3 Lent C (2004)
Preaching Through the Christian Year is exceptionally good on this week's gospel reading. I can't present the whole 900 words of the piece here since it's copyrighted, but if you have the book, take a look at pp. 152-53. If you don't have the book, read on. I'll steal most of my points here from the piece!
Those who were killed and then whose bodies were desecrated by Pilate, as well as those on whom the tower fell, are not as much examples of divine retribution from which to derive comfort ("Whew! At least I know I'm not sinful enough for something like that to happen to me.") as they are lessons on how all of us are living on borrowed time. From Jesus: "Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did" (Luke 13:3).
By the way, I haven't read this anywhere, but it occurs to me that 13:10-17 is also connected to the urgency spoken of in 13:1-9. Jesus heals on the Sabbath for the same reason that you give a donkey water on the sabbath: there isn't time to wait!
Preaching Through the Christian Year calls repentance, "a turning from sin and a reformation of action and attitude" (152). Lutherans love to talk about reformation, but when we do we are usually talking about someone or something else, a legalistic medieval Catholicism, or an old-fashioned traditional style of music in worship. Is there anything closer to home that needs reformation in your life, or the lives of people you (if you are a preacher) will be preaching to?
In October of 2002, OT Professor Fred Gaiser preached a sermon at Luther Seminary chapel on Isaiah 5 (sermon video here). The sermon's refrain was, "Come home. Come home. There's death where you've chosen to roam." Retribution is out as a way of explaining (1) natural disaster like the tower falling, or (2) man's inhumanity to man, as evidenced by Pilate. But that does not mean repentance is out too!
Why Them? Why Us? Why Me?
Jesus rejects retribution and yet calls for repentance. The fact that some of us (I speak for myself here) find our brains taxed when we try to hold these two thoughts together may indicate just how tied into retribution we still are. "If punishment is not directly related to sin, then—explain it to me again—why should I repent?" Luke might say simply, "It is necessary." The authors of Preaching Through the Christian Year engage the question this way:
The question, Why this to these particular people? is as old as the human race. The Book of Job, Psalm 37, and Psalm 73 ask the question. The disciples asked Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" The question assumed that there was a direct correlation between sin and suffering. To those disciples (John 9:3) and in today's lection Jesus denied that direct correlation. But still the idea persists: illness, poverty, disease, loneliness, and death are the punishment for sins known or unknown. For Christians, the fatal blow to the idea that suffering and death are the lot of the guilty came at Golgotha. The One without sin suffered and died on the cross; some present took that as proof that he was not the Son of God (Matt. 27:39-43). But Jesus' disciples are forever freed from the ancient notion that prosperity and good health are evidence of divine favor, whereas poverty and suffering are clear sings of divine wrath…. Jesus rejects such attempts at calculation, not simply because they are futile, but because they direct attention from the primary issue—the obligation of every person to live in penitence and trust before God without linking one's loyalty to God to life's sorrows or joys. All are to repent or perish.