What About “Repent or Perish”?

Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

In 2002 my best friend Jill and I went on this great vacation to New Orleans. We stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast in the Garden District and took a walking tour of homes and cemeteries. We had beignets at Café du Monde and dinner at Arnaud’s and listened to some jazz at Preservation Hall. As we were walking back through the French Quarter one evening, we encountered a group of people holding signs that said, “Repent or Perish.” They weren’t yelling, they were just trying to talk to people. And even though we were already Christians, we were curious, and so we stopped to talk to one of the group who was a young woman about the same age as we were. She was very sincere and concerned for people’s eternal souls and felt that it was her responsibility to make sure everyone who was unsaved had the chance to make a choice to follow Jesus. We let her do the whole spiel and then told her we were already Christians. And we walked away. I’m pretty sure we laughed and felt a little superior. 

The story we are going to read this morning is where people get the phrase “repent or perish.” I don’t like this story. I don’t completely know what to do with it. It troubles me because try as I might I can’t make it say what I WANT it to say. But it’s here in the gospel of Luke. And if we choose to take scripture seriously, whether or not we take it literally, if we take it seriously then we don’t just skip the stuff we don’t like. What’s in this book is what the early Christians thought was essential for Christians to hear, to learn, to know, to experience. We are responsible to engage with the tradition that has been handed down to us from our ancestors. Even, maybe especially, the stuff we don’t like. I don’t think God asks us to just swallow it without thinking. We wrestle with it. And it’s Lent, so let’s do hard things.

Let me remind you where we’ve been in the story. Last week we heard again the story of the Good Samaritan and heeded Jesus’ challenge NOT to justify ourselves. That was Luke chapter 10. This morning’s reading is in chapter 13, so what has happened in between. Well, not much in terms of action. But lots of teaching. And the closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the more pointed his teaching becomes. This is not gentle Jesus meek and mild holding baby lambs. This is challenging Jesus. Here’s a little of what he says just shortly before this morning’s story: He says, ““I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division.”

Ok … so that doesn’t sound like what I want Jesus to say. On the heels of that, here’s this morning’s story. This is Luke chapter 13 verses 1 through 9 and then 31 through 35. I’m reading mostly from the Common English Bible.

Let’s start with 1 through 9. “Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will perish just as they did. What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will perish just as they did.”

Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”

And now verses 31 through 35. At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”

Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Really? Really? Thanks be to God for that? Thanks be to God for “repent or perish”? I don’t know. We have some stuff to deal with this morning.

Two main issues in what we read. (1) We have what’s happening in the story and (2) what’s happening theologically. The story part is the easier part so let’s get that out of the way. 

This is an important story for us to read because it continues to set the stage for what’s going to happen to Jesus. He’s going to Jerusalem. No one is going to stop him. And like many prophets, he’s going to die. He’s going to die because the system of power, as symbolized by Jerusalem, will always seek to destroy anyone or anything that challenges it. So do not be at all surprised at what’s about to happen. Jesus anticipates it and he chooses it anyway. He chooses to be a victim so that he can show how corrupt the system really is. That’s the story part.

But the theology part … ? “Repent or perish.” Those people holding sandwich boards are correct. According to Jesus. And they are not taking his words out of context. That’s actually what the story is about and it’s actually what Jesus says.

So. How am I going to make this nice for you? Short answer: I’m not. Because I don’t think we can. WE may not like a religion that says “Repent or perish,” that may be way too Old-Testament-vengeful-God for us, but that’s what this story says. Not just one verse, but the whole section. And it is the height of arrogance to try to origami-fold the meaning of every verse so that it says what WE want it to say. In fact, we hate it when other people do that, when they try to twist everything to fit their agenda. So let’s not do that today. 

These are tough verses. Let’s pause for a minute and take a deep breath. Let’s remember that we trust in a loving God who is writing a very long story that includes and also transcends our precious small lives. I still believe that. No matter what these few verses say, I stake my life and the future of the world on that version of God. OK. If we start from a standpoint of trusting God and not being afraid that someone’s about to pull a bait and switch on us, what can we learn from these verses?

Let’s look for a minute at what they DON’T say. They don’t say “repent or you will experience eternal conscious torment in the fiery pits of hell.” So please let go of that. In order to make the story say that, you would have to assume that Jesus uses the same word to mean two entirely different things in the same thought and that he doesn’t tell anyone that, which just doesn’t make any sense. So please try to deprogram yourself for hearing “hell” in these verses.

What do these verses say? Well first, they say that disaster is not a punishment for sin. Neither the people who were horrifically killed by Pontius Pilate nor the people who died in a freak accident were any worse than anyone else. Jesus says that bad things happening to you are not a punishment from God.  That’s good news.

But. “Unless you repent you will perish just as they did.” Now that’s weird. Unless I change my heart and life in the way that John the Baptist talked about way back at the beginning of the book of Luke, unless I do that, I will also die. So if I repent, I won’t die? Apparently nobody has ever really repented then because everyone has died. Including Jesus. So confusing. Maybe there’s a wider meaning for the word “perish”? I give you that sometimes, right? Maybe. There might be something in that … but you have to tune in next week to hear what it is.

I’ll be honest with you. The only way for me to make my peace with these verses is to accept them. In all of their mysterious warning. One of the greatest lines from the TV show The West Wing comes when a conservative Christian senator asks a Jewish colleague whether he believes the Bible to be literally true. You know how the man answers? He says “Yes, sir. But I don’t think either of us is smart enough to understand it.” I think these verses are true even though I don’t fully understand them. I will not succumb to my desire to be right about everything and try to cram these verses into a neat package that fits what I want to believe. 

This is the thing progressive Christians don’t always like to admit about Jesus: he does challenge us. He does ask things of us. He doesn’t just say that everything we do is OK. Remember Jesus is the affirming judge. He does affirm us as people. But he does also judge the actions we take, or don’t take, in the world. Not everything is OK with Jesus. Greed is not OK with Jesus. Religious hypocrisy is not OK with Jesus. According to the story of the Good Samaritan, crossing to the other side of the street when we see someone in need is not OK with Jesus. And I’m guilty of all of those things! Within the last month at most! So what is gong to happen to me?

The parable of the fig tree balances the idea of judgment with mercy. A tree that has not been producing fruit is in danger of being cut down by the owner because it’s just taking up space and depleting the soil. But then his head gardener says, “Let’s give it another year. Let me take special care of it. And let’s see if we can’t get this tree to bear some fruit.”

You know what the gardener literally says? The English words “Let it alone,” in Greek that’s one word. It’s a word we’ve seen already. It’s the same word that means release, and healing, and forgiveness. If that tree isn’t producing fruit, give it a little space. Don’t just chop it down. Forgive it for not doing what it is designed to do. Maybe it needs a little healing. That’s God’s mercy. But apparently we can’t assume that the tree will be left alone forever. At some point, the tree will be known by its fruit, or its lack of fruit.

There is judgment. And there is mercy. Following Jesus doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want whenever I want. God absolutely without question does love person forever, but God doesn’t tolerate every action forever. If God is going to renew creation, there are some things that are gonna have to go. We know that. And if in that time I am found to be holding on to those things that don’t belong and I refuse to let go of them, then I won’t be part of the renewal. I don’t know exactly what happens to me, but apparently, according to this story, it’s possible for me to choose to not be part of what God is going to do. 

That night in New Orleans we didn’t join the people evangelizing on the street. I interpret that story a little differently and I’m not comfortable engaging in their tactics. But my smug superiority doesn’t belong in the Kingdom, and I needed to repent of that. When Jill and I got back to our bed and breakfast that night, we did spend some time praying for New Orleans and the rest of the world. Because as much as fun as that city is, there are things about it that also felt dark. Things that seemed to be out of line with love, things that would not fit in God’s Kingdom. Because not everything fits into God’s plan for a renewed creation. All people are welcome in it, but in order to participate, there are some things that we need to release. God is so good to give us time and space to see those things, to repent of them, and to begin producing the fruit of the Spirit. Not indefinite time. We don’t know God’s timeline, so why would we mess about? Now is the time to bear fruit. Amen.

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