The Gospel reading that we attached to the sermon this past weekend was from Luke 13:1-9. The truth is that the sermon was topical—addressing the question “Why does God allow suffering?”—so it wasn’t intended to expound upon any particular passage. We chose this text because Jesus raises the question, but he doesn’t answer it. Honestly, I did not spend any time soaking in that text in preparing for the sermon (a very rare occurrence). When the Gospel was read in the service, it struck me how shocking the words must be for any member of the congregation who may be paying attention. I felt badly that I did not help interpret it for them.
Then, this morning, I sat down to have my private devotions, and guess what passage popped up in the devotional I’m using? Yep. Luke 13:1-9. OK, OK, Lord, perhaps I should address it.
This passage is jarring, at first glance. It looks like Jesus is threatening his disciples with something like, “Unless you guys get your lives right and walk the moral straight and narrow, you’re all going to Hell!” Of course, this is not what he says, but it could feel that way for anyone who may have been raised in circles who teach that way, or who have been hurt by abusive religious systems.
Jesus addresses two keys points in this passage. First, he challenges a commonly held belief that all bad occurrences are the direct result of sin. This is simply not true. That was the point of my sermon and the reason we chose the passage. So far, so good.
Jesus also speaks some very harsh warnings. He says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did,” and “the fruitless tree will be cut down.” This warning begs the questions: repent from what? And, what does he mean by perish?
Much of Jesus’ teachings regarding judgment and perishing did not refer to a cosmic judgment and the individual’s state of eternal destiny in the afterlife. Rather, he referred to the very real and present danger of the death and destruction that the Roman Empire would bring upon Israel if they did not repent from their violent resistance. We must always keep the larger cultural context in mind when reading the Gospels. The Romans were occupying Israel and the Jews hated it (who wouldn’t, right?). There was constant unrest among the Jewish people and they led violent uprisings against the Romans. The people were being slaughtered by the thousands to keep the Jews in their place.
Jesus taught his disciples a better way. He taught them non-violent resistance and the path of peace. He taught them to walk the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and pray for those who persecute you. In the end, that is what he did when he went to the cross. The “broad road that leads to death” (Matt. 7:13-14) was not a loose personal moral code, but the path of violence against Rome. There was only one way that would end—the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. That is exactly what happened in A.D. 70, because “many followed that path.”
The narrow gate and steep path that leads to life is the way of Jesus. It is the way of non-violent resistance and love in the midst of oppression. This is the path that leads to life…for everybody! This is the paradox of the Good News.
So, the Gospel reading this week warned Jesus’ disciples to repent from the violence and hatred that leads to destruction. Israel was like a tree that was supposed to bear the fruit of God’s blessing to the world. It continually did not. Eventually, a fruitless tree gets cut down.1
The Church of today needs to listen to these words as well. We have been planted in this world to bear the fruit of God’s love, grace, and blessing for the nations. We are called to “immerse the nations in the life and love of the Triune God.”2 Only the love of God will bring healing to a violent world. May we bear that fruit today.
Here ends the Gospel. Thanks be to God!
- please do not read an anti-semitic or supercessionist theology here. God did not abandon the Jews, he simply allowed the destruction of Jerusalem because that was the natural outcome of their violence. That’s all I’m saying here. [↩]
- this is my translation of the Great Comission in Matt. 28:16-20 [↩]