Two deeply troubling events are on everybody’s minds. People are looking for answers, explanations, comfort, hope. But when Jesus gives his verdict, it’s not the response they expect.
Everyone is talking about Pilate’s brutal treatment of some Galileans and the collapse of a tower in Jerusalem.
You may think that Jesus deals with these two deeply troubling events in an unkind and uncaring way. We might have hoped for a more pastoral and sympathetic response from Jesus. But instead Jesus takes the opportunity to speak about repentance.
Then and now
There is a very specific purpose and meaning in Jesus’ words here, which applies to those incidents and those people at that time.
And there are some lessons for us today.
Its important not to rush to make Jesus’ words into commentary on contemporary acts of violence or tragic accidents.
Let’s start with what was happening at that moment in time.
Jesus is on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. In chapter nine verse 51 Luke tells us that Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. The years of preparation are over. Jesus knows that he must fulfil his mission in Jerusalem.
On this journey to Jerusalem Jesus is accompanied by his disciples and a growing crowd of followers (Luke 9:52, 10:1, 11:27, 12:1). Marches are still quite common today – we’ve seen some in recent days. A cause or a charismatic leader can still draw a crowd.
Along the way Jesus has shared some of his most important teaching. He’s been teaching his fellow Galileans that the kingdom of God is coming right here and now (Luke 10:24). The new way of life foreseen by the prophets is being revealed right now by Jesus. And Jesus illustrates this new way of life with parables like the Good Samaritan (10:25), and the story of the rich farmer who builds bigger barns (12:16). He teaches the Lord’s Prayer (11:2). He calls them to depend on God like the birds of the air and lilies of the field (12:22).
In short Jesus is teaching this vast crowd that there is a new way of life to be lived – and that his death and resurrection will be the key to unlocking that life. The old way of life is passing away. A new way of life, lived in the power of the Spirit of God, shaped by the word of God, spent in the service of God, is now possible.
When we join this massed band of pilgrims in chapter 13 a shocking report had just reached them. Some Galileans had been brutally killed in Jerusalem and, in a way calculated cause maximum offense, their blood had been mixed with the sacrificial blood of the animals they had brought to the temple. This may have been a group of hot-headed pilgrims who had raced on ahead of Jesus and the crowd and started a small uprising, the kind of thing that Galilean rebels were famous for. These Galileans who were not living the new way of life taught by Jesus, but according to the old ways of violence and force and bloodshed. The temple was the perfect place for making a scene. Governor Pontius Pilate responds swiftly and decisively. He had a reputation for this kind of thing.
The news of this obviously unsettles the other Galileans following Jesus to Jerusalem. Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the crowds three important lessons:
- V2 The fate of these murdered Galileans is not a pay back for their sin. The report seems loaded with some idea that God has allowed or planned their deaths, that these men fought a noble cause, but their sins denied them the success they deserved. Surely any attempt by loyal God-fearing Jesus to undermine Roman rule would be blessed by God, unless they were notorious sinners? Jesus is clear that God does not work like that. He is not storing up pain and a cruel death for notorious sinners. Instead Jesus says that all Galileans are sinners, everyone who has followed him from Galilee is a sinner.
- The second lesson is in V3. The problem is, Jesus is saying, is that if you insist on taking up swords against Rome, if you continue to stir up rebellion, if you try to retake Israel by force, you too will perish in the same or a similar way. ‘I’m not calling you to fight for God, but to repent and live the life of the kingdom of God. The call to repent is the call to give up hating your enemies and fighting you enemies and instead love your enemies’ (Luke 6:27). The crowds no doubt wanted from Jesus a word about the cruelty of Rome and about how only notorious sinners would die that kind of death. Instead they are called once again to repent of lives of spiralling sin and embrace the ways of the kingdom of God.
- The third lesson is in V4. While we’re on this subject, continues Jesus, when the walls and towers of Jerusalem fall down on people don’t assume it’s about payback for sin. Everyone in Jerusalem is guilty of sin. If you hang around Jerusalem fighting the Romans soon enough the walls will come on you too. A predication about the impending destruction of Jerusalem which Jesus expands in Luke 21:20-24.
His mission is not about taking the fight to Rome, or propping up the walls of Jerusalem as they crumble. His mission is about a new heart and a new way of life. When we repent and embrace that mission we become players in the renewal of the world Jesus came to save.
Jesus warns the crowds against fighting Rome in God’s name because the only outcome will be death and destruction. The kingdom of God can never be built that way.
2000 years on the call to repent remains as urgent and relevant as ever. Our error is not likely to be taking up arms in order to establish God’s kingdom. But we can still try to build God’s kingdom in our own strength or run the world according to human wisdom or cling on to crumbling institutions. If we don’t repent of such things we will simply perpetuate the brokenness of our lives and the world around us. If we live the life of the kingdom, shaped by the spirit of God, guided by the word of God, we can be part of the change we long for.
Jesus’ call to repent is all about that transition. Repentance can be about turning our backs on a specific sin – confessing and doing away with a bad attitude, giving up a dark habit – but repentance is so much bigger than that. It’s about the acknowledging that a life without God is futile. It’s about running willingly and joyfully towards Jesus and letting him determine what is right and wrong and living his way. It’s about accepting the gift of a future with our loving Father and Saviour.
The parable Jesus tells about the fig tree (13:6) speaks of God’s patience with us as we come to terms with all this. The fig tree has three years to bear fruit, and an extra year of grace. Repentance shows itself in visible fruit. Sometimes in a big and obvious way, but more usually in small and gradual ways, we begin to see that we are living our lives shaped around the way of Jesus. People see it in us and the effect of having Jesus in our lives begins to multiply. But the window of opportunity does close. Jesus is unashamed to say ‘seize the moment’. Why risk becoming hard hearted and dried up and unfruitful when today you could repent and begin to live new life?