Who knows why Luke strung together the sayings that he did, why he chose them, and why he put them in the order he decided? The verses from 12:54-13:5 seem to form a progression. Luke’s Jesus starts with another example of his frustration with his followers. “You phonies!” he yells, “You know the lay of the land and can read the face of the sky, so why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?” He follows that with what seems to be a clarification: “Why can’t you decide for yourselves what is right?” He finishes with a warning that is pure Luke: “. . . If you don’t have a change of heart, you’ll all meet your doom in the same way [as those Galilean sinners who had their own blood mixed with the Roman sacrifices, or the Siloamians who had the tower fall on them]. In other words, “Repent or Perish!” Luke made up both the incident of apparent cannibalism perpetrated by Pilate, and the accident that killed 18 workers in Siloam.
The Elves fudge the non sequiturs by dividing this portion between Proper 15 and the third Sunday in Lent, Year C. (We will deal with Luke’s version of the parable of the fig tree next week.)
Christian tradition has interpreted these passages as apocalyptic warnings. If they were – if Luke intended them to be – then the parable of the fig tree could arguably be included. The Jesus Seminar scholars generally agree that the advice to settle matters out of court and the parable of the fig tree may go back to the historical Jesus. But they were not necessarily associated with one another. Luke (and the other evangelists) and his community were apocalyptic thinkers. They expected a final judgment, with rewards and punishments, before Jesus would return again to establish God’s kingdom. Present-day scholars argue among themselves about whether or not Jesus himself was apocalyptic. Nor would they agree that the sayings have anything to do with one another.
This blog is taking the liberty of reading another meaning into these passages. That is the only way they can even begin to be useful to 21st century followers who do not believe in a coming non-environmental apocalypse, nor in an afterlife of punishment/reward, nor in the return of Jesus literally from the sky to establish any kind of permanent kingdom on earth. Taking the readings at face value, and from a 21st century point of view, is of course anathema to scholars. But if Luke could do it in the 1st century, we can do it now.
Despite right-wing largely Christian denial, scientists are reaching consensus on the fact of global climate change. It is happening now, and it is irreversible. The task for humanity is to learn how to cope with the inevitable. But what do we hear from self-described “progressive” Christianity? A Google search brings up arguments from the right against global warming, but very little from the left in main stream, presumably “liberal” Christian denominations on how to deal with it. Indeed the silence is deafening regarding so-called “clean coal” technology, cap and trade legislation, mountaintop removal mining, off-shore oil drilling, support for alternative energy resources . . . in short, the Christian “main stream” has nothing to say. The 21st century equivalent to the fictional Siloamians whose tower fell on them might be the 29 miners who died in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine back in April. What mainline Christian church is going to preach against the continued use of coal and the continued rape of the mountains of Appalachia?
Jesus’ words echo down the canyons of the millennia: “You phonies! You know the lay of the land and can read the face of the sky, so why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?” But who is listening? Bob Dylan screamed a warning in the 1960s that the political times were changing. But now the very web of life that sustains humanity is changing, and the churches are saying and doing nothing.
Repent or perish! Luke’s Jesus says. That means, Change or die. But the change that Christian tradition has insisted upon is accepting as provable fact that Jesus was crucified to save us from “sin”; that he walked out of the tomb and vanished in the general direction of Antares, with the promise that he would return; and unless we turn away from personal petty sin, when Jesus comes back, we won’t be part of the kingdom.
Luke may have shrouded the radicality of Jesus’ message with his emphasis on the wealthy, but the opposition to the normalcy of Roman imperial theology is clear for those with eyes to see. From Mary’s Song (Luke 1:46-56) to the resurrection and appearances of Jesus, the Roman empire (and all empires, whether governmental or corporate) has been put on notice. Repent or perish. Establish systems of justice or face the consequences.
Today, the establishment of systems of justice must be economic, social, political, and ecological. Otherwise, as Isaiah said of old, “. . . the Lord comes out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no longer cover its slain” (Is. 26:20-21). Sure enough, the oceans are rising, the glaciers are melting, whole species are disappearing daily, and human babies are born already alergic to the Planet. No lightening bolts are required from some grandfather almighty in the sky. There are definite consequences for polluting the waters with oil, destroying the mountains for gold and coal, and hiding government malfeasance behind a screen called “national security.”
Repent or perish.