Jesus, Jesus. Did you hear? There were these people from Galilee, they were faithful, made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices at the temple. And then. And then. These men. Pilate’s men. They just killed them. Slaughtered them right there in the temple. The blood of the people mixed with the blood of the animals. An unholy, horrific sacrifice.
Did you hear? I know you heard. There were people in Newton, Kansas, just driving down the road and this man shot at them. People working at Excel Industries in Hesston when he barged in with his guns and started shooting. Chaos and blood. Fourteen people injured. Four dead. A community in shock and deep grief.
“Everyone knows,” writes Mary Oliver.
Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.
“Do you think,” asks Jesus.
Do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other people?No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. (Luke 13:2-3)
This question from Jesus seems a bit harsh, given the context. He is speaking to a crowd that we assume to be made up of Jewish people—quite possibly some Galileans, potentially even family members and friends of the victims from the terrible massacre in the temple. Why would they have thought that people were sinners for offering sacrifices?
Do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other people? Jesus, of course, says “no.” So apparently it was a rhetorical question. Which makes us feel better. For a half of a second until Jesus continues: “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
For Jesus and his audience, the command to “repent” wasn’t really about actions. New Testament professor Matthew Skinner explains, “The word translated as ‘repent’ is, at its root, about thinking and perception. It refers to a wholesale change in how a person understands something.”
Jesus says, “If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did.” This is not a threat, it is a truth. We may not all die by gun violence, but people continue to die every single day. And if we do not repent, we will keep dying.
Maybe our necessary repentance has to do with seeing that looping thread Mary Oliver writes about; the thread of violence in the human heart of the shooters in Hesston and Kalamazoo and San Bernardino and Roseburg and Charleston—the thread that loops back through the world.
It loops through unconscionable gun legislation and a hyper-violent media culture; it loops through our failures to support struggling families, through underfunded schools and crowded jails and overwhelmed mental health care systems; it loops through our false ideas about being “male” and “female;” it loops through our racial prejudices and our xenophobia and our patriarchy and our sense of entitlement.
It is a long and winding thread.
Repentance is what we desperately need as a nation. A re-visioning, a re-imagining of what our communities can and should be.
We are called to echo the cry of Jesus: “Repent! Change the way you view the world, because this current vision of hierarchy and power and violence and scarcity and individualism is killing you. You think it is just killing them, but trust me, it is also killing you.”
May God give us eyes to see the thread, ears to hear the cries, and a voice to proclaim the hard and holy message of Jesus.
This reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Luke 13:1-9.