Imagine that you are the innocent victim of violence. Now imagine a preacher telling you that you must repent, or you will perish. Just exactly what is the victim of violence and oppression supposed to repent of? And at whose hands will we perish? God’s?
This week’s text begins with two stories of victims who died tragically through no fault of their own. These stories would have been well known—the talk of the town.
The first story is about the Galileans who were killed by Pilate during worship while they were offering sacrifices. It’s not clear why Pilate had them killed. They may have been zealots protesting Roman occupation. Or maybe they were speaking out against some particular injustice. It’s even possible, they were minding their own business and Pilate just wanted to make a statement. We don’t know.
The second story is about the 18 people who were killed when a tower at Siloam fell on them. Was it faulty construction? Was there an earthquake? Again, we don’t know. However, in both cases, Jesus makes it clear that they are innocent victims. Unfortunately, the contemporary equivalents of these stories are too numerous to name.
A Different Repentance
Jesus asks the crowd before him if the victims of these tragedies were worse “sinners” than anyone else. In both cases, he answers with an emphatic, “No!” In other words, they were no better or worse than their peers, and God had nothing whatsoever to do with their deaths. Jesus is helping the crowd “repent” of the notion that God keeps score like we do. He is undoing the popular theology of divine karma which says that bad things happen to bad people because God is somehow pulling the strings.
God’s justice is never retributive. It is always restorative.
How then do we interpret the following, which seems to support popular theology?
“But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did” (Luke 13:3).
Is Jesus saying that if we don’t straighten up God will punish us? There are plenty who have taught this.
It seems clear to me that Jesus is stating a fact that has nothing to do with divine karma and everything to do with the cyclical reality of human violence. Let’s call it “human karma.”
He’s pointing out that even victims can easily be caught up by the tit-for-tat cycle of violence. Jesus is calling us out of that cycle and our blind participation in it. That isn’t to diminish the feelings of anger and indignation toward wrongdoing, or the steps people take to bring about justice. They are appropriate, vital and divine; but the temptation to mimic the perpetrator’s methods is not.
Jesus is inviting us to repent of our participation in a system of reciprocal violence that infects even the most innocent victims and makes us mirror doubles of those who have done us harm. He is saving the victim from the same path of self destruction that the perpetrator has already taken. Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. all understood how easily violence infects even the most innocent among us, which is why they called us to repent. This is a bitter pill for those of us addicted to our own victimhood.
Saved from Whom?
To illustrate the point, Jesus tells the parable of the fruitless fig tree and the gardener who protects it from being “cut down.” The fig tree is lifeless, producing only death (think violence). But the gardener sees potential for life in the tree and protects it. But who is the gardener protecting it from? God? No! He is protecting it from “the man” who wants retributive justice.
Can we see?
God is not like Pilate, the faulty tower at Siloam, nor “the man” in the parable. There is no violence in God whatsoever. God the gardener is protecting us from ourselves and our brothers and sisters with whom we are in rivalry, even if we are blind to it.
Who but Jesus has the authority to speak so boldly to fellow victims of violence who have suffered so much, and who are being pulled into the death spiral of violence?
Thankfully Jesus doesn’t simply tell us to repent. He shows us how. He puts an end to the violence by exposing it on the cross and forgiving it. He refuses to return violence for violence, for that would be like “Satan trying to cast out Satan” (Matt 12.26). It doesn’t work. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Lent still has much work to do to prepare us for this revelation. For now, it’s enough to hear these difficult words, “repent or perish.”