“Unless You Repent…”
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-5
“Unless you repent you shall all likewise perish.” — Luke 13:3&5
That sounds like a threat to me, and because Jesus makes it twice in five lines it is an urgent threat to be taken very seriously. “Unless you repent you shall all likewise perish.” We are not accustomed to think of Jesus as threatening us and so might balk at this saying. Before we do that, however, let us think about what kind of a threat this is.
There are two possible kinds of threat: There is the threat that says: “If you continue to do that I will personally do you an injury.” The other kind says, “If you continue to do that you will personally do yourself and injury.” So we have the “I will injure you” and the “You will injure yourself” kinds of threat. I am not going to propose abstract names for these two kinds, I am simply going to ask you which of the two kinds Jesus leveled at his hearers, “I will injure you” or “You will injure yourself.” My guess is the latter: “If you do not repent you will destroy yourselves.”
This seems like a trite distinction but I assure you it is not. In the mouth of Jesus it describes the nature of God. God’s threats are always of the latter kind and that tells us volumes. Many of us think God is the constant watcher and scorekeeper of our lives, a censorious mega parent who had pasted a set of house rules on the refrigerator, and takes notes on every deviation. At last Christmas is over at First Methodist, so you won’t groan when I remind you of that sadistic little song, “Santa Claus is coming to Town.” “He sees you when you’re sleeping he knows when your awake, he knows if you’ve been good or bad so be good for goodness sake,” otherwise there won’t be any toys for you and your sister will vaunt it over you without mercy, and your parents will say “I told you so.”
So what is it that Jesus warns us against? precisely this kind of thinking about God, about who God is and how he wants us to live. The scene in which Luke sets the warnings is a discussion of two recent catastrophes in Jerusalem. In one Roman guards murdered several pilgrims from Galilee while they were in the very act of worship in the temple, and in the other a tower collapsed killing 18 people. Jesus asks rhetorically, ” Were those victims greater sinners than the rest of the people in Jerusalem at the time?” Clearly he is addressing people who assume that bad things happen only to bad people, and that we who escape such tragedies must therefore be good. This assumption is the same as the one in which if you receive no presents at Christmas you must be a bad boy, and that you can assure presents by being a good boy. It also lies behind our knee-jerk tendency to blame others so as to justify ourselves.
There is this kind of a god in the Bible: he burned Sodom and exterminated the enemies of Israel, killed the first-born sons of Egypt, all those little boys, to terrorize the Egyptians into letting his Israelites out of slavery. Responsible polls show currently that his most pious followers are more likely than others to sanction the torture of prisoners and the prosecution of war. He lays the burden of guilt on top of the load of grief and he spoils every joy with anxiety about whether it is permitted or will have to be paid for later. He is the one whose representatives say that Haiti is being punished for a pact with the devil, or that the 9/11 tragedy was a retribution against the US for its feminism and homosexuality, or that hurricane Katrina was a divine slap in the painted face of New Orleans’ partying and prostitution. The view held by many who serve this god is that Jesus had to die to appease his anger against us. No wonder then that those who believe this have no qualms about attributing violent paroxysms to god, and favoring violent measures, torture and war, to deal with our problems- a violent god justifying violent measures to maintain a relentless righteousness.
The people Jesus was warning believed in this kind of a god. They were after all citizens of the sacred city Jerusalem. Jesus warns them that unless they give up this god, change their minds and turn to him, the one true God, they will destroy themselves. This is what, “Unless you repent…” means, “If you do not turn away from this false god and towards the true, you will destroy yourselves.”
I have said a lot already but have yet to give the most important point of the story. Up to now you could take repentance as a command to initiate a change of mind and direction by your own effort and as a condition for entering the Kingdom of God. E P Sanders my fellow student long ago, who is the finest historian of Jesus in our generation, emphasizes that any account of Jesus’ life must explain why they killed him. Jesus clearly irritated his contemporaries so much that they saw him as a threat to their interests and a disturber of their peace. If Jesus has gone about preaching repentance as a condition of acceptance by God – repent so that you can enter the Kingdom – the Priests, Pharisees and Scribes would not have killed him but praised him as an ally. What irked them beyond endurance and caused them to turn him over to the Romans to be tortured to death, was the fact that he put forgiveness before repentance. God has forgiven you so now you can repent, turn to God and let him change your mind, God who is not your inquisitor but your savior. You can stop living defensively as if God were your enemy, and start living vulnerably because God is your friend, and friends do not keep score.
Notice how the great rubric over all the gospels goes: The Kingdom has come near so now you are able to change your mind. “The Kingdom has drawn very near, so repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:15 / Matt 4:17).” If you continue to live defensively, blaming others and justifying yourselves, you will all die- of the very violence contained in that attitude.
Recently I met a friend whom I had not seen for some time. I asked about her husband and she said she did not know because they had been divorced for 6 months. I said, “Well ‘congratulations’ is probably not the right thing to say, so let me just say ‘um’.” She being a good Christian assured me she had tried her best to make it work, gently exonerating herself. I said, “I’m sure you did, but whose giving prizes? There are no prizes at this level.” Then I recalled these lines from the Apostle in Romans 8:31-32, “What shall we say to this? If God is for us who can be against us? He who did not spare his only Son but handed him over for the benefit of us all, how can he fail by this selfsame act to give us everything?” We already have the only prize that matters, Christ himself, the Kingdom of God, everything, and we can turn to the glory of that prize, and let Christ “repent” us, change our minds and reset our direction.
So let me rephrase our text in the light of our meditation, “Unless you let me change you, you will destroy yourself; unless you accept me you will continue bereft. That is by no means necessary, unless you make it so yourself by refusing my gift already given.”