By The Rev. Sherry Crompton
March 7, 2010
Read: Luke 13:1-9
Rodney Clapp speaks of self-righteous anger. We all know it. If emotions were cuisine, this would be the piece de resistance, the dish we love to linger over and return to, time and time again. Anger by itself does not taste so good. It is bitter and leaves an aftertaste. On the other hand self-righteousness—there is the seasoning that makes plain old hamburger anger irresistible. Self-righteous anger goes down smoothly. It makes us feel superior. It elevates us above lesser mortals, not to mention our enemies. So long as we have it on our plates, the consuming grayness of the wearisome world goes away. It is bracingly, refreshingly clear that we are the good guys and those others are the bad guys. If all this weren’t enough, self-righteous anger also reheats wonderfully; it tastes almost as fine the second or fifth or fiftieth time out of the oven.
However this is Lent, and in the Christian tradition Lent has long been a season that messes with our menus. That is certainly the case with today’s gospel reading. Jesus is hanging out with his fellow Galileans, his home folk, his people. In these neighborly circumstances, they serve up some self-righteous anger. They tell him “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”.
Now, make no mistake about it, this would be something to be angry about. It was bad enough to be occupied by Pilate and his Roman minions when they did not commit atrocities, but here was an occasion—have you heard?—when he sent soldiers into the sacred precincts of the temple and had men—our countrymen!—cut down like lambs to the slaughter. No, not simply like lambs to the slaughter, but alongside sacrificial, slaughtered lambs, so that the blood of the holy sacrifices and patriots ran together into one. What could possibly be more violent, more reprehensible, more deserving of condemnation? What could more clearly set us apart from wickedness?
So Jesus is expected to hear this story and join in heated moral superiority very much against the outsider Romans, those inhuman forces of evil. However, Jesus will not go along. He does not focus on Pilate or the Romans or their cruelty. Instead, he turns the attention back on his inquirers, his countrymen. These Galileans that you say suffered at Pilate’s hand, do you think “they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” What about those from among us who were innocently building a tower at Siloam, and died when it crashed? Were they any worse than others who were not crushed?
Jesus responds to these rhetorical questions unequivocally: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did”.
Jesus does not tell his countrymen that the occupying Romans are the epitome of goodness, or that their oppression is anything other than oppression. However he will not have himself or his inquirers defined by their enemies. He will not partake of self-righteous anger with his fellow Galileans. As happens often in the Gospel of Luke, he confronts those who trusted in themselves that they are righteous and regard others with contempt. When it comes to judging sin, it is best to look for the log in your own eye before searching for the speck in your neighbor’s.
We live in a day—not so unlike that of our gospel reading—when people want to blame everyone else for the ills of the world. Christians blame Muslims and Muslims blame Christians. Fundamentalists blame Hollywood, the ACLU, and homosexuals. Liberals blame fundamentalists, militarists, and pharmaceutical companies. Amid the din, Jesus says, “Hold on!” Think about a homely old fig tree. One that has not borne much fruit for a long time. The farm owner says, “Cut that darn tree down”. His head gardener says, “First, let me aerate the soil around it and throw some manure on the poor thing. After that give the tree one more year, and if it does not produce, chop it to the ground.”
So, just when we begin to stir up flattering, heroic images of ourselves in full battle dress, ready to wipe evil off the face of the earth, Jesus knocks us off our moral high horses. He brings us down to earth and back to ourselves, with talk of fertilizer and a scruffy tree. He says, “Ask yourself if you are like that fig tree. Are you bearing fruit or just taking up space? It is enough to ruin our appetite for self-righteous anger. It is Lent though, and Lent does mess with the menu.
On the one hand, tragedy sometimes strikes randomly as it did in the case of the Galileans and the eighteen Jerusalemites. In such cases, it has nothing to do with guilt. The tornado that destroys a nightclub also destroys a church. However, our repentance stands us in good stead when we experience unavoidable tragedy. It prepares us to live victoriously in the face of tragedy, and it also prepares us for death.
On the other hand, sin sometimes leads to tragedy. Drunk drivers kill innocent people. Abusive people injure their spouses and children. Not all tragedy is the result of sin, but some is. Perhaps the best way to visualize this is a small circle inside a large circle. The large circle is all tragedy. The small circle is tragedy caused by our sin. We cannot prevent random tragedy — that which lies outside the small circle — but Christ calls us to repent so that we might avoid the self-imposed tragedy of the small circle.
Thankfully, what we hear in today’s gospel is that our God is a God of second chances. There is a poem entitled “Rosebush” by Valerie Worth that reads:
In summer it
Blooms out fat
And sweet as milk;
In winter it
Thins to a bitter
Tangle of bones;
And who can say
Which is the
The poem’s last question echoes the gospel. Which is the true rosebush: the blooming one in summer or the dead-looking one in winter? Which is the true fig tree: the fruitful one or the barren one? Finally, for human beings, which is the true self: the happy, vigorous, productive one? Or the tired, depressed, unproductive one? Jesus’ parable seems to welcome both.
I’d like to close with a little guided meditation from Living the Good News.
I invite you to close your eyes.
In today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to turn from sin and know God’s forgiveness.
Think silently about what that might mean for you this week. (pause)
Unforgiven, holding tightly to sin, we’re like a closed rosebud. The world around you waits for you, but fear and guilt keep you closed. (pause)
Then you begin to admit your sins, one by one, to God. And, petal by petal, you begin to open up. (pause)
It is good to absorb the warm sun, see the blue sky, feel the rain, move in the wind. You admit to a moment of cruelty, and another petal opens. You confess a time you ignored your little brother…or cheated on a test, whatever you feel needs to be acknowledged with God….and each time, other petals open. You grow bigger, stronger, more of what you were meant to be. (pause)
At last, forgiven, free of guilt, you’re a magnificent rose—huge, colorful, richly fragrant, a celebration of life and God’s goodness. (pause)
Open your eyes….
Thankfully, our God is a God of second chances and he sent his only Son to die for our sins and for our salvation. Amen.
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