I stumbled into two good services this week. The first one was Lutheran. I was there to accept a donation from them for Kids Against Hunger. I sat up front, got my check, and didn’t think that just walking out at that point would have looked very good. The other one was my own church. I went in to work on the computer and there was a Lenten Bible study going on. The pastor said, “welcome, come and have a seat”, I didn’t want to be rude so I pretended like that was really the reason I was there.
The sermon was about the book of Luke, chapter 13. The parable of the fig tree. If you followed the link to the passage, you saw that they add in the title of “Repent or Perish”. It is historically interesting to me that people used to respond to “repent or perish” positively. I still can’t figure out why any modern person would do anything but run away.
The titles in bold in BibleGateway.com are modern additions, brief interpretations you might say. Interpretation of parables is always needed to get from “do it or die” to something more useful, but even in the text itself, there it is, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish”, right out of the mouth of Jesus. In anti-Christian interpretations of parables, I often here this one being pointed out as odd, that Jesus would come into an orchard and suggest cutting down a fig tree because it is not bearing fruit. Has that sound of, get on board with our God, or get out of here.
First that. In parables, don’t always assume that the “master” or “Lord” or in this case the vineyard owner is Jesus. Treat it like any story and look for what characters you can relate to, or who they might be like. Remember they will be analogies for people from 2,000 years ago. That makes it a little more challenging.
So what did the Lutheran pastor do with this? He brought up the horrible words of Pat Robertson about the Haitians making a pact with the devil, and quickly dismissed those words. He then gave a bit of a history lesson. A few people no doubt rested their eyelids, or opened their Blackberries, but I perked up.
Around 100 years ago, morals were loosening, cities were growing and Protestants were examining where they fit in. Specific rules of piety were developed, against gambling and drug use for instance. This was fine for some people, probably kept a few from losing their jobs and homes. The next generation took that on, adopted it and made it their own. Tom Brokaw wrote a book about them titled, “The Greatest Generation”. But the next generation just saw those rules as restrictive, something in the way of their experience of the world. They were not wrong for seeing it that way. That is something that happens with the passing of generations.
What is needed is to re-examine our rules every few generations. Thomas Jefferson proposed that the Constitution expire after 20 years and each new generation be forced through the same process that he did. Fortunately he lost that vote, or you might say his idea died in committee. Anyway, here’s a pastor, a Lutheran pastor, and if you listen to Garrison Keillor, you know what I mean, saying we need to rethink how pious we are. If we don’t, the future of the church is questionable.
How does this relate to “repent or perish”? Well, first, we all die, no gettin round that. The first couple examples are of people who died and were perhaps unprepared. One set by a building falling on them or something (I know of no extra-Biblical evidence of what that tower was or why it fell), and another set that somehow got caught up in some political action and killed by their occupiers, a Roman form of racial profiling. Jesus points to those that are alive, and says they are no better than those who died.
That all came from the pastor, this is my aside; an atheist complaint I often hear is that people will thank God that they lived when natural disaster comes near them. They are thankful that their home was not destroyed when their neighbors’ was, with everyone in it. They somehow skip over that the same God cut short the lives of people right next to them. Conversely, they don’t blame God when something happens to their church building. This passage points out how bad that theology is. One person’s survival says nothing about how God feels about them, or how well they have lived their lives.
Everyone is going to die. The question is, what will the sum of your life be? Are you waiting until later to do something for someone else? Are you hoping that things will get better, and then you will have some time to go visit someone in the hospital? Are you looking at how someone else’s life turned out and thinking, “at least I did better than that.” I don’t like lists of what is right and wrong, that’s why I shy away from politics, but I still think about it generally. That’s the message I get.
The second service was a Bible study, so the discussion was more important than the message, but I want to highlight a little of it. We were looking at 2 Corinthians 5:11. This is Paul speaking, the apostle that spread the word after Christ died and started a bunch of churches all across Rome. He is explaining the basis of Christianity, that Christ died for our sins, reconciling us to God and we have to be “in Christ” to get the benefit of that. If you believe Paul was directly inspired by God to write those words, and they have survived multiple translations to get to you in plain English, and you don’t read the rest of what Paul said then this is pretty clear. To give another translation, the comedian Bill Hicks interpreted the message as, “God loves you, he wants you to come to him, and if you don’t, you will burn in Hell.”
Is there anything else here? Well sure, but I’m already past 1,000 words here and have probably lots a few of you by now. One of the questions our pastor asked was, “How has God reconciled us to Godself through Christ?” There were several good answers, someone said Jesus was an arbitrator, and the pastor agreed that the book of Hebrews has that message. Another said that Jesus came to say that we are free from all the lists of rules, but we need to continue to consider what moral behavior is, and the pastor agreed that the book of Luke says that. Other answers could be related to other books and passages and all were confirmed.
There was no one answer. This can be seen as multiple aspects of one big answer. An answer that can’t be expressed in a few sentences or you could say that the Bible doesn’t tell you that. I kinda like the second one. Considering how many pastors there are that consider it their job to claim to have that answer, and seem to be intent on keeping you confused enough to not be able to figure out that the answer isn’t in scripture, I’m glad I have met a few that come right out and say that it’s not there. It may be in your heart, or you may discover it through some other means, but that is for you to find, not for someone else to tell you.