Robert L. Getty, Ph.D. - February 28, 2016
Looking for Mercy
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
There are two major ways in which we react to stories about bad things and in this case, both may be appropriate. We can blame the perpetrator: as in the case of those tragic beheadings in the middle east. Or we can blame the victim: as in someone being in the wrong place and getting mugged. We might say they should have known better than to even have been in that neighborhood in the first place. Both of these reactions are appropriate and they both help us, in their own way, to make sense of the world.
But in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus calls us to a third reaction; a reaction that I imagine never occurred to us when we learn of tragic occurrences. Jesus tells us that, when we hear about horrible things like this, our reaction should be repentance. Our reaction should be to examine our life and our relationship with God because horrible things are never far from us. Now, this unusual response from Jesus shouldn’t surprise us, since his reaction to events takes us off guard. I imagine that Jesus was often a hard person to have a conversation with. He just didn’t approach life from the same perspective that everyone else did.
This morning, we read about an anonymous group that brings to Jesus a current event. The grisly mention of Pilate’s mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices appears to refer to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. Pilate would have been in Jerusalem at Passover time, and the Galileans had a reputation for rebelliousness. Luke doesn’t tell us why this group ask Jesus the question, why? We can figure it out for ourselves though. First of all, Jesus is also a Galilean. Being from Nazareth, in a sense these people who were killed were from his neighborhood. In my case, if a major terror attack happened in middle Texas; the first thing I’m going to do is call my sons and daughter to see what they think about it and how they were affected, because they live there. But there’s clearly more going on, behind the question of why.
When we look for causes we either point to the perpetrator or the victim. We see that this isn’t just an innocent small-talk conversation. Somehow, Jesus manages to turn our thoughts of perpetrator and victim back on us and he reinforces the point by adding a second example of his own. Eighteen men had been killed when a tower fell at Siloam.
Apparently a structure collapsed without warning and crushed eighteen hapless Jerusalemites. Drawing on this other tragedy, he says essentially, “These people were no better or worse than you. They’re not martyrs in the revolution; they’re not terrible sinners who deserved what they got.”
He knows people ask why natural or accidental tragedies occur and he asks if those who perished “were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem?” Jesus emphatically negates his own question. Unless his hearers repent of their sin, they will all be destroyed in the same way. The point is then that natural calamities afford no proof that those who suffer in them are any worse sinners than anybody else; far more important is the fact that all sinners face the judgment of God unless they repent. When we hear of tornados that kill many people we too ask why as well, and know at the same time that we have no explanation. We wish Jesus would give us a reason for tragedies, but he doesn’t. Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong, nothing that caused their demise. but unless you repent …’, a warning instead of an answer.
Is Jesus exploiting tragedy to score theological points? It certainly looks as though he capitalizes on the memory of recent horrors to stress the suddenness of death and the unpredictability of life. We are justly made wary by the fear mongering that unashamed evangelists whip up after every natural and unnatural disaster. But notice that Jesus’ approach follows a completely different path. He does not promise freedom from calamity, but urges his hearers against false self-assurances. They were people like you whose eyes needed to be turned to what’s really important: the will of God. Jesus said these people needed repentance.
Now before you get nervous. I don’t mean “repentance” in the way some pastors might; this isn’t one of those repentance sermons. Rather, here and many other places in the Bible, it refers to a changed mind, to a new way of seeing things, to being persuaded to adopt a different perspective. The very point of what Jesus is saying here is that the tragedies, atrocities, and disasters in our world can’t be understood as simply God’s wrath. You see, repentance isn’t about feeling guilty and fearful; it’s about seeking the will of the God who loves you and wants a right relationship with you. It’s about turning from those things that lead us away from the loving arms of God and back to those things that are good for us. Jesus calls us, through these tragedies, (and frankly, all of the events of our lives) to look beyond them to what’s eternally more important – our relationship with the God who loves us. Rather than simply focusing our attention on who is to blame for these tragic events in our lives, Jesus calls us to see instead our relationship with our merciful God.
And to hammer this point home, Jesus tells us a story: it’s a simple farming story about a fruit tree that doesn’t produce fruit. The lesson of the parable is different from that of the tragedies. While the calamities speak merely of the need for universal repentance, the parable indicates that mercy is available for those who repent in time. This is the connection of these complementary teachings. The land owner has been more than patient with the tree, giving it three years to grow some figs. Now he’s done with it and he wants to use the space for something else. I imagine as the fig tree you’d have a different opinion. You and I, of course, are the trees in this story. There is the expectation that we produce fruit because that’s what we were made to do. If we’re not, what’s the point of keeping us around? Then right when it seems the tree will be cut down here comes the mercy of the Caretaker. Jesus is our Caretaker and then he offers the mercy for another chance. The Caretaker will feed us and tend to us and help us to be what we were made to be. He doesn’t want our destruction, but neither does he want us simply taking up space. He wants us to live full, complete, and fruit-bearing lives. And isn’t that really the point of repentance? Isn’t it the point of repentance to be restored back to the creations we were meant to be?
Mercy is extended to our everyday journey, the temptations of life. Christian believers cannot claim that we’re unable to help ourselves. God is faithful and will not simply leave us to face impossible odds. His grace provides ever new opportunities for human faithfulness. In the epistle to the Corinthians, Paul will not allow this faithfulness to be manipulated by human presumption. The believer must respond not by expecting all temptation to be removed, but by taking the exit path which God provides, marks, and renders the believer able to use.
Paul chides the Corinthians for thinking they have their salvation all wrapped up, with nothing to fear: “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Paul is calling here for a strict self-watchfulness, a program of spiritual living which does not mistake one thing for something else. He is calling for a lack of self-delusion about one’s spiritual life and the tendencies to idolatry, or you could say love of yourself. We are called to radical spiritual, self-discernment.
The reality of temptation has already been pre-figured for the preaching season of Lent by Jesus’ experiences in the wilderness. Again, Paul’s words raise the issue of temptation and the influences that can prompt it, such as misuse of the body and challenging God, spiritually. The text speaks both to the spiritually misinformed and smug, as well as the spiritually apathetic attitude that denies that sinful behavior will have consequences. Such arrogance of our invincibility is the first step to failure. This is when we call on God’s mercy – the exit path which God provides.
And this is the Jesus we look for this Lenten season and at this table. The Lord’s Supper enacts and remembers the work of salvation that Jesus completed for us. The community is brought together as a single body of Christ which emphasizes our ministry to our children, to our community and to the world. When we sit at the Lord’s Table we are strengthened in our faith. The Lord’s Supper is the sign and seal of eating and drinking in communion with the crucified and risen Lord.
As we think of all that God has done for us, have you ever felt the tug, the pull of Jesus upon your heart? Today I invite you to respond to God’s grace. Today as you meditate, claim afresh the name of Jesus as your Savior. Make a promise to raise up all of our children in God’s love, teaching them the truth about faith and the grace and mercy of God. Too many Lenten observances assume that taking our humanity seriously requires morose expressions of piety. But the Christian outlook on repentance arcs toward joy. And it finds grace experienced within the awful shakiness and strange beauty of our fleeting existence. As we continue in this journey toward the Empty Tomb, we find a Savior who calls us back to himself that we may find mercy; that we may find ourselves as the people we were created to be. In the midst of life’s tragedies, let us turn again to the God who loves us, cares for us, and calls us to productive, fruit-bearing lives.