Bible verses for reflection: Ezekiel 36:8-11,25-28; Luke 13:1-9

As many of you have heard over the years, one of the touchstones of the Presbyterian faith is “total depravity”. Total depravity means that all human beings are sinners in the sight of God. All human beings are justly deserving of God’s displeasure.

As the scripture says, “No one is righteous, not even one,” which means that those other people over there are no worse sinners than these people over here.

Those people in the West Bank or Gaza, or those people in Baghdad or Damascus, or those people OTP, in the suburbs, are no worse sinners than those people ITP, in the city. That church on the other side of the county, or that mosque on the other side of the world, or that political party with whom you disagree, is no worse an offender before God than is Decatur Presbyterian Church.

Get this – that presidential candidate that you cannot stand – fill in the blank, we all probably have at least one that we cannot abide – is no worse a sinner than you or than me. Do you believe it?  Can you take that to heart? Can you admit to yourself that you are just as undeserving of the grace of God as that candidate that you cannot stand?

There is not one human being on earth who can save himself or herself by righteous actions, or who can justify themselves before God as deserving of God’s grace. Every human being, and thus every human group, is fallible, sinful, and thus totally dependent upon God’s grace for salvation.

There is nothing that you or I or this Church can do for our salvation other than to turn ourselves, our wills and our ways, completely and utterly over to the grace of God. All we can do is to take our lives, hand them over to God, and say, “this is all I’ve got, wash me, make me clean, feed me, give me strength, remove this heart of stone and renew in me a heart of flesh.”

In our text for today, Jesus is addressing the belief that if something bad happens to you, you must have deserved it. This has been a popular belief over the centuries – if something bad happens to you, you must have done something worse than others to deserve it. Life is not that cut and dried. Human beings are not either bad or good; we are all a mixed bag.

To those who are tempted to think more highly of themselves in comparison to their neighbors, more highly of themselves in comparison to terrorists or compromisers, more highly of themselves in comparison to violent folk or migrant laborers trying to make their way in the world, Jesus offered the following encouragement from the thirteenth chapter of the gospel of Luke, verses 1-9.

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell upon them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?    No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable:  “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here!  For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none.  Cut it down!  Why should it be wasting the soil?’  He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Imagine this scene:  Galileans had come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to offer sacrifices in the Temple. They approached the altar, and suddenly, Roman soldiers, upon an order by Pontius Pilate, attacked them and spilled their blood right there in the midst of the holy place.

It is highly possible that those slaughtered were terrorists, Zealots, who had been involved in violent rebellion against the occupying Romans. We don’t know the whole story, but we can imagine the uproar in Jerusalem when the blood of these Galileans, Jews, was mixed with their sacrifices at the holy altar of Jerusalem!

Anything that happens on the Temple Mount is a political powderkeg, then or now; this would have become a political “hot topic”, something that would lead to further chaos, division, and violence.

Some would have said, “They got what they deserved.  They were punished by God for their violent rebellion, for using deathly force, for being terrorists.” Others would have been incensed that the Romans chose to carry out their justice on the temple mount. Still others would have asked theological questions, wondering why these Galileans were not protected by God since they were in the midst of an act of worship.

Jesus said, “Do you think these Zealots are any worse sinners than the other Galileans? No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

On the way to the cross, “some people” approached Jesus to tell them about the Galileans being killed. That’s all we have – “some people”. They are not defined. They could be other Galileans who disagreed with the Zealot’s tactics. They could be Jerusalemites who did not appreciate the Zealots bringing violence to the Temple.

Whomever they were, it seems clear that they were self-righteous, that they assumed that these “others” were more sinful than they. And it seems clear that they were trying to “pigeon-hole” Jesus, get him to define his group, draw the line in the sand, create division between others and himself. Consider Jesus’ response – he took the conversation a different direction – unless you repent, unless you engage in self-examination, unless you turn from your own sin and turn to God, you will perish as they did.

In the news media today, we hear of another frustrated Arab Palestinian who knifes an Israeli Jew on the streets of Jerusalem. Then, we hear that later that day five Palestinians in the West Bank are shot by Israel security forces and another three Palestinian homes are destroyed. How do we respond to such violence? Are we tempted to say to ourselves, those terrorists got what they deserved? Or do we look down upon the show of overly oppressive force by Israel as somehow “less than” what we would do if we found ourselves in similar circumstances?

Jesus’ response was to say “do you think the terrorists or those who respond to them with oppressive violence are any worse sinners than the rest of the people in Israel, or the United States, for that matter?

No! I tell you.  All of you are in need of the grace and mercy made available in me.

Imagine this scene:  poor laborers were building the tower of Siloam near where a Roman aqueduct was being built. These blue collar, perhaps migrant, workers may have been cooperating with the Roman occupiers, and the tower that they were building was likely financed by Pilate with funds from the sacred Temple tax. Tragically, the tower fell and eighteen workers died in a construction accident. The locals were tremendously upset.

Some would have said, “They got the judgment from God that they deserved! They were working for the Romans, compromising their principles for a paycheck, being disloyal to God by being loyal to Rome. They were traitors, picket line crossers.”

But others would have spoken up, “My cousin Benjamin was one of those killed! He was just trying to feed his family.”

Jesus replied:  “Do you think these who were killed in this tragic accident were any worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Jesus, in effect, said, “Rather than examining the splinter in the eyes” of those who have died tragically, rather than judging the dead, Jesus said, “look first at the log in your own eye.”

A report comes from downtown Atlanta that a number of illegal Hispanic laborers have been killed in a construction accident while building the new Mercedes Benz dome. What is the first response of some in our city? That they should not have been here anyways; that they got their just desserts?

A tornado hits a small town and those living in a trailer park are the most affected. Several families lose their homes; three persons are killed. How do some people respond to such a tragedy? That they should know better than to live in a trailer park? That they should have made better life choices?

The best antidote when we find ourselves tempted to judge others is self-examination. What the world needs is a Church that is more concerned with its own sin than with the sins of others. What our nation needs in this election year is more individuals and political groups that are more concerned with self-examination than with examining the sins of their neighbors.

On back of your bulletin, notice the prayer of daily examen.

This spiritual discipline encourages us to review daily the past 24 hours, to recall that for which we are most and least grateful, and to notice where we have been cooperating with or resistant to God’s will. We are a nation divided in many respects, and unwilling to cooperate for the sake of the common good. How does a nation or a culture begin to change? One person at a time. As the old adage proclaims, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

The parable of the unfruitful fig tree was an urgent call to the people of Jerusalem, especially the leaders of Jerusalem, to bear the fruit of repentance. The parable served as an encouragement to the people to amend their lives, to change their minds, to alter the way that they were living as a people.

Jesus came as a great vine dresser, pruning our lives, digging around our settled roots, fertilizing us with his Word. He came in order to reconcile humanity to God and to one another, to usher in a new way of living human life, to initiate the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Today’s rhetoric is so far from that ideal.

The first part of repentance is inward, self-examination, to realize our own sin, and be transformed. The second part of repentance is to look upon our neighbor not with judgment, but with prayer.

Imagine considering an enemy not with vitriol, but with prayer. Imagine, as Paul encouraged in his letter to Rome, to consider giving our enemies exactly what they need. Notice the work of the vinedresser. What he most desired was for the tree to be fruitful—to thrive as it had been created to thrive – to provide fruit as it had been created to do.

Friends, the good news of the Gospel is that as we turn anew to face the Lord, to follow God’s ways, God will abundantly pardon and make us new. God will dig around our settled roots and fertilize us as needed, feed us with the rich food of Word and Sacrament, so that we will live, fully live, and bear fruit as God intends, the fruit of God’s kingdom.

The prophet Ezekiel proclaimed (chapter 36):

But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot out your branches and yield your fruit to my people of Israel…  See now, I am for you; I shall turn to you and you shall be tilled and sown…You shall increase and be fruitful…and I will do more good to you than ever before . . . I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  I will put my spirit within you..Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 


Rev. Dr. J. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
February 28, 2016