Magazine article The Christian Century

Reflections on the Lectionary

Magazine article The Christian Century

Reflections on the Lectionary

Article excerpt

Sunday, March 7 Isaiah 55:19; Luke 13:1-9

REPENT OR PERISH. I've worked my entire career to avoid using this phrase from Luke 13:5. I've been afraid that if the Christian message is reduced to these three words, people will hear in them only an angry God, a God who uses any excuse to punish us. But sometimes, I admit, I'm just trying to soften "repent or perish" so I can present a God with whom everyone is comfortable--a God who has better manners, a God I'm not embarrassed to take out into public.

I try to put the scriptural phrase from Luke 13 in context. I remind listeners of the context of the verse, which describes the recent deaths of 18 Galileans and the question subsequently asked by Jesus' followers, "Were they worse sinners than other Galileans?" Jesus tells them that these people were no more sinful than all of the rest of us: that his point is that the need to repent extends to all of God's children.

Or I point to the parable that follows, in which the Gardener Christ pleads with God to not give up on God's people. This is evidence, I remind my listen ers, of God's extraordinary grace in waiting for our repentance.

I've learned by now, however, that despite my best efforts, I can't tame Jesus or soften the power of the words he speaks. Here he is in Luke 13, moving toward Jerusalem and railing against this and that and then telling an odd story about a fig tree. No matter how you turn the prism of this text, Jesus appears moody, demanding and on a tangent.

It would be easier if we had a Gospel without difficult words, without Jesus' diatribes on suffering and death, and did away with Lent. It would be easier on everyone if we popped right into Easter.

But we can't. We can't pick and choose biblical verses based on how we want to present God to the world or worry that Jesus might be offensive to people. Ultimately it is not we who interpret the text with its truth claims; it's the text that interprets us.

How do those difficult words "repent and perish" interpret us and our ideas about who we are as Christians and what it means to be a Christian in this world? "Repent and perish" is not just a rule set aside for those Galileans who have broken cleanliness laws; it is for all Galileans--even those who get the rules right every time. These words are not about a onetime repentance or a onetime perishing. …

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