the New Testament makes it clear: this new perspective is not about passivity or resigning oneself to life’s afflictions. Nor is repentance a tool for seizing control over the universe to tame its vicious streak. It is a way of aligning ourselves with the God who cares for all the world and wishes to enlist our help in ushering in newness, relief, and justice.
Repenting entails trust. It entails trust in God, yes, but also trust that, because of God’s commitment to us, what we read in the news – or what we experience in life – does not capture the full extent of any story. Every disappointing news item and every sad life event includes a summons to look and work for God’s grace, mercy, and justice, even if those things fall in the cracks.