Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 28, 2016
Luke 13:1-9 Commentary
Someday I’d like it explained to me why the Lectionary would assign the final verses of a chapter for the week prior to looking at its first 9 verses. Nobody reads the Bible backwards like that so it’s not the least bit clear to me why preaching it this way makes any sense, either. In any event, last week many of us preached on Luke 13:31-35 and now this week we find ourselves faced with jumping back to the beginning of this same chapter to pick up the initial section.
Since we are unlikely to get an explanation of why the Lectionary does it this way, let’s plunge ahead and take a look at what we have here. And what we have here fits Lent pretty well for some of the same reasons we detailed in last week’s set of sermon commentary ideas; namely, a text that gets at the urgency of repentance and of getting on board with God’s kingdom. As such, what we have here are both words that sound an urgent note and words that give a little hope that God can be patient, too. On the one hand, you never know when the end might come for you so get with the program sooner rather than later and come to Jesus in repentance. On the other hand, even the unproductive fig tree that might otherwise be chopped down might just get another shot at becoming fertile after all.
So don’t delay forever but on the other hand, there is a little hope for some level of reprieve, too. Still, the bottom line message is clear enough: you cannot wait forever to get matters of eternal importance right in your life.
Ah, but this Jesus in Luke 13 . . . he’s not the one we want in the modern world. Let Jesus be all softness and light, kindness and grace and he can nestle into the marketplace of religions and religious figures pretty easily. Let him spool out charming parables and memorable phrases and gather to himself little children and everyone is fine with him. But that’s not the Jesus we get here.
The Luke 13 Jesus has some sharp edges, some seriousness of purpose even as he exudes a pretty intense set of warnings. It’s easy in reading the gospels to want to divide up everyone into the camp of either the Good Guys or the Bad Guys but the sheer fact of Jesus’ presence on this earth as the incarnate Lord tells us that we’re all finally in the same boat: we all need what Jesus alone can give: grace unto forgiveness for all those who recognize their utter need to repent of everything that is wrong with this world (and of our multiple complicities in that wrongness).
In a memorable scene from the disturbing film Unforgiven, a young gun slinger is literally shaking in his boots in shock and remorse after having shot a man dead for the first time. In a weak attempt to justify himself, the young man says, “Well, I reckon he had it coming.” To this the grizzled old gun slinger played by Clint Eastwood replies, “We all got it coming, kid.”
And that’s Jesus’ point in Luke 13: finger pointing and spending our days coming up with graduated systems by which to rate evil and sinfulness in other people just won’t do. Over against the shining holiness of Almighty God, we all of us need to repent (and repentance is not apparently graded on the curve). One person does not need to present a mouse-size portion of repentance whereas another needs to generate an elephant-size portion: repentance is repentance is repentance. It’s all the same, as is the divine solution and response.
Apparently about the only mistake a person can make—aside from believing he or she is beyond the pale of needing repentance in the first place—is to seek ways to ratchet your own spiritual status higher by downwardly comparing yourself to people you deem worse off than yourself. The gospel encourages us to compare ourselves to just one other person: Jesus, the pioneer of our faith, our elder brother in the family of God. We compare ourselves upwardly to Jesus and that action has the tendency of cutting the very nerve of any temptation subsequently to compare ourselves downwardly to anybody else.
Yes, we all have a tendency to pay more attention to the sins of others than we do to our own sins. Yes, sometimes we use our time to zero in on another person’s problems (real or imagined) precisely as a way to prevent ourselves from having to look in the mirror. But insofar as there is gospel in Luke 13:1-9 (and despite this passage’s grimness, there is gospel here) it is this: there is still time. We can still repent. We can still let the Holy Spirit turn our lives around and cultivate in us the fruit of that same Spirit in ways that will let us display the glory of our God. This is a wholly appropriate message for Lent, of course, but really for any time.
In the Greek text of Luke 13:8 when the servant tells the vineyard owner to “leave it alone,” the Greek is the word aphes, which is, of course, also the root word from which we get “forgiveness” and is identical to Luke 11:4’s presentation of the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive (aphes) our sins.” So it may not be wrong to see the servant’s words in Luke 13 as meaning not just “leave it alone” in the sense of doing nothing to the fruitless tree but as meaning also “forgive it” for its fruitlessness. In this case, the forgiveness seems to do no more than buy the tree a little more time. But suppose that same servant made the same request even a year later. Would the master forgive it again? The gospel seems to say that the answer may be yes. In any event, even those of us who do try to repent of our prior fruitlessness know that we are, even so, never perfect. There is always the need for God to forgive us. Thanks be to God, in Christ, forgiveness is always available, too.
In her startling story “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor introduces us to Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a fussy woman of a certain age who spends her life nurturing gratitude in her heart that she is not like most of the other people she meets. Without knowing it, Mrs. Turpin has narrowed the confines of her world steadily downward to the point that she gives off waves of disapproval to the people around her. One day while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, Mrs. Turpin engages in just enough conversation with another woman in the room as to tip off a college girl named Mary Grace regarding Mrs. Turpin’s true attitudes toward others. (Indeed, in her heart, Mrs. Turpin had already written Mary Grace off as a fat and ugly girl.) Mary Grace finally becomes so incensed at Mrs. Turpin that she hurls her “Elementary Psychology” textbook at her face, blurting out as she does so, “Go back to hell where you belong you old wart hog!”
This shakes Ruby to the core. She’s just sure she’s not an old wart hog.
True, she has spent her days being grateful not to have been born a member of any group of people she despises but still, there is nothing really wrong with her. But the words of Mary Grace don’t go away until one evening Mrs. Turpin gets a revelation. In her mind’s eye, she looks off toward the horizon of the setting sun and sees a giant staircase to heaven. On these stairs the whole mass of humanity is trekking toward God’s heavenly kingdom. But to her shock, the black folks and the white trash folks and the Mary Graces of this world were all leading the way to God’s kingdom with Mrs. Turpin and her ilk taking up the rear.
In Luke 13 Jesus told us to be less concerned with the sins or shortcomings of others and more concerned with our own character and our own godliness. Those who have ears to hear . . .
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