Friends, it is deeply satisfying to be in conversation with some really excellent preachers through my career and through this blog. I want to recommend that you follow in one way or another two colleagues who follow this blog and who consistently produce thoughtful, artful, pastoral, and challenging sermons for their congregations and for us.
Pastor Tobi White shares the Word week in and week out on YouTube.com. Here’s her latest offering, and I encourage to take the time to watch and listen: https://youtu.be/yfoiAeVHtDA.
Just when it was all going so well, a random tweet slid this little tidbit into my awareness. It’s a strategy report from BCA (or is it “alpha”) Research, an organization that focuses on global investment strategy. According to their website, they have been “turning original macro insights into market actions since 1949.” The lead article in their current report describes the “Rising Risk of A Nuclear Apocalypse.”
The article focuses on the nuclear implications of the Russian war against Ukraine. “If Putin concludes that he has no future,” the report suggests, “the risk is that he will decide that no one else should have a future either.” The researchers acknowledge a huge margin for error in their predictions. Nonetheless, they “assign an uncomfortably high 10% chance of a civilization-ending global nuclear war over the next 12 months.”
Of course, the writers keep their eye on the investment strategy ball, even in the shadow of such a dire prediction. The nuclear doomsday may well be averted, they argue, but markets could “experience a freakout moment over the next few months, similar to what happened at the outset of the pandemic.” That being said, there is no reason for investors to participate in that market freakout. Either investors will be here in twelve months to participate in the market, or there will be no market or investors to engage in said participation.
“Despite the risk of nuclear war,” the report argues, “it makes sense to stay constructive on stocks over the next twelve months. If an ICBM is heading your way,” the authors note “the size and composition of your portfolio becomes irrelevant. Thus,” they continue, “from a purely financial perspective, you should largely ignore existential risk, even if you do care about it greatly from a personal perspective.”
The bottom line, according to this strategy report? “The risk of Armageddon has risen dramatically. Stay bullish on stocks over a 12-month horizon.”
After I read that line, I had to confirm that BCA Research is a real company and that this report is not a hoax. Indeed, this is a real report from a real company. As I continue to process what I read, I must admit that it makes sense within the framework of the company’s mission and goals. If there is still a market in 12 months, my portfolio will matter. If not, then why worry about it now? If an ICBM is heading my way, my stock portfolio will be the least of my worries.
Stay constructive on stocks. In financial matters ignore existential risk. Jane, how do I get off this crazy thing? (Google “The Jetsons” if you missed that one).
I find it hard to articulate the casually unexamined despair that stands behind the words of this report. The collapse of human civilization, the end of the world as we know it, is assigned a distressingly large probability value. And that’s that. If it happens, it happens. Nothing we can do will change that, it would appear. And there’s nothing we can do to prepare, since all our preparations may be reduced to glowing nuclear dust.
Such blithe and bland resignation is neither uniform nor universal across our cultural landscape (here in the United States). But it certainly infects a great deal of our discourse these days. A significant response to the COVID-19 pandemic goes something like this. “It’s too big for me to think about or manage. There’s really not much I can do about. The little I can do makes no difference and inconveniences me. So, I’m done with masks and vaccines and lockdowns and working from home. I’m just going to live and let the consequences manage themselves. Besides, I’ve got all this expensive office space sitting empty. So, get your butts back into the office.”
I think people have a similar response to the climate catastrophe. Sometimes I do. It’s so big and complicated and terrifying. There are factors in place and in motion that can’t be changed. It keeps getting worse no matter what I do. About all I can do is deprive myself of stuff and experiences while the rest of the world appears happily to trip along in blissful and willful ignorance. Why shouldn’t I do the same?
Similar thinking is applied to mass incarceration, white nationalism, racism, poverty, education, and a host of other concerns facing us as a state, a nation, and a world. This isn’t new thinking, of course. It is the spiritual and moral malaise of a century of capitalism, war, and national aggrandizement with neither moral center nor boundary. I can’t help but think of the lyrics made famous by Peggy Lee in 1969:
Is that all there is, is that all there is? If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing Let’s break out the booze and have a ball If that’s all there is…
I’m waiting for the song to make yet another comeback in our current moment of bleak bliss.
It strikes me today that perhaps Jesus offers a counter-narrative in our text for this week. Is that all there is? No, that’s not all there is. There is God-granted time for a change, if only we would take it! Perhaps this is why the discipline of Lent continues to matter. We are given a time, a season, to reflect on what can be changed, what must be changed, for us to be fully available to the grace of God in Christ. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket, but that’s not all there is.
I must confess that dogged hope in the face of despair is not my natural response. Many times, in the face of trials and troubles, I have been a leaver. I tend not to negotiate but rather to go straight to surrender. As I write, I realize that’s one of the things I can continue to repent. After all, sticking with something in the face of resistance is a form of faith.
In composing this halting and disjoined post, I realize that perhaps we ought to read Luke 13:10-17 along with the appointed text for the day. Jesus heals the crippled woman on a Sabbath, and that becomes a controversy for “the leader of the synagogue” (verse 14). It strikes me that Jesus says to him, “Man, you’re missing the point! If we have the chance to do something, no matter how small, to set people free, we need to do it!”
Even if it’s just digging a little dirt and scattering a bit of manure, that’s more than nothing! Don’t worry about whether your action has a big enough scale or scope to make a difference. Just keep on digging!
I’m always preaching to myself, and this is no exception. I’ve been one of those people who has wrestled many times with the “meaning” of my life. At some times, I’ve sung the Peggy Lee song. If I can’t extract that meaning from my life, then life in general must be meaningless. If life in general is meaningless, then what’s the point? Of course, in my case that has too often been a deceptive way to escape responsibility or to flee from trouble.
But it’s not up to me to make life meaningful. That’s why above my pay grade. It’s just up to me to live and to do so fully as often as I can. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket. The Doomsday clock may be perilously close to midnight. But that’s not a reason to do nothing and wait for the missiles to launch. Instead, Jesus followers are called to keep on digging.
I read not very long ago about a ministry that specializes in helping Christian churches make the most of their institutional demise. Fifty percent more Christian congregations are closing than are launching in any given year, so a business model based on closure is a relatively safe bet at this point. The focus of the business is to assist congregations in using their physical, financial, and social assets to continue to benefit the community when they are no longer there. Congregations may close, but ministry continues.
That only makes sense if we believe that God remains faithful even when we are long gone. That’s really the heart of the Christian good news. Isn’t that really what Jesus’ resurrection means? In the Lukan account, Jesus surrenders his spirit and dies. That should be the end of it, but God isn’t finished with Jesus – or with us. Even on the cross of Christ, that’s not all there is.
I imagine I’m not the only one who needs to hear such good news as we near the halfway point in Lent. It’s not time to give up. It’s no time to despair. Things look incredibly bleak, but we declare that’s not all there is. And then we keep on digging.
Tom Long wrote a column on our text for The Christian Century in March of 2001. It is archived at the religion-online.org site and is worth reading right now. I want to hit a few highlights from Long’s thoughts and then add a few of my own.
Long notes that according to Jesus, in Luke 12:54-56, most of us are relatively incompetent when it comes to reading the signs of the times and discerning what God is really up to at any given moment. “Indeed,” Long writes, “Jesus says that most of us are far better at meteorology than theology.” Given the lack of skill most of us have in predicting the weather, that’s a pretty pathetic assessment of our theologically predictive capacities.
As I noted in an earlier post, this is the prelude to our text for the third Sunday in Lent. “No sooner had Jesus issued this challenge,” Long continues, “than some in the crowd stepped forward. ‘Don’t say we cannot read the times. How about that terrible incident in the temple, the one where Pilate’s police slaughtered some innocent worshipers from Galilee?’”
Wrong answer! That’s not a sign of anything except for the cruelty of Pilate’s state-sponsored terrorism and colonial oppression. And don’t bother to bring up that sad deal in Jerusalem when the tower collapsed. That’s a building construction issue, not the opening salvo of Armageddon.
So, what are the signs we ought to see and heed? Long tells us that this is the purpose of the Parable of the Fig Tree. “Not the Hale-Bopp Comet, not invaders from space, not Clinton as King Belshazzar redux, not wars or rumors of war,” Long argues with references that date the text even without a byline, “ but instead the gracious and patient hand that reaches out to halt the ax, the merciful gesture woven into the fabric of life that stays all that would give up on the barren and the broken, the merciful voice that says, ‘Let’s give this hopeless case one more year.’”
The fig tree is not a sign of the end of the world as we know it. It is, rather, a sign that there’s a reason to keep tilling and tending, to keep nudging and nourishing the world in the places where we live and love and labor right now. The things we identify as signs of the end might be the end of things we find important. But that doesn’t mean they tell us much of anything about the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and who relents from punishing.
Six months after Long’s article was published, planes were used as flying bombs to destroy the World Trade Center Towers. Life in the United States began to change as we responded to those attacks. It’s not just that we had to take off our shoes at the airport for years after. It’s not that we are limited to three-ounce containers for liquids on planes without intentional packaging. Those are just inconveniences.
The real change – and I think the real victory for the 9/11 terrorists – is that both American government and American citizens shifted from a stance of confidence to one of fear. The world has always been a dangerous place, and we Americans have been insulated from that danger for the most part. But 9/11 brought that danger into our living rooms. That was an end to the world as we knew it and the beginning of a far different world.
I think it’s easy to say in hindsight that we continue to live with the political, cultural, and economic consequences of a massive over-reaction. It will take historians decades more to chase all the threads of that over-reaction and their various impacts. For example, we shifted our attention away from natural disasters to “homeland security.” When Hurricane Katrina arrived a few years later, we discovered that we had gutted our capacity to respond to such an event. Hundreds and hundreds of people died who might have been saved if we had prepared differently.
My point is that we aren’t any better at reading the signs of the times now than were Jesus’ first-century listeners. We find, for example, the availability heuristic almost irresistible. That heuristic says that whatever is at the front of our minds tends to have the greatest salience regardless of the actual odds of something coming to pass.
Compare your chances of getting hit by lightning or dying in a terrorist attack. Then compare your responses to those possibilities. Lightning is the more likely killer, but (unless you’ve been in a violent thunderstorm recently) the terrorist attack is the more mentally available and therefore more frightening possibility.
What are the salient signs these days? The list of candidates is overwhelming. We’re not done with Covid-19, no matter how much we want to be done. The Russian bear is bombing the hell out of Ukrainian cities. And the Armageddon industrial complex has shifted into high gear with publications and predictions. Nuclear war is suddenly back on the table as an up-to-the-minute terror. Climate catastrophe is an oldie but a goodie. Inflation, deflation, gas and oil prices, the bankruptcy of the Social Security system (I’m old, obviously). I’m sure you can add another dozen items to the list.
We have a conflicted relationship with catastrophe and what it means. I love the insights in the film, Men in Black, about our human desire to deny real crises. Jay has just fired his weapon in full sight of some ordinary people, creating havoc and destruction that demand explanation. Kay reprimands him, “We do not discharge our weapons in view of the public.”
“Can we drop the cover-up bullshit?!” Jay replies. “There’s an Alien Battle Cruiser that’s gonna blow-up the world if we don’t…” Kay is not having it.
“There’s always an Alien Battle Cruiser…or a Korilian Death Ray, or…an intergalactic plague about to wipe out life on this planet,” Kay says, “and the only thing that lets people get on with their hopeful little lives is that they don’t know about it.” That’s how we’d like to keep it for as long as possible. Blissful ignorance is the prerogative of the privileged and the fond fantasy of everyone else.
Then we’re faced with some real crisis, one that can’t be denied or ignored or explained away. And for a day or two, that’s the end! We’re all doomed. Of course, it doesn’t take long for us to get acclimated to the “crisis,” and life moves on.
Jesus tells us that the real battles in life aren’t about political inflection points or historic crises. Instead, the real battles are the ones that take patience, persistence, and perseverance. The real battles in life are the ones where you have to dig around the roots, spread a little manure, wait and watch and do it again – and again, and again.
There is a tree that marks the end of the world as we know it. It’s not a fig tree in an imaginary vineyard. It is, rather, a cross on Calvary. We’re on the Lenten journey toward that tree. We know how that story turns out. And we know the lifegiving fruit it produces.
So, it’s back to tilling and tending, nudging and nourishing the world in the places where we live and love and labor right now. It’s back to keeping on keeping on in faith, hope, and love. This is not glamorous work. It doesn’t produce immediate or even noticeable results. I am unlikely to remembered for my part in any of it, and the real problems won’t be solved in my lifetime. Jesus says, keep on digging.
I am reflecting on the reading, study, conversation, and reflection I have been doing over the last ten years in anti-racism literature. I have learned a lot. I have been challenged and changed by what I have learned. But what I have learned most of all is how very much more there is to learn, to experience, to unlearn, and to repent.
I have learned that humility is the only proper response for me at this moment, and that I have a lifetime of work still to do. I want so much to find real answers and solutions and responses that might help other people grow and change. And covertly, I also want people to see how smart I am about this stuff, but that’s a personal failing that follows me everywhere. I know I want “success” mostly for me and my comfort level. That won’t do. That’s not humility. I can’t continue to do this work without getting down and dirty, digging around my roots and adding more plant food to the mix.
This is what Jesus tells his listeners at the beginning of our text. Don’t be distracted by any thoughts that the work is just about over. It’s not. There’s a lifetime of repenting yet to do. Remember that repentance isn’t feeling sorry. It’s about a change of mind, an alteration of the path, a turning away from whatever doesn’t give life. Every day we start over with that repentance. And that’s the good news.
In his workingpreacher.org commentary, Ronald Allen notes that the dialogue throughout Luke 12 directs our attention to being prepared for the apocalypse. While the Lukan author is clear that the coming of the New Age is not happening as soon as the previous generation expected, that doesn’t mean it’s not coming, or that we can stop preparing.
In fact, Luke 12:2 has the verb form of “apocalypse.” “But nothing is being concealed which will not be revealed, and nothing hidden which will not be made known” (my translation). In the Lukan account, Jesus urges his disciples (as thousands listen in) that they should value authentic testimony more than personal safety in the days to come. That testimony is what will matter when they stand before the angels of God (verse 9).
The Lukan author goes on to imagine settings of persecution where that testimony will be required. Luke 12:11 is a foreshadowing of the situations in which the apostles will find themselves in the Book of Acts. They will be dragged into the presence of synagogues (here the assembly of people more than the building), rulers, and authorities. They need not worry about how they will defend themselves (the word used gives us the English word “apology”). In that hour of trial, the Holy Spirit will provide the words.
We don’t know in the Lukan account how the disciples responded to these words. We hear that at least one person in the crowd didn’t quite get the memo. “Teacher,” someone says to him from the crowd, “tell my brother to apportion with me the inheritance” (Luke 12:13, my translation). Some interpreters suggest that what we get next is a lovely meditation on faithful biblical stewardship. It is that, but the real meaning of the text is about apocalyptic urgency, not about wealth management.
The Rich Fool is oblivious to the possibility that this moment could be his last. He has accumulated an abundance of the Good Stuff. Now he can become unconscious. He has created a material buffer to protect him from the uncertainties of life and death. The Rich Fool is the picture of stupid privilege. Only rich people can afford to be so oblivious. But it does him no good. “You fool!” God says, “This very night your soul (as in life) is being demanded from you. But these things that you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20, my translation).
Again, we have a story about someone who is here today and gone tomorrow. An abundance of riches cannot change that fact. The chief characteristic of the Rich Fool is that well-funded stupidity. “This is the way for those who hoard treasure for themselves and yet are not rich in God” (Luke 12:21, my translation). Note that this assessment is about those who have wealth. This statement is not a general statement about human beings. The apocalyptic danger for the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied is that their abundance will make them fatally dumb.
Jesus turns from addressing the crowd to teaching his disciples. As he turns, beginning in Luke 12:22, the discourse also turns. The poor (including the disciples) don’t have to worry about being stupidly oblivious in the face of existential threat. That’s not an option when one lives paycheck to paycheck or is uncertain about the source of the next meal. The disciples won’t be distracted from the apocalypse by stuff. They may, however, be consumed by anxiety.
Let me take a moment to remind us of this typical pattern in the Lukan account. The Lukan author takes a common theme, such as apocalyptic preparedness. The author expands on that theme in different ways for the different demographics in the congregation. In particular, those Lukan demographics are the privileged and the poor. While the concern is the same in general terms, the applications vary depending on the socioeconomic locations of the listeners. If that was the case for the Lukan audience, it is certainly the case for contemporary audiences – although our American Christian listeners tend toward the privileged end of the spectrum.
Jesus paints these beautiful word pictures with ravens and lilies. God provides for them, and they don’t worry about the future. Anxiety tends to shorten our lives, not to lengthen them. Strive for the Kin(g)dom and the rest will take care of itself. “For where your treasure is,” Jesus concludes in Luke 12:34, “there also will be your (plural) heart” (my translation). Unconscious privilege is deadly. Obsessive worry deprives us of real life. God will take care of us. Just be prepared for what comes next.
We’ll have the chance to address some of these texts in the summer and fall, but it’s important to have this context in mind as we come to Luke 13. Jesus urges his disciples to be dressed and ready for action, to have their lamps lit and their eyes wide open. They can’t and won’t know the hour when the Son of Man will return. Peter asks if this counsel is for the disciples alone or for all who are listening. Jesus turns the question on its head with a parable. The point of the parable is that those who are prepared will demonstrate their discipleship.
Yet, the greatest accountability falls on those who have heard the warning (Luke 12:48b). Trouble is coming – not just before synagogues and rulers and authorities, but in the very homes and families of those who follow Jesus. This may be a particularly poignant reference to the experience of the Lukan audience, many of whom may have experienced the family divisions that Jesus describes in Luke 12:52-53.
The discourse is certainly about knowing what time it is, as we see in Luke 12:54-56. And it is about focusing on what’s important in light of the coming apocalypse. Don’t get bogged down with petty concerns, as Jesus urges in Luke 12:57-59. Settle those matters quickly and get your mind back on the important stuff. Because the time of crisis is coming.
“At that moment, some people call Jesus’ attention to the Galileans whom Pilate had murdered (Luke 13:1),” Ronald Allen writes. “Their implied question is: Were those Galileans so much worse sinners than other Galileans that they were beyond the possibility of preparing for the Realm in the way Jesus had described in Luke 12:1-56? Jesus gives a straightforward answer: ‘No,’” Allen continues. “They were not killed because of their sin. They were brutally murdered by the Romans.”
That being said, this tragedy still serves as an apocalyptic wakeup call for Jesus’ listeners. Unless we repent, we likewise will be caught unawares and unprepared when the time of trial comes. “The purpose of the stories of the Galileans and those who died at Siloam is to stress the importance of repentance as a decisive step on the journey to the Realm,” Allen suggests. “That action is necessary prelude to the life described in Luke 12:1-59. Without repentance and faithful witness, punishment awaits.”
The Parable of the Fig Tree reminds us that the end is always closer than we might think. “The listeners in Luke’s community are in the position of the tree,” Allen argues. “The time has come for them to bear the fruit of repentance. God could already have ended the present age. However, God is giving them a little more time. While the second coming is delayed,” he concludes, “the apocalypse and the moment of judgment are still ahead.”
Well, friends, the apocalypse has been delayed far longer than the Lukan author might have suspected. Does that mean that we can and should ignore the urgency of this section and our text? No, I don’t think so. The end of the world as we know it can come to us in many ways. The call to be prepared is applicable to life in numerous ways.
I have officiated at hundreds of funerals over the last forty years. Yet I was ill-prepared to deal with the sudden and unexpected death of my first spouse. In one sense, no one can be prepared for a major loss. In another sense, however, I had not really considered the possibility. Relatively early death is a feature in my family tree more than hers. I was expecting to die relatively young and had made some plans accordingly. Intellectually I knew that she could die before me, but I was not prepared emotionally or spiritually for such a possibility.
I was completed disoriented by her death. Even though I was given a path to a wonderful new life, it took me some years to really get settled in to the new reality of my existence. Only in the last few years has that new orientation really become a bit more familiar and comfortable. The advantage of my experience was that I no longer had the luxury of acting as if death was a thing that happened to other people. Death ceased to be a theoretical construct and has instead become a relatively familiar companion.
For the most part, that familiarity with death doesn’t make me morbid. It has subdued my temperament to some degree. But the chief effect in my heart has been threefold. I have learned to live now and to act decisively. I have much more time behind me than in front of me. The proximity of death and the gift of age have made me more willing to do things now, since tomorrow may never come.
A second effect of being better prepared for death is that I feel far more grateful for life and love than I think I was two decades ago. I may not take as much joy in the ravens and the lilies as, for example, my spouse now does. But I know now how much of a gift this life is and how fleeting it can be. So, I am grateful to savor the joys as they come.
The third effect is that my life is more clearly set against the horizon of eternity. I won’t get it all done. I won’t set everything right. I won’t accomplish all I’ve planned. That’s fine. I seek to find my treasure where Jesus wants my heart to be. That’s the best way, in my experience, of living a life of grateful repentance.
Some interpreters and editions separate Luke 13:1-5 (“Repent or Perish” in the Nestle-Aland volume) from Luke 13:6-9 (“The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree”). I think that’s not a helpful separation, no matter how tempting it might be. The parable in verses 6-9 is intended to interpret and expand the teaching on repentance that comprises verses 1-5. “In its narrative context,” Levine and Witherington write, “the Parable of the Fig Tree…is a commentary on the two disasters in Judea; for Luke, the tree is an allegorical representation of the person who needs to repent” (page 365).
The Galileans who bled to death in front of a Temple altar in Jerusalem had no time to make amends for sins still “on the books” of their lives. They were here one moment and gone the next. The (Judean?) construction workers who died in the collapse of the Tower of Siloam had no time to satisfy their moral and spiritual debts. In a moment, their lives were over. The clock had run out. For them there were no more tomorrows.
In light of that sudden and unexpected end, Jesus tells a story about a near miss and a second chance. The parable creates all sorts of interpretive speculation about tree planting and manure spreading. It has been used as an allegory since some of the earliest centuries of the Christian Church. Those allegories – many of which have imagined the fig tree as “unfruitful” Israel – are not particularly helpful to us and have been one more element in the anti-Judaism impact of the New Testament.
Let’s avoid that mistake, shall we?
The general tenor of the narrative in this stretch of the Lukan account is the theme of unexpected results. Let’s work our way backwards in the chapter. In the parable of the Narrow Door (Luke 13:23-30), the guest list is quite the opposite of what Jesus’ listeners might have expected. Nonetheless, the eschatological feast is standing room only, with guests from every point of the compass coming and eating in the Kin(g)dom of God.
In the mini-parables of the mustard seed and the yeast (Luke 13:18-22), the image is of something very small that produces large results. The Kin(g)dom of God is comparable to these surprising results. In the Healing of the Bent-over Woman (Luke 1:10-17), the woman had been imprisoned by her ailment for eighteen years. What hope could there be for her healing? Yet, Jesus spoke and laid hands on her. She stood up straight and began praising God.
It’s amazing what Jesus can do with second chances, eh?
Perhaps this is one of the ways to approach the text. Every day we live is a “second chance.” When we focus on the potential culpability of those who died in Jerusalem, Justo Gonzalez suggests, we are asking the question backwards. “The surprising thing is not that so many die,” he writes, “but that we still live. If it were a matter of sin,” Gonzalez continues, “we would all be dead” (Kindle Location 3238).
What, Gonzalez asks, does the parable mean? It means that those of who still survive “are living only by the grace of God, and that our continued life is for the purpose that we bear fruit” (Kindle Location 3245). But it means more than that. And here is where Gonzalez’ commentary gets really interesting.
“It also means that even our apparent blessing and abundance are not necessarily something of which we should boast,” he continues. “The tree that has produced no fruit receives special attention and added fertilizer, not because it is so good, but rather because it is so poor” (Kindle Location 3246, my emphasis). This tree has not been blessed with abundance. It has nothing to commend it to the landowner. So far, the tree has been a disappointment and is just taking up space.
Gonzalez suggests that to the casual observer, all the extra attention the tree will receive would be a sign that the tree is specially blessed. “This is what one would expect on the premises of the so-called gospel of prosperity,” he writes, “good things are a reward for faith and fruitfulness. But the truth is exactly the opposite,” Gonzalez continues. “The fig tree is receiving special care because it has yet to give the fruit it was meant to bear” (Kindle Location 3253).
This interpretation takes, for example, the self-serving bias of White supremacy and turns it on its head. “Could it be,” Gonzalez asks, “that the reason why some of us have been given all these advantages is that otherwise we would have great difficulty bearing fruit?” (Kindle Location 3261). Perhaps all our supposed “blessings” are “just so much manure, piled on us because otherwise we would be such lousy fruit trees?” (Kindle Location 3262). I get the sense that Gonzalez offers this interpretation knowing that white people won’t quite get it, at least not right away.
Most important, Gonzalez suggests – might our power, privilege, position, and property be a warning about impending doom lest we bear fruit? And could it be that bearing fruit means sharing our abundance with those who have less rather than accumulating our stuff as a means of self-satisfied self-congratulation (see Luke 16:19-31, again). Might our survival for one more day be the result, not of our great planning and foresight (and hoarding of the good stuff), but rather because the Tree Planter has decided to give us another chance?
The Second Letter of Peter carries forth this thought in verses eight and nine of chapter three (NRSV). “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
You may know, as a reader of my posts, that I am a Christian universalist and hold no brief for eternal conscious punishment. I don’t think the threat here is hell as punishment. It is, rather, the potential hell of complete self-awareness on the part of us who have not born fruit.
What will it be like to come to the end of my earthly life knowing that I used my “fruit” only for me and that now I am privileged to spend eternity with those who were deprived in this life because I wanted to have too much? Will that realization not be as much hell and conscious torment as anyone might need standing in the presence of the God of second chances?
It will be enough for me, I think. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know what it means to ruminate over sixty-five years of regret and remorse. The prospect of facing up to all my failings in an instant, all the missed opportunities, all the losses of nerve, all the blissful and willful ignorance of the needs of others – that’s almost more than I can bear to consider at the moment.
This is one of the opportunities of our Lenten journey – to remember that we still have time to live fruitfully. Another way to think about this is that repentance requires repair before reconciliation. Richard Swanson points out that “Jewish faith recognizes that there is a solid, concrete reality to repentance and faith” (page 124). Feeling sorry may begin a process of repentance, but it is only a beginning. Repair is a necessary element.
This Sunday and next, I’m doing two sessions of an adult forum on forgiving and being forgiven. It’s a classic example of the old saying that those who can’t do end up teaching. I’m hardly an exemplar of either being forgiven or forgiving. Thus, everything I say about repentance is directed first and foremost to me.
And I’m not sure I’ll get anywhere close to getting it right in this life. Frankly, it worries me (a bit). That being said, we’ll start our reflections on Sunday with the discipline of being forgiven. We’ll get to forgiving the next Sunday. But I want to start with the hard part first.
The French have a proverb which notes that “to forgive is first of all to accuse.” If someone forgives me for something, that person is convinced that I have done harm to that person. Otherwise, what is there to forgive? The corollary to that proverb, I think, is that “to repent is first of all to confess.” If I need to repent of a sin, then I have to acknowledge that I did something wrong. Otherwise, what is there to repent?
When I see myself as that fig tree, the first thing I must do is to acknowledge that I have born little fruit. If I had been fruitful, I wouldn’t need the extra time (or the manure treatment).
A brief note about that manure treatment. “Give me some time to dig around the roots and throw shit,” the gardener proposes in Luke 13:8. The final Greek word in the sentence is “kopria.” It really does mean “poop.” For example, coprolites are fossilized feces, dinosaur turds turned to stone by the passage of time. I mention this because most of my opportunities for growth are likely to be uncomfortable and/or unpleasant. Discomfort is likely a sign that I’m getting the treatment I need, no matter how much I might dislike it at the time.
How is the Lord digging around my roots and throwing shit at me to help me grow into the human I was created to be?
References and Resources
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, has written another book. This one is called Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021). She titles the second chapter of the new book, “Why It’s OK to Generalize About White People.”
DiAngelo notes that one of the most consistent complaints she gets in her work is that she is generalizing about White people. She gets accused of stereotyping White people rather than treating them as “individuals.” The accusation might even lead in some settings to accusations (although DiAngelo doesn’t mention this at this point) of “reverse racism.”
Why do I mention this here? I mention it because the pushback DiAngelo receives strikes me as a White supremacist variety of the self-serving bias. The complaint she receives is that she is not treating White people as the discrete and unique individuals they really are. All those “other people” may be guilty of racist actions, language, and thinking. But you don’t know me, as an individual White person. You don’t know my heart as an individual White heart. So, don’t go making broad generalizations and then lumping me into the mix as a generic White person.
I’m different. I’m an individual, as opposed to all those other people.
Central to the narrative of White supremacy, according to DiAngelo and other scholars, is the ideology of individualism. American society lives with an irreconcilable tension. On the one hand, our political ideology says that all people are created equal. On the other hand, DiAngelo writes, “we each occupy distinct raced (and gendered, classed, etc.) positions that profoundly shape our life chances in ways that are not voluntary or random” (pages 22-23). The narrative of individualism is the way we White people manage this tension.
This narrative of individualism “posits that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of a systemic structure but of individual character. Individualism,” DiAngelo continues, “claims that success is independent of position, that one succeeds through individual effort alone, and that there are no favored starting positions that provide competitive advantage” (page 23). That sounds a great deal like the interior dimension of the self-serving bias.
We all know this argument. Other people may have had help from their family, their birth, their zip code, their education, their friendship network, their gender, their language, their looks, and dumb luck. I, on the other hand, have pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I have succeeded through hard work, intelligence, and good choices. No one has given me anything. I earned it all. I was just as disadvantaged as the next person, and I succeeded anyway. So, stop all the whining about systemic bias and institutional injustice.
Most people realize that it makes no sense to argue that I’ve done it my way, but everyone else is a victim of systems and circumstances. This is the “they are worse sinners than me” argument. Therefore, everyone must be an individual if I am to maintain my mythology of personal accomplishment. If everyone is an individual – completely unaffected by external and societal constraints – then the fact that you’re having some trouble is just your own damn fault.
Do you think those other people are sinners and you’re not? Best not to bring that one up with Jesus, especially before he’s had his morning whatever.
If the ideology of individualism is part of the narrative underpinning of White supremacy, as DiAngelo and others argue that it is, then it’s much more serious than just a thing that makes your arrogant neighbor such a pain in the ass. She writes that the ideology of individualism is one of the common barriers that keeps us White people from seeing our own racism. DiAngelo “is not denying that we are all individuals in general.” Instead, she seeks “to demonstrate how white insistence on individualism in discussions of racism in particular prevents cross-racial understanding and denies the salience of race in our lives” (page 23).
In order to interrogate the ideology of individualism in more detail, DiAngelo asks the important critical question. How does this ideology “function”? That is, what does the narrative of individualism do for those who benefit from that narrative? She argues that individualism “denies the significance of race and the advantages of being white” (page 25). The narrative removes us history and its messy stories of responsibility, and it makes whiteness the universal standard for normalcy.
In addition, the ideology of individualism allows us White people to deny that there is a social hierarchy that helps to determine the distribution and acquisition of power. “If we insist that group membership is insignificant,” DiAngelo argues, “social inequity and its consequences become personally irrelevant. So too,” she continues, “does any imperative to change inequity” (page 33). As individuals we aren’t responsible for the bad actions of other White people. We aren’t responsible for the misfortune of BIPOC members of our society. In fact, we aren’t responsible for anyone but ourselves.
In that narrative, DiAngelo notes, we all end up in our “natural” places. If we are powerful, privileged, positioned, and propertied – and if all of that is the result of our individual initiative – then things are just as they “should” be. The fact that White people are ten times more likely to be those privileged people is either a statistical accident or because White people are just better at everything. Individualism results, DiAngelo notes, in a system that asserts meritocracy, Social Darwinism, and White superiority. How else can one explain the “individual” differences of outcome?
Now DiAngelo arrives at the answer to the chapter’s overall question. Why is it OK to generalize about White people (and not about BIPOC people)? It’s about the outcomes. If individualism is only granted to White people, then whatever is “wrong” with a particular Black person, for example, is “wrong” with all Black persons. White individualism results in White superiority and supremacy.
If, on the other hand, individualism is granted to Black people, the dynamic is reversed. “Granting Black people individuality,” DiAngelo writes, “interrupts a racist dynamic within a culture that has denied their individuality. Conversely,” she concludes, “suspending individuality for white people is a necessary interruption to our denial of collective advantage” (page 35). We can’t claim individual merit and ignore that this only seems to work for White people. But that’s what White superiority seeks to do.
DiAngelo offers an exercise to thoughtful White people who want to do some critical reasoning here. “A simple question can be applied to any exception white people offer up as evidence that they are free from racial conditioning,” she suggests, “How does being white shape how you experience that exception?” (page 36).
Let me try a church-y example. I think many of our “nice racist” ELCA congregations wonder why more people of color don’t sit in our pews and join our congregations. One of many answers to that wondering is that our traditional worship style is not attractive to people from other worship cultures. If we’re honest, we nice racist Christians wonder why people from other worship cultures can’t see that “our” worship is the “right” kind of worship – liturgically correct, historically accurate, theologically appropriate, aesthetically pleasing. We resist questioning that assumption because that questioning will produce civil war in the Whites only pews.
But how does being White shape our experience here? Either we think that our personal preferences are more important than those on the outside, or we think that our way of doing things is better than the ways of others. So, we either put ourselves and our preferences first, or we assert that the preferences of others are deficient (or both!). We nice racist Christians can’t stand to do either of those things (theoretically). So, we ignore the issue and wonder why those outside don’t “get it.” I like my worship my way. Why can’t you?
We White Christians have been conditioned to being in charge. We have been conditioned to believe that our way is always the best, the superior way. We have been conditioned to assume that we are at the center of the culture, the Church, and the universe. We have been conditioned to assume that being comfortable in church is not only our privilege but our birthright. Anyone who challenges that conditioning is spoiling for a fight and is likely to lose – especially if that anyone is some meddlesome pastor who can certainly be moved on with little fuss or muss.
“We [White people] receive plenty of reinforcement on what makes us special,” DiAngelo writes. “We have likely offered up our exceptions countless times when the conversation is on race. Let’s try stretching in a new direction,” she urges. “One day, we may treat every person as a unique individual, but it is precisely because that day is not here that the insistence on individualism is so pernicious” (page 36).
The Lukan account is known for an emphasis on the “Great Reversal.” We have one of those Great Reversal verses in Luke 13:30, a small conclusion to this section of the gospel. Perhaps we could read the Great Reversal this way. Those who have had the power to pretend to be individuals will no longer have that power. And those who have been relegated to a featureless mass of identity will be seen by God for who they are (for example, look at how this works in Luke 16:19-31).
If that’s the case (and I would argue that it is), then we nice, racist, White, liberal Christians have some deep thinking and praying and repenting to keep on doing.
Pontius Pilate made a public example of some Galilean Jews who perhaps made their religious patriotism a bit too obvious and overt to suit Pilate. The details of the atrocity may be interesting to pursue this week but are not to the point at the moment. I want to think about the conversation – not reported in the text – which may have led up to Jesus’ challenging reply.
“And [Jesus], answering, said to them, ‘Do you reckon that these Galileans were sinners when compared to Galileans in general, because they have suffered in this way?” (Luke 13:2, my translation). “’Or those eighteen upon whom fell the tower in Siloam and killed them, do you reckon that they were transgressors when compared to all of the people who were living in Jerusalem?’” (Luke 13:4, my translation).
In other words, Jesus asks, do you disciples reckon that somehow all these people deserved their fate? Perhaps we can imagine the conversation that led up to these pointed questions. One of the disciples mentions a story in the local gossip network of the moment. This would be similar to someone at the coffee shop pointing to a story in the morning paper. “Terrible tragedy,” people would murmur. And then someone would take the inevitable next step. “I wonder why things like that happen?”
Why them and not me? Is it purely the luck of the draw that keeps me safe and breathing for another day? Most of us, most of the time, find that answer massively unsatisfying and deeply troubling. We are sense-making creatures. Things need to happen for a reason. If they don’t, the world becomes a much scarier and less reliable place. We engage in some elementary terror-management strategy to explain bad things and to reassure ourselves that we are safe.
H. L. Mencken once wrote, “There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong.” I imagine the conversation continued something like this. Obviously, the people who died did something to cause the tragedy, whether they knew it or not. The Galilean worshippers were probably a bit too public in their religious patriotism. They should have known better than to make such a display. And those construction workers – maybe they got it wrong or cut corners. Or maybe the contractor was known for shoddy practices and right-thinking laborers avoided working for such a boss.
We do that sort of thing all the time. We face a random, senseless, tragic event. People get hurt and die. If we aren’t those victims, we begin to look for reasons to blame the victims for their calamities. That’s my default response most of the time. I’ve grown enough to refrain from saying such things out loud. But I know that in my brain, that’s the first connection I make. I have to stop, spend some energy rewinding, and tell myself a different and more complex story.
I know from my own experience how much discipline, energy, and effort that takes. When I am stressed, tired, or afraid, I don’t have that much extra energy. How many times have I had to apologize for blaming my spouse, my kids, a co-worker, a friend, or a stranger for something bad that happened to them? I have no idea, but the number is huge. So, I don’t begrudge the disciples their background conversation that prompted Jesus’ terse and testy response.
We are creatures who seek meaning, who look for patterns, whose survival has depended on accurately diagnosing cause and effect. Since the world is a threatening place, even a bad explanation can keep a person alive if it works. We have evolved in such a way that we prefer a bad explanation to no explanation. Suspending judgment, waiting for more evidence, choosing to live with mystery – these are not responses that come easily or naturally to any of us.
If our desires for meaning and order, pattern and predictability, were all that was at stake here, that would be bad enough. But our preference for bad explanations over no explanations is enhanced by a whole series of biases and heuristics we bring to the conversation. We can begin with the heuristic that the disciples used in several of their conversations. We can call that the Deuteronomy heuristic (Dh) if we wish.
We can find a textbook example of the Dh in John 9:2b. In the story of the Healing of the Man Born Blind, the disciples ask Jesus a direct question. “Rabbi, who sinned, this one or his parents, in order that he was born blind?” (my translation). The assumption was that someone had to sin in order to provoke the punishing response from God. That assumption is stitched into the fabric of the book of Deuteronomy. But it informs most of the Old Testament. Just look at the arguments Job’s friends offer for an extended summary of the Dh.
If something bad happens, someone is responsible, and punishment is forthcoming. It is a straightforward system of cause and effect. Of course, the system doesn’t work. The wicked prosper. The righteous suffer (just ask the Psalmist for a conversation on this). A man who is blameless before God, Job, is reduced to abject poverty, scraping the pus off his boils as he wears sackcloth and rests on the ashes of his former “blessings.” And all of that last bit because God and Satan had a wager.
The Deuteronomy heuristic doesn’t work. But that doesn’t keep us from continuing to use it. We have demystified and de-theologized it to some degree. People who get sick didn’t take care of themselves. People who die in car accidents weren’t careful drivers. Poor people are bad managers, lazy, don’t want to work, haven’t taken advantage of opportunities, or would rather be criminals. Black and brown people live in defective cultures that don’t value the right things, so they get left behind.
We may not call those supposed defects “sins” (although some Christians certainly do). But the heuristic works the same way. Because x did y, x must suffer. I’m not x, and I don’t do y. That’s why my life is a bowl of cherries. Yay for me!
If something doesn’t go well for me, I can always fall back on the self-serving bias. This bias describes our tendency to attribute positive outcomes to our own sterling character and to blame external factors for negative outcomes. If I succeed at work, I might assume that it’s because I am intelligent, hard-working, competent, and experienced. If I fail at work, I might assume that it’s because my boss is a jerk, the company is run by idiots, the customers are unreasonable, the market is crap, and the country’s going to hell in a handbasket.
The reverse of this bias is even more inaccurate and insidious. I tend to attribute my success to all my wonderful characteristics. I tend to attribute your success to external factors or just dumb luck. I tend to attribute my failures to things beyond my control and responsibility. I tend to attribute your failures to your negative characteristics – things entirely within your control and responsibility. Thus, if bad things happen to you, it’s your own damn fault.
I don’t think the Lukan author was a prescient first-century psychologist. But I do think that Jesus knows the human heart, whatever the era or culture. Do you think those particular Galileans were sinners when compared to the rest of you? Yes, indeed you do. Do you think those particular construction workers were sinners when compared to the rest of you? Yes, indeed you do. Jesus says, “Knock that crap off!” This “better” and “worse” business is just a way to make ourselves feel a little less terrified of the inherent unpredictability of human existence in a broken world.
Stop it, Jesus says. Stop using the misfortune of others to make yourselves feel better about dodging the bullet one more time.
Of course, this text is part of the larger Lukan narrative. Jesus spends the previous chapter talking about persecution and judgment. Faithful following doesn’t mean that life will be calm and carefree. In fact, following Jesus may make things worse for some disciples rather than better. At least some of the Lukan audience may have experienced negative consequences for following Jesus. Others, it would seem, used their privileged positions to avoid such negative consequences.
Perhaps some of the Lukan audience had begun to adopt a first-century version of the Prosperity Gospel. The relatively privileged in the community may have attributed their power, position, privilege, and property to their own good character and righteous conduct. Those in the community who suffered from want and persecution were, perhaps, lazy troublemakers who got what they deserved.
There’s nothing like the self-serving bias to get us off the hook for personal repentance and social responsibility. If your problems are your fault, then they are certainly not my problems.
The grammar indicates that the disciples expected a “yes” answer to Jesus’ rhetorical questions. Jesus’ actual answer is along the lines of, “Oh, hell no!” He begins the reply with an emphatic negative. “Oh, hell no! I am telling you, rather, unless you change your thinking, you all likewise will be destroyed” (Luke 13:5, my translation).