I need to say a word about our second reading from first Corinthians this morning before we turn our attention to the gospel from Luke which we just heard.
The passage we read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is one of those passages that has a history of being used in unhelpful ways, in ways that can actually be quite damaging to some people. Sometimes it’s a risky thing to look at a short excerpt of scripture in isolation from the rest of the Bible. Because if you think about it, the Bible is more like a conversation rather than a cookbook. With a cookbook, it’s quite alright to look at one recipe at a time. But the Bible is a collection, a library if you like, of many voices across the ages who are witnessing to their experience of God, sometimes in contradictory ways. Though we believe these voices are inspired by the Holy Spirit, there are still tensions that arise in the conversation. Though God is the same, we all experience God differently, and the way we understand scripture depends on our experience and our context, and sometimes we need to work through these tensions.
In the passage from Corinthians that we heard, Paul is making some good points. Being one of God’s people doesn’t automatically mean that God is pleased with the way you live. Sin does have consequences. And even in times of trouble, God is with us and works for our redemption. God cares for us and works for our good.
In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that God will not let us be tested beyond our strength. That resonates with some people’s experience and can be a real source of encouragement. But as far as I can see, it’s not always true. I’ve seen images on my TV just this past week of people who are being tested way beyond their strength as far as I can tell. I wouldn’t quote this passage of scripture to them. It would be unkind, even if it does contain a kernel of truth about the way God cares for us in our distress. Sometimes, a psalm of lament might be a better choice.
In this same reading, Paul is so keen to warn the Corinthians about the consequences of sin that he implies that God punishes people for their sin, sending poisonous snakes or causing towers to fall upon them. I find this to be a disturbing theology. It doesn’t match my understanding of what God is like.
Which is why I was somewhat relieved when it was paired with today’s gospel reading, in which Jesus directly addresses this understanding of God when he’s asked about it in today’s gospel reading. Those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them – was it because of their sin?
Jesus’ answer is a resounding no! The reality of our human existence is that life is fragile. Bad stuff happens, sometimes randomly, with no discernable cause, like the collapse of a tower, and sometimes deliberately as a result of human evil, such as when Pilate murdered those Galileans while they were offering sacrifice. Jesus doesn’t blame God for falling towers or for Pilate’s evil. But he does use these tragedies to get our attention.
Life is fragile. We don’t know how much time we have left. Though we often try to ignore this reality, sometimes events like the war in Ukraine or diseases like COVID-19 have a way of reminding us of the fragility of life.
If life has a purpose, we better get on that before it’s too late. And according to Jesus, life does have a purpose: the purpose of this life, the reason we’re here, is repentance.
“Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
The purpose of life is repentance. And the purpose of repentance is so that you can truly live.
So what is repentance?
It’s a word we use a lot in church, but I’m not sure we really understand what it means. Maybe that’s because the word repentance has a history of misunderstanding. Way back in the fourth century, when Jerome translated the New Testament from Greek into Latin, he translated the Greek word “metanoia” as “paenitentia”, or in English “penitence” or “to do penance”. As a result, we have this history of misunderstanding repentance as doing penance, that is, confessing our sin, feeling sorry about our sins and doing some sort of penance to make up for them.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that scholars realized that this was not a very good translation for the Greek word “metanoia” that Jesus uses in today’s gospel. The word literally consists of “meta”, change and “noia”, mind. Metanoia is to change your mind, a change of heart, to change your life, a conversion, a reorientation, to come to your senses, to see things a new way, to change your perspective, to learn to see the way that God sees. That’s repentance. Metanoia. “Unless you repent, you will all perish.”
Repentance is the purpose of life. And it’s urgent, because you don’t know how much time you’ve got left. So repent, here and now. It’s a matter of life and death.
This isn’t the first time that we’re hearing the call to repent. Remember the first words of Jesus’ public ministry? “The time is now, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news”. Remember John the Baptist? He came on the scene proclaiming a baptism of repentance, urging people to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And he definitely wanted to convey the same sense of urgency, reminding people that “the ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
That’s the image that Jesus picks up in the parable that he tells. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.”
It’s hard to hear this parable without putting ourselves into the place of the fig tree. Fig trees are supposed to produce figs, that’s their purpose. So for this barren tree, something’s got to change! I don’t know if a tree can have a change of heart, but we can. We may need a little help from the gardener, but we can choose to live in a way that produces fruit. Here and now. This is not a parable about how we get to heaven. It’s a warning about how we should be living in the here and now, in the time we’ve got left, which may not be much, so start today.
How should we live? What is the fruit that we will produce when we repent, the fruit, as John the Baptist put it, that is worthy of repentance?
Let’s start with these:
Compassion. Generosity. Forgiveness. Gratitude. Reconciliation. Love. Grace.
I don’t have to explain these to you. You know what they are. You know it can be a challenge to live in these ways.
But the amazing thing is that when we repent, when we change our lives and lean into these ways of living, we start to really live. The purpose of life is repentance, and the purpose of repentance is so that we can really live. So that we can live fully, live abundantly, live the lives we were created to live. That’s what God wants for us. That’s why Jesus came, he said it himself in so many words, I came so that you might have life, and have it abundantly.
Because to do otherwise, to not live this way, to live without compassion, without generosity, without forgiveness, without gratitude, without reconciliation, without love, without grace is disastrous. Perishing is the word Jesus uses. As good as being dead. Not really living at all.
Life is fragile. You don’t know how much time you’ve got. So don’t waste it. Repent, come to your senses, live your life with compassion, generosity, forgiveness, gratitude, reconciliation, love and grace. That’s what we were made for. That’s the purpose of life. That’s really living.
Homily. Yr C Lent 3. March 20 2022. Trinity
Readings: Isaiah 55.1-9; Ps 63.1-8; 1 Cor 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9
Image by Amnah Mohammad