by Pastor Sarah Stadler
In today’s gospel, someone in the crowd following Jesus tells him about how Pilate murdered Galileans and mixed their blood with blood used for non-Jewish sacrifice.
Jesus asks: Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Jesus then recalls how the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people beneath it. He asks: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No. The answer to both of these questions, no. Were these murdered people worse sinners than others? No. Were they killed because of their actions, because of their morals, because of their choices? No.
Phew! Thanks be to God! End of sermon.
Ha! I wish. Strangely, Jesus follows up both of his “no”s with these words: “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Jesus seems to contradict himself. He seems to say that they didn’t repent and that is why they were killed. He seems to imply that unrepented sin leads to untimely death, maybe even eternal condemnation.
In Greek, the word we translate as “repentance” is metanoia, and in Greek, metanoia means to turn around. We’ve done this more than once here at Grace where I’ve asked you to stand and then turn around, to literally repent. And in those instances, we’ve talked about how repenting is to not simply to apologize for sin, not simply to confess our sin to God, not simply to reconcile with our neighbor whom we’ve harmed. In those instances, we’ve discussed how metanoia, repentance is moving in the opposite direction of our sin, of actually doing something different, of turning around our behavior, whether individual or communal.
I must confess, though: I have always been confused about repentance. While I know what the Greek word that we translate as repentance literally means, how repentance functions I don’t understand theologically. Some Christians believe that repentance, turning around, is necessary for God to forgive us of our sin. I have heard many people say, “God forgives us—if we repent.” Martin Luther, the reformer of the church, didn’t quite see it that way. He teaches in the Small Catechism that the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion provide forgiveness of sin. No repentance required.
One of the tricky things about believing God’s forgiveness hinges on our repentance is that it necessitates detailing our sin. Sin doesn’t come on a list with a box next to each infraction. “Check all that apply.” And then turn in the completed form to the guy in the white robe. That might be very comforting—to know exactly when we fell short and when we succeeded—but the law of God filtered through the choices of our daily lives just isn’t that clear.
Even if we detailed our sin and turned around and traveled in the other direction, even if we made progress on one of our identified sins, how many of us will resolutely keep our eyes on the prize and stay the course day in, day out for the rest of our lives? That’d be tough—if that were the expectation of repentance and if repentance were required for forgiveness. If God requires that kind of persistent sin-aversion for the rest of our lives, we are all in trouble.
The other reason I’ve long been confused about repentance is because of how Jesus uses the word in his teaching and preaching. First of all, Jesus never uses the words “repent” or “repentance” in the gospel of John—not even once. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the words “repent” and “repentance” appear a few times in conjunction with forgiveness. But for the vast majority of the 24 times Jesus utters the words “repent” or “repentance,” he references repentance as an action appropriate because the kingdom of God has come near. Apparently that is unsurprising to scholars because, in studying commentaries and listening to theological podcasts this week, I heard scholars say, quite serenely: Well, of course, repentance is not a moral act. Repentance is perception, perceiving the kingdom of God breaking into the world. And I was like: What?! I had never heard that before. But biblical scholars from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota very calmly reframed my whole thinking about repentance. By calling for repentance, Jesus calls those who follow him to see the kingdom of God breaking into the world.
Back to questions Jesus asks in the gospel today. After hearing of the murdered Galileans and the eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell, Jesus asks: do you think that they, the people who were killed, were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. Unless you see the kingdom of God breaking into the world, you will continue to struggle with questions of worthiness and judgment and sin. Because don’t we wonder about the very questions Jesus raises? Don’t we like to compare our sin to others’? Don’t we like to say to the one who catches us in the act, “Well, I may have been speeding, but what about the other guy who sped right past me?” Don’t we get caught up in weighing our sin—as if it determined our worthiness, our belovedness, our value?
When we see the kingdom of God breaking into the world, we stop asking those questions, at least so urgently. When we turn around and see the world from the perspective of God, we don’t need to judge ourselves or others, to hurt ourselves or others. God is not as miserly as we are with love and forgiveness and grace. God does not sit in heaven counting our trespasses against us. Seeing the kingdom of God break into the world rearranges our priorities. We see a kingdom of love and joy, justice and peace, and we want to share it. When we see the kingdom of God break into the brokenness of the world, we don’t succumb to despair because of all the suffering, and we don’t wearily point fingers of accusation at those who caused the suffering. We ask God how we can participate in the kingdom of God, and we follow the call of the Spirit in responding to the suffering of the world. And of course, we struggle. People we love die. We get sick. Relationships end. We lose our homes or our jobs. We get hurt. But these things do not determine our value, make us victims, or mean that God punishes us. Rather, in a limited, imperfect world, God invites us to see what God is doing—and to join in!