Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.
Third Sunday in Lent
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.
Belief in an angry, damning God is not an easy one to shake — even for those of us alive today in our increasingly secular times.
I’d even say that many of us believe in an angry God — even atheists, in a certain way. They might not pray to or worship that God, but this is the idea of God that they either walked away from or decided never to buy into in the first place.
Nevertheless, the idea of an angry, damning, judgmental God remains.
Even though I didn’t grow up strictly religious and barely attended church, I still considered myself a ‘Christian’. In my conservative central valley California town, I couldn’t avoid hearing of a God who was spoken of as damning homosexuals, people who cheat on their spouses, thieves and liars (who tended to have a different color of skin than I did), etc. I saw Jesus as being the only son of this God who was put to death because of the whims of this God.
How can anyone develop a friendship, sonship, daughtership, or any kind of loving relationship with this God?
When bad things happen to us — no matter how religious or secular we are — a lot of us have at least a sneaking suspicion that God had something to do with it. Whether it’s the God we currently worship, or the one we left long ago, the question beckons from the back of our minds, “What kind of God would let/make this happen?”
These are the questions being posed to Jesus in this week’s gospel reading from Luke about the sacrifices concerning Pilate and the tower falling on those poor people the tower of Siloam fell on.
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
“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?”
Jesus nips this notion in the bud and tells his questioners that they were not killed because of anything they did ‘wrong’.
I would’ve been fine if Jesus would’ve left it at this. But he has to throw in a contemplative zinger…
“‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’”
Which brings us to the word ‘repent’. This word has such a loaded meaning in our day. It means something like, feel really bad and guilty for the things you’ve done. But the Biblical interpretation of the word ‘repent’ ties into the word ‘metanoia’, which means ‘a change of heart and mind’.
So, here’s, in effect, what I take Jesus to be saying…
No, these people weren’t punished by a damning God. But unless you change your heart and mind about death itself, you’ll die in vain just like they did.
Jesus was against the very apparatus of sacrifice itself, which was so ubiquitous in his day. Sacrifice is a part of scapegoating. And nothing stops a rivalry better than a scapegoat. When two masses of humans are killing each other, nothing brings peace like a scapegoat that they can unite and rally against. Before Jesus, most scapegoats were either too terrified/powerless to reveal their victimhood or they were animals/newborns who couldn’t speak at all.
Jesus was the scapegoat who gave us the play-by-play along the way.
He knew he was going to be the scapegoated sacrifice. He was revealing how humans get their fix, not through life, but through death. He came, not to save us from sin, but to save us from the obsession on death.
The metanoia Jesus was trying to bring about in his listeners was to be conscious that, if they continued believing that ‘God’ was the one doing the killing, they’d never see the truth that it was this false belief that was baked into the culture doing the killing. If they died while still unaware of this insight, they’d die a meaningless death like those they were so concerned about.
To the people of Jesus’ day (and, I’d say, this modern day) death is the end. We’ve long romanticized/obsessed about/feared death. We make epic stories out of death — even Jesus’.
Jesus asks us to see death, not as the end of the story, but as the thing that is transcended. He exposed our cultural bloodlust in order to reveal something new — a dying-and-rising universe.
Jesus was saying that without metanoia (repentance), we can die either by participating in the old sacrificial scapegoating system and finding ourselves the victim of its backfiring (such as those under Pilate), or we can die deaths that are fundamentally accidental and therefore meaningless (such as those killed under the falling tower).
Jesus knows that his words would fall short of the hearts of his listeners. This is why Jesus’ main role wasn’t as a teacher. Sure, he taught. But if he was just a teacher, he would have tried to live as long as possible, so we could learn as many lessons as we could from him. But he knew those intellectual teachings hardly ever stick. Therefore, he knew he had to succumb to his impending execution to really drive this home.
Jesus wasn’t just a teacher — he was a revealer, the icon of the living God.
(A God that many of the loudest American Christians have failed to recognize.)
And so he begins to prepare his followers for the metanoia that will happen after his crucifixion. That was what the fig tree parable was likely about: “I’m going to work the soil right now so that next year…” — which is just another way of saying that a little while later it will bear fruit. The “it” that will bear fruit is the cross.
Jesus wanted to change our hearts and minds from a god who is both good and bad, who loves and who punishes, to a perception of God who is only love, in whom there is no darkness at all.
The God Jesus revealed had nothing to do with the deaths — horrid or accidental — of anyone. Those who believe so are trapped in an understanding of God which is meshed in by death. He wanted to urge them otherwise so that they wouldn’t follow suit.
Jesus completely de-sacralizes the incidents that his questioners were putting so much divine weight on. Death has nothing to do with God. If we get caught up in the world of giving sacred meanings, then we will be caught up in the world of reciprocal violence, of good and bad measured over against other people, and we, too, will likewise perish.
Here’s the takeaway for me this week: There is no connection between the evils that strike us and any specific judgement of God. Persecutions are real persecutions and accidents are real accidents.
God loves us and suffers with us through our deaths into new life both before and after our physical bodies perish.