Current events, like much about our lives, frequently leave us hopeless, fearful and uncertain. Religious faith isn't a matter of wishing away these experiences; it involves perceiving God in the midst of our hardships.
I still remember one Friday night when I, an overly sensitive pre-teen, made a conscious decision to stop watching the nightly news with the rest of my family. I found what I saw too depressing and threatening: crime after crime, yet another house fire, economic challenges, too much Cold War.
I don't recall how old I was when I mustered the willpower to face the news again on a regular basis. But a quick scan of the latest headlines makes me wonder why I still subject myself to it: the imminent and potentially crippling sequester, American drones flying in and out of Niger, Iran's growing nuclear capability, recurring bloodshed in Syria. Maybe I had it easier back in middle school.
Then there's the private news we must endure. If you can handle the world-affecting issues, the personal ones have their own ability to leave us disappointed: poor health, family squabbles, professional setbacks, unreliable friends.
Life, or our experience of it, often disappoints. It's common for us to feel subject to adverse forces beyond our control.
'Help!' (Won't Jesus Fix All This?)
In Luke 13:1-9, Jesus gets pulled into a worried conversation about the latest news cycle: apparently Roman forces had slaughtered a group of religious pilgrims -- again. How will he react? Jesus' response, "Do you think this happened to them because they were bad people?" indicates he wants to discourage anyone from reacting to the calamity with a "blame the victim" mentality. Tragedies don't obey such neat moral logic.
He rejects that line of thinking, no matter if the violence in question comes from an oppressive political system or a random accident, like the other incident he cites, about tower that fell on 18 unsuspecting souls.
Furthermore, he refuses to use bad news as an occasion to speculate on the deep secrets of the universe; he gives no explanation for why a loving God doesn't prevent or magically repair all the world's pain and injustice. (Either Jesus doesn't know the answer, he's not sharing, or, more likely, probably God simply isn't a puppeteer.
His response to the recent atrocities is not exactly comforting. Instead of sympathy for "those poor people," we get urgency: "it might have been you." Jesus doesn't downplay life's tendency to deal harsh hands. He essentially asks, "Why should any of you survivors sleep easier tonight?"
And by the way, he adds, if you don't repent, you will perish, too.
He follows this cheery thought with a story about an unproductive fig tree given one more chance -- aided by some reinvigorating horticulture -- to realize its purpose. The parable clarifies Jesus' motivations for previously exhorting people to "repent." It's not that repenting will extend our lives or offer a miraculous shield against tyrants, superstorms, computer hackers and disease. Rather, our repentance will lead, figuratively, to our bearing fruit. True living is about fruition, coming to the place of experiencing God's intentions for us even in the midst of a sometimes menacing universe.
'Repent!' (It's Not What You Think)
I'll leave it for others to hypothesize about how we got to this point, but somehow most people hear "repentance" and think first of behavior and guilt. As if Jesus' primary goal was to reform personal morality.
But this is to misunderstand repentance. The word translated as "repent" is, at its root, about thinking and perception. It refers to a wholesale change in how a person understands something. It implies an utter reconfiguration of your perspective on reality and meaning, including (in the New Testament) a reorientation of yourself toward God. Your behavior might change as a result of this new perception, certainly; but repentance first involves seeing things differently and coming to a new understanding of what God makes possible.
Jesus, then, is promising an alternate perspective on the cycles of violence, pain and meaninglessness. To miss out on this way of seeing -- to neglect to "repent" -- is to miss out on other dimensions of our existence. It is to pass by one's purpose.
Jesus' summons to repent is not escapism or a minimization of life's hardships. It means coming to discover God as the source of sustenance, belonging, meaning and hope in this difficult life and into future existence. Repentance names the change that occurs within us when God meets us and reshapes our understanding.
Repentance results from an encounter with God. This is why, elsewhere in Luke's Gospel, Jesus associates a person's "repentance" with the essentially passive experience of being found and reclaimed by someone who seeks you intently.
Moving Toward Fruition
What are the things we want to be different from how they currently are? What global issues and personal struggles erode our capacity for hope?
Jesus doesn't promise to change the world by providing instant relief. His coming did not put an end to tyrants or stop buildings and meteorites from falling upon random passers-by. But he does offer a new perspective on what's possible for us and for our world. He insists God can be encountered, even within this fragile human existence.
Elsewhere the New Testament makes it clear: this new perspective is not about passivity or resigning oneself to life's afflictions. Nor is repentance a tool for seizing control over the universe to tame its vicious streak. It is a way of aligning ourselves with the God who cares for all the world and wishes to enlist our help in ushering in newness, relief and justice.
Repenting entails trust. It entails trust in God, yes, but also trust that, because of God's commitment to us, what we read in the news does not capture the full extent of any story. Every disappointing news item includes a summons to look and work for God's grace, mercy, and justice, even if those things linger slightly hidden below the fold.
For Further Reading:
- Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne, 2007).
- Sharon H. Ringe, Luke (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), pages 183-185.
- Matthew L. Skinner, "Luke 13:1-9," WorkingPreacher.org, 7 March 2010.