Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Repent or Perish

[Originally presented July 12, 2014]
Most people understand (or intuit) as they read a Bible that its chapter and verse divisions are choices made by translators or copyists. They may be good choices or bad ones, but they are not part of the revelation of God. They are not ‘inspired’ in the sense the Word itself is.

Usually they are pretty decent. However, I probably would’ve broken up the Lord’s speech in Luke 12 and 13 a little differently.

Just saying.

The division between chapters 11 and 12 is quite sensible; it falls in a natural break of subject matter. Jesus is well along in his ministry, maybe six to eight months into its third year. He is in Judea, slowly making his way toward Jerusalem where he will be falsely accused, taken by force, endure a kangaroo court of a trial and be sentenced to crucifixion.

He knows it; in fact he’s methodically working his way toward the inevitable which, while indescribably painful, is absolutely necessary to the plans and purposes of God for not just Israel but all mankind. By now he’s spoken of it to his disciples, though they are not too clear about what exactly he is telling them.

The Lord has throughout his earlier ministry consistently extended the offer of an earthly, immediate fulfillment of the kingdom prophecies of the Old Testament to his fellow Jews, conditional on a national repentance. And while many of the common people who listen to his teaching, experience the benefit of his miracles and enjoy the consequences of a wave of healing and physical restoration unprecedented in the history of Israel or any other nation are appreciative of the miracles, marvel at his words and speak well of him, many others want nothing to do with him, are terrified or ask him to leave.

And the Pharisees, scribes, lawyers and priests? Well, let’s say if a national repentance is conditional on a change of heart in its leadership, this aspect of things does not look good for Israel.

Why Does That Matter?

Well, Scripture makes it clear that bad leadership exists for a reason. You don’t get good leadership presiding over wicked people for very long; neither do you get bad leadership over a loving, obedient and repentant people.

As a result, the Lord, whose earlier denunciations were most intensely concentrated on the hypocrisy of Jewish leadership, has begun to speak more harshly both of and to the masses than he did earlier in his ministry, acknowledging that his rejection ultimately indicts not only the leadership, but demonstrates the unrepentant condition of the hearts of the multitudes as well.

This shows up in chapter 10 when he indicts entire cities that have rejected the preaching of the seventy-two disciples the Lord sent out into Israel to preach the kingdom for their persistent unbelief using words like “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!”. It continues in chapter 11 when he declares “This generation is an evil generation” and “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it”. It culminates with this sweeping indictment:
“… the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.”
That’s pretty blunt and pretty far-reaching.

It is possibly for this reason that chapter 12 begins with the Lord’s statement that the disciples need to “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy”. Why? Because hypocrisy is like leaven; it gets into everything. It won’t be confined merely to leadership. Everyone is at risk: a wrong way of thinking that starts with the Pharisees — inflating their sense of self-importance and self-righteousness when they are actually full of nothing but hot air — will naturally infect and ultimately characterize every aspect of life in Israel unless the people and the disciples armor themselves with the words of Christ and start thinking differently.

And in fact by the end of chapter 12 he is accusing the crowds of hypocrisy too. As Paul says, a little leaven leavens the “whole lump”.

It is now evident that Israel has more than a leadership problem. Their problem is systemic.

Indicting a Nation while Encouraging the Disciples

So now the Lord is clearly and consistently denouncing the people of Israel as well as its leadership.

This is reflected in the way Luke breaks up chapters 12 and 13 into statements made specifically to the disciples and statements made to the people at large. He is careful to be clear about what the Lord addressed to whom. Those statements made to the crowds are increasingly harsh while those made to the Lord’s followers are increasingly tender and sympathetic to the fact that their determination to follow and obey him marks them as true sheep in a nation of wolves.

So any real understanding of the teaching in chapters 12 and 13 depends on noticing who the Lord is actually addressing at any given point in time.

To the disciples: He begins with statements made to “his disciples … first”. He tells them not to fear, and not to be anxious, reminds them they will soon have the Holy Spirit to help and tells them how to handle persecution when he is gone.

To the crowd: Now there is an interruption: someone in the crowd says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me”. It could hardly be more jarring and incongruous since it hasn’t a thing to do with what the Lord is telling his disciples. The Lord is talking to people who will, for the most part, selflessly serve the interests of his kingdom and struggle to enter into a ‘big picture’ understanding of his will and purposes, while the man in the audience is persistently gazing at his own navel. His interests are monetary, his outburst is entirely selfish … and the Lord generously accommodates with a parable for the crowd.

It is not an encouraging parable. He tells the story of a rich fool who prioritized money and self and found his soul required when he wasn’t expecting it. It’s a good, general lesson for the untaught, but certainly doesn’t apply to those who already follow him.

Back to the disciples: Then Luke records that the Lord returns his attention to the disciples. He makes use of the subject matter of the previous interruption to teach his loved ones a lesson about his love for them, continuing his theme of not being “anxious”. But it is a lesson, not for the masses, but for those who “seek first the kingdom of God”. He goes on to teach them the importance of being ready for his return and showing by their response to his commands and their treatment of their fellow servants that they are truly his.

He now adds that he has not come to bring peace, but division on the earth. And the increasing difference in content and tone between his comments to his own and to the masses is a demonstration of the nature of the division he brings.

Back to the crowd: When he turns back to the masses his words are scathing: “You hypocrites!” he calls them, pointing out that, while they are able to perceive imminent changes in the natural world from the sky and the wind, in the spiritual world they are without similar discernment. The obvious takeaway from his miracles and teaching is not the message of peace and love that moderns always talk about. It’s a message of looming judgment of which his audience is determined to remain wilfully ignorant.

Continuing the judgment theme, he says to the crowd that when you find yourself accused, the smart thing to do is to settle with your accuser on the way to court. Fix the problem, if you can, before the judge gets involved. For Christians this is wisdom to remember in our daily lives, supposing it ever occurs to us, but to the Jews of the day, the message was far more important and ominous, and might be summarized colloquially as “Repent! Now! You owe a debt, and the debt is due. By the time you find yourself in front of the judge, it will be too late”.

On to Chapter 13

That’s the end of chapter 12, which is kind of too bad. It’s not a problem as long as you keep reading. But if, as many of us do, you tend to read a chapter a day and come back 24 hours later for the next one, you may well miss the connection between what has happened so far and what now follows.

Personally, I would’ve liked to see chapter 13 begin with verse 10, where there is a change of location. The Lord has, by verse 10, moved to “one of the synagogues” and it is now “the Sabbath”. All the stuff in verses 1-9 of chapter 13 actually belongs with the previous chapter. It is the logical conclusion; the summing up of everything he has been saying to the crowd throughout chapter 12.

Repent or Perish

So in the first verse of the new chapter, the crowd again comes up with something current and topical that is not really related to what the Lord has been talking about (except that the story involves Pilate acting as a judge). The Lord has been talking about the much more sweeping, national judgment that is imminent and will affect everyone in the crowd and their descendants profoundly. So perhaps it’s a stream of consciousness thing or someone just picks up on the idea of judgment and runs with it, but more than one person present says, “Hey Lord,” or the equivalent, “have you heard about those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices?”

Maybe the questioner is looking for the Lord’s “take” and hoping he’ll say something interesting or provocative. Who knows?

But the Lord is still on point, and he turns the question into another challenge to the crowd, repeating “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”. Don’t worry, the Lord is saying, about who is the greater sinner; that’s not the issue. Everyone in his audience has an obligation to repent. Everyone in his audience is in danger of hell. It is a message of personal judgement.

Finally, he tells a parable, which must surely have been lost on much of the crowd:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
It may have been a head-scratcher for everyone but his disciples at the time, but surely it is clear to us today that he is speaking about the whole nation of Israel, comparing it to a fig tree that has failed at its job of producing figs. If the first few verses of chapter 13 are concerned with personal accountability, the next few are concerned with national accountability.

He even blatantly says, in the third year of his own ministry, “For three years now I have come seeking fruit”. The image goes all the way back to John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the Lord while crying out the same message: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”.

And yet no repentance and no evidence of it was forthcoming except from the small group that followed the Lord.

If the fig tree is Israel, the delay requested by the vinedresser in the parable most surely corresponds to the delay in judgment between the Lord’s death, which sealed the fate of Israel, and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70AD.

The tree did not “bear fruit” and its owner cut it down.

Disciples and Audiences

Right up until the end, the Lord had great numbers of interested people showing up to hear what he had to say and see what he might do. He always managed to draw an audience. These tag-alongs didn’t look any different from his own disciples, probably. But he spoke to them differently because he knew their hearts.

Today things are not so different. The Lord still has genuine disciples, but there are in his church, like there were in the last days of Israel, great masses of nominal ‘believers’ who pay lip service to the name of Christ, but fail miserably to understand what it means to be his disciple, to own him as “Lord”.

Like the folks in the Jewish crowd, they are happy to use the name of the Lord if it means a financial benefit or if they can get their ears tickled by an interesting bit of topical opinionating from the platform that makes them feel they are on the inside of something significant and better or more moral than those people that don’t go to church at all.

But they don’t know him anymore than the Jewish crowd did.

If you are one of those folks I wouldn’t likely be aware of it, even if you sit next to me in church. I might wonder if there’s something a bit ‘off’ about your Christian walk but unless you are sinning blatantly I probably wouldn’t call you on it, and neither would anyone else. You can just sit there indefinitely, a goat among sheep, and only you and the Lord will really, unequivocally know the truth.

Well, not ‘indefinitely’, I suppose.

It remains true today that unless we repent, we will all likewise perish.

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