Now is the time to repent. That’s the bottom line in this text. It’s an important message—not only during Lent, but all year long. Everyone needs to hear it—not only those whose suffering or sin is great. Repentance is a recurring theme in Luke, from John the Baptist’s cry in Luke 3:7-9 to Jesus’ words to the Emmaus disciples in Luke 24:46-47. But what makes the call to repentance in this particular text unique are the events that surround it.
Which events are these? In short, they are bad things. We don’t know much about these specific bad things in the text. Some Galileans were killed by Pilate when they came to Jerusalem to make sacrifices, and a tower in Siloam fell on and killed eighteen people. Jesus doesn’t address the cause of these bad things, except to say that the cause was not specific bad behavior of the people who suffered. Jesus is more interested in how people respond to these bad things. This presents the contemporary preacher an opportunity to shape the way we respond to bad things today.
A sermon on this text could begin by naming some of the bad things in the lives of your hearers. Some are relatively small. Skinned knees. Traffic jams. Broken appliances. Other bad things are much bigger. Divorce. Disease. Death. Sometimes these bad things happen as a direct result of our own bad decisions. A man gets into his car after spending all day at the pub. His blurred vision doesn’t prevent him from turning the key in the ignition. He pulls onto a busy road, runs a red light, and slams into another car, incurring a young mom and her newborn baby. A bad thing happened to him because of his own bad decisions. But sometimes bad things happen not because of our own bad decisions. A young mom gets in the car and straps her newborn baby into the car seat to get some eggs from the store. She drives the same route that she’s driven hundreds of times before. As she crosses a familiar intersection, a car runs through a red light, slamming into her with metal screeching and glass shattering. The drunken man’s driving was not her fault.
What bad things happened this week? Check the local news. Check the national news. Ask around in your congregation. As I write this reflection, it was a flight in Ethiopia, a shooting in New Zealand, a scandal in California. How did your hearers respond to these bad things? How did you respond?
We’re tempted to try and connect the dots. Something bad happens to someone and we can’t help but wonder about the cause. Even if we don’t say it out loud, we are tempted to think they must have done something to deserve it. They must be guilty of something. God must be punishing them for something we don’t know about. But Jesus stops this thinking in its tracks. No, Jesus says, those Galileans were not worse sinners. No, he insists, those people in Siloam were not more guilty than you. Don’t focus on the cause, says Jesus. Consider your response. And how shall we respond? We should repent (μετανοέω).
This call to repentance seems strange because we normally think of repentance of something we do when we’ve done something wrong. But Jesus is talking about repentance more broadly. Don’t just repent when you’ve messed up, Jesus says. Repent when any bad thing happens.
Because bad things are so common in this world, repentance becomes more than just a response to felt guilt. It becomes our way of life. Luther’s first of his ninety-five theses comes to mind: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther explained what he meant in this thesis by saying, “The Greek word metanoeite itself… means ‘repent’ and could be translated more exactly by the Latin transmentamini, which means ‘assume another mind and feeling, recover one’s senses, make a transition from one state of mind to another, have a change of spirit.’” Repentance is not a transaction with God for the temporary relief of guilt. Repentance is a turning away from anything that is not right in this world, and turning toward the one who can make all things right. It is a constant return to the one who is merciful.
Which is where Jesus’ story of the fig tree comes into the picture. Jesus continues his call to repentance by telling a story of mercy and patience in the light of coming judgment. The fig tree deserved to be cut down and destroyed. It had not been right for years. But the vinedresser asked for mercy. He tended and nurtured and cared for this tree, patiently cultivating it so that it might bear fruit. That is how Jesus responds to those who repent. Judgment is coming. That much is certain. But those who repent will receive mercy.
This sermon, then would help the hearers respond rightly to bad things in this world. It would lead them to repent, even when they aren’t to blame. The preacher proclaims the promise of God’s mercy in Christ, and the hearers will grow in their faith toward the one who is patient and merciful to his fallen creation.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO, to assist you in preaching Luke 13:1-9.
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. David Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN, walks us through Luke 13:1-9.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 13:1-9.