A Change of Heart
(Luke 13: 1-9)
I don’t know if you’ve ever had one of those discussions with an atheist or a non-believer or someone who has been seriously hurt by the church, who, without reservation, tells you that he or she doesn’t believe in God. The topic usually comes up right after they figure out you are a Christian or maybe after you’ve said something about your faith. They quickly want you to know that they don’t believe as if they’re afraid you might try to turn them or start witnessing to them. Sometimes, you get the feeling they’re testing you and want to draw you into a debate. Now, don’t get me wrong, I not being critical or their non-belief. They have a right not to believe. Afterall, we all start out as non-believers. Their common question or statement of fact goes something like this: “How can you believe in a just and loving God after witnessing this tragedy,” referring to some horrible and inexplicable mass shooting or other instance of evil. Or it might be something like: “If God really were in control, all those people wouldn’t have died in that disaster,” referring to a catastrophic earthquake or tsunami for example. Both are really good questions that we should be ready to answer.
Sometimes, I can tell they aren’t being sincere, and they really aren’t interested in me telling them about God, Jesus, love, hope, peace, salvation and eternal life. This isn’t to say I haven’t had genuine conversations with those who want to know what it is that I have that allows me to function every day. These are really great, one-on-one meaningful conversations that usually take place when they come by the church looking for help. But often times the other person has some sort of agenda or bone to pick and you are just providing the opportunity for them to rant or vent. In these particular encounters I tell them that I see two possible scenarios. The first is, if they are right and there is no God, then when they die they’re dead. The end, the final chapter. And if I die and there is no God, I’ve lived a good life as if there was a God, leading a life of purpose and have died having no regrets. The second scenario is that if I’m right and there is a God, when the non-believer dies, he stays dead, but I get to live on. That really confounds them, and they demand to know how I know. I just tell them I know, but won’t be absolutely sure until I die, so in the meantime I’m going to live as if there is a life after death. I do offer to give them an Owner’s Manual, so they can study it for themselves. Those that come by the church looking for help usually take one and I do hope they read it. I’ve started giving out copies of Eugene Peterson’s The Message as it is written in a more easily understood contemporary style that hopefully is more understandable. I’ve developed a 3-step approach for those who come in. First, we have a conversation where I learn more about them and their circumstances just in case I can refer them to one of the entities we support. At that point, I give them a QFC gift card and we close with a prayer. Sometimes, I give them a New Testament or a copy of the Message. It just depends. After they’ve left, I send them a personalized note with one of my cross-cut pennies and a $10.00 Starbucks card inviting them to have a cup of coffee on us. After a week or two, I follow up by sending them a copy of The Message which is Eugene Peterson’s translation of the New Testament in a contemporary style that I hope is easier for them to grasp.
In any event, this is where we find ourselves in our scripture reading for today. Chapter 13 begins by telling us that some of those who were present to hear Jesus were telling him about an incident they had witnessed where some Galileans were killed by Pilate while they were offering sacrifices to God. Pilate was known for not being sympathetic to the needs of the Jewish people and it is believed that they may have been killed because he thought they were rebelling against Rome. The Pharisees, who were opposed to the use of force when dealing with Rome, would have rationalized that the Galileans deserved to die for their act of rebellion. Jesus responded: Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. Jesus then doubled down and rhetorically asked: What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Here he is referring to some workers who were working for the Romans on an aqueduct that collapsed. The Zealots, a group of anti-Roman terrorists, would have said the aqueduct workers deserved to die for cooperating with Rome. Jesus asked; Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.
This idea that judgment and death are the results of sin led to the belief that tragic death was the result of extreme sin. This was a commonly held view in Judaism and one that we still hear, even though we should know better. In the book; Why? Making Sense of God’s Will by Adam Hamilton he delves into the question of Why Do the Innocent Suffer? Something terrible happens for which there is no logical explanation, and somebody remarks: “It must have been the will of God, or it was part of God’s plan.” Suffering, unanswered prayers, and the unfairness of life naturally lead us to question God’s goodness and sometimes to question God’s very existence. Our disappointment with God in the face of suffering or tragedy or injustice typically stems from our assumption about how God is supposed to work in our world. When God doesn’t meet our expectations, we are disappointed, disillusioned, and confused. Some people believe that if you lead a good life, God will reward you, and if something bad happens, it must be because of something you did to anger God.
Trust me, that is not the message of the Bible. The Bible message is not one of a promise that those who do believe and do good will not suffer. The Bible definitely does not teach that those who follow God will have a life of bliss. Instead, the Bible is about people who refused to let go of their faith in the face of suffering and loss. Everything does not happen for a reason and it is not the will of God. It is not God’s will that thousands die of starvation or that whole populations are wiped out by some natural disaster. It is, however, God’s will that we do something to ease the pain and suffering of others. It’s easy to understand why so many people have turned away from God when they have been taught that every disappointment, every tragedy, every loss, and every painful experience was the will of God. Hamilton gives us three foundational ideas to help us understand this human cause and effect. The first is that God has given us dominion over the planet, making us responsible for what happens here. The second is that we have the ability, the free will, to choose between good and evil. The third is that we struggle with our freedom, our free will, and have an innate tendency to be drawn toward those things that are not God’s will. God has given us an intellect, a soul, and a conscience in order to help us know right from wrong. This is why Jesus is calling us to repent, to have a change of heart. If we don’t, we’ll be just like the non-believers, dying like them.
To underscore his point, Jesus tells them a parable about a man who owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. The man came looking for fruit and found none so he said to his gardener that he had been coming to the tree for three years looking for fruit to find the tree bearing no fruit. He tells the gardener to cut it down as it is wasting space and taking nutrients from the soil that would be better served on a fruit producing tree. The gardener responds; Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down. In this parable, the man is God and the fig tree is the nation of Israel. God’s patience is wearing thin with his chosen people. This is a warning from Jesus to his listeners that God would not tolerate forever their lack of productivity.
And that’s what we disciples of Jesus Christ have been doing for the past two thousand years. We’ve been working on a fig tree that has been reluctant to produce fruit without a little encouragement. We’ve been pruning, watering, and fertilizing in hopes that we can produce a bountiful crop that will be pleasing to the owner.
My study Bible asked an interesting question. Have you been enjoying God’s special treatment without giving anything in return? If so, respond to the gardener’s patient care, and begin to bear the fruit God has created you to produce. Personally, I think we, as a church, are producing some pretty good fruit but I understand that with more care and help from the Master Gardener, experimenting with different techniques, so we can produce more abundant and sweeter fruit if we only respond to his loving touch and direction.
Please pray with me.
Most loving and merciful God, draw us close and instill in us the desire to do your will and your work here on your creation. We know that you are a just and patient God but that you expect us to live lives that are pleasing to you and productive. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit we pray that we experience a change of heart that will cause us to be God-centered and not self-centered. We thank you for your Son, our Master Gardener, who lovingly tends to us nourishing our souls and quenching our thirst with the living water that leads us to be a people who help people bringing them to a relationship with you so that they too can join us in producing more fruit. Grant us the time to do your will. In Jesus name, we pray, Amen.