Lent is the season in which we frequently find ourselves made uncomfortable and deeply challenged by Jesus’ words. Our Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Luke 13:1-9 is no exception, for in this passage of Scripture we encounter another shadow of the spiritual life — the shadow of our faithlessness. Paradoxically, the shadows of the spiritual life, through their very nature as our spiritual failures and shortcomings, serve to lead us more deeply into Christ’s presence. This morning, as we reflect together on our shadow of faithlessness, we will find that it is only after we realize our faithfulness proves insufficient will we be open to Jesus’ invitation to change our hearts and lives (repentance) and therefore, opened to new pathways to grow into a deeper spiritual consciousness of God’s loving presence.
Jesus, surrounded by the ever present “crowd,” is approached by “some” who ask him to respond to a current event of tragic nature, some Galileans were murdered by Pontius Pilate while making pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship YHWH in the Temple. This event had obviously shaken the Galilean community and the people in the crowd wanted not just to know if Jesus had heard about it, but what Jesus could say to help them make sense of this violent tragedy. These people asked Jesus the same question we ask when we see news of deadly violence inflicted against people practicing their faith — as we unfortunately have just witnessed this past week in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Jesus’ response is typically “Jesus-ean;” he chooses not to answer their question directly, but instead responds by asking them a different question: “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves they were more sinful than all the other Galileans” (13:2)? In asking this question, Jesus exposes and subsequently dismantles wrong thinking about the link between sin and suffering. It was not uncommon in Jesus’ time for people to believe that earthly suffering was linked to spiritual sinfulness; it was believed that people suffered in accordance to their measure of sinfulness. There are some even in our contemporary society who still believe this, but Jesus (in this passage of Scripture and others in the Gospel of Matthew) categorically denies this theological interpretation. While there is a link between sin and suffering in this world it is inaccurate to state one is punished for personal sinfulness through the experience of suffering.
Jesus parries with another question. In 13:4 Jesus describes another tragic current event that would have been well known to the crowd gathered around him (and one we know very little about); a tower in Siloam collapsed falling upon and killing innocent people below. Now, the implicit question is asked by Jesus: did these people suffer because of sin? Again, Jesus emphatically denies that these people died as punishment for their own sin. Sin and suffering are not linked in these ways.
Much more could be said about the way this passage of Scripture not only corrects poor theology, but introduces good theology regarding the link between sin and suffering, but there simply is not time or space. Despite the crowds interest in it, Jesus is not interested in talking about tragedy, suffering, or death, but instead Jesus wants to speak about faithfulness. Capitalizing on the fear and anxiety present amongst the crowd because of its reflection on suffering, Jesus presents an invitation to repentance, “…unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did” (Luke 13:13 and 13:15). Admittedly, this seems to be an odd choice by Jesus, perhaps one that could even be criticized as pastorally insensitive or even being in poor taste. Undoubtedly, Jesus’ pivot from suffering to repentance disoriented and confused his first centuries listeners (just as it does us today), but disorientation appears to be one of Jesus’ primary tools for ensuring spiritual formation.
Let us be clear, Jesus is not threatening the crowds. He is not saying, “unless the people in the crowd stop sinning and living such evil lives they will die tragic suffering deaths because of their inequities.” No, Jesus is absolutely not saying this at all; he is not a fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preacher. Jesus is not threatening, but inviting. Jesus uses the remembrance of tragedy, which exposes the vulnerability human beings feel when faced with the realities of death, as an opportunity to invite us into a more profound spiritual consciousness of God that will strengthen, nourish, and sustain us in the midst of life’s tragedies. The entry portal to a deeper spiritual consciousness of God that will sustain us through the midst of the sufferings in life is, according to Jesus in the passage, repentance —the changing of our hearts and lives.
Repentance is not a one time act, but a spiritual discipline the follower of Jesus is invited to practice daily. In repentance, we reflect upon our lives and the degree to which we are faithfully living according to Jesus. Jesus’ call to faithful living has two dimensions, the interior and the exterior. Interiorly, we are invited to reflect upon the degree to which we live consciously aware of God’s abiding presence in our life. Exteriorly, we are invited to reflect upon the degree to which the words and actions reflect the priorities and ways of Jesus. Repentance invites us to ask the question, “are we living like Jesus?”
Of course we are not living like Jesus, that is the point of repentance. We are actually not expected to perfectly live like Jesus; God does not want us to perfectly live like Jesus on this earth, but God does want us to come the realization that we will not be able to perfectly live like Jesus under our own strengths and pretenses. Because it is only in coming to the realization that we will fall short that we will be able to fall upon God — upon God’s love, grace, and mercy. The vastness of God’s love for us is known not when we receive the “divine att-a-boy and att-a-girl” respectively for living perfect lives of Christian faithfulness, but when we realize that despite our faithlessness we are still loved beyond all measure. Through repentance we become aware of the shadow of our faithlessness and that we are, spiritually speaking, not there yet. Only in recognizing our faithlessness is the full extent of God’s faithfulness to us fully crystalized and it is this knowledge (of God’s faithfulness despite our faithlessness) that will lead us to a deeper spiritual consciousness of God’s loving presence within us that will sustain and nourish us in the midst of life’s most profound tragedies, contingencies, sufferings, and our greatest fear, death.