Saturday, February 20, 2016

Judgment and Forbearance

Luke 13:1-9, the gospel text appointed for the 3rd Sunday in Lent is an answer to our questions about "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."  The prophet Isaiah, in the Old Testament reading for the day, says it best, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." (Isa 55:8)  We naturally believe that those who suffer greatly somehow deserve their suffering.  Fortunately, according to Jesus' words here and elsewhere, there's a lot more to it than that.

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but are meant to open up the text to some of the issues important to Law/Gospel preachers. For an introductory guide to this way of preaching see my book Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Both Law and Gospel are evident in this text.  The Law is evident in the call to repentance:  "Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."  This word makes it clear to us that our sins are known, and repentance - metanoia (turning around) - is required. The Gospel is present in several ways as well:  1) by making clear that our sins and our suffering are not connected; and 2) by the parable about the fig tree which shows a certain forbearance in heart of the gardener:  "Sir, let it alone for one more year..."  This parable hints that the judgment we expect from God is not always forthcoming, only because God is merciful and longs for us to return to God. As St. Paul says, "Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Rom 2:4b)

2.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We identify with the people Jesus is speaking to. We assume, as they do, that some people are worse sinners - more in debt to God, as it were - than others, and therefore more deserving of condemnation.  We, of course, also handily assume that we are not amongst those "worse" ones, but our sins are only "average."  As someone once said, "We want only 'what is coming to us', but not what we 'deserve'!

3.  What, if any call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to follow Jesus in a life of love and justice is not explicitly present here.  Having said that, it might follow quite naturally that if God is forbearing with us, we too need to show forbearance with others.  Just as the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 illustrates, so we who have received abundant forgiveness from God, need to practice forgiveness with others.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?   I can imagine several:  perishing/being saved; bearing no fruit/bearing fruit; unforgiven/forgiven.

5.  Exegetical work:  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by Kittel is a treasure trove of insight when it comes to terms which we encounter regularly in our work.  The extensive article on judgment in Kittel gives us some wonderful insights into this text.  Note the following:  "The merits with which a man might seek to protect himself in the judgment are of no avail.  Nor are the vicarious merits of others... It is constantly insisted that God is the Lord and that man is responsible, so that no human defences will be of any value in the judgment.  The standard by which God judges is known; it is the Law, i.e. the law of love.  With the details Jesus is not concerned." (TDNT, III, 936)  What this extensive article makes clear is that the wearisome task of discerning which sins are "worse" than others, and which sins merit God's wrath, and which do not, is an unnecessary and unfruitful task in which God is not interested.  Finally, "the only ground of deliverance in the judgment is God's remission, not [human] achievement."  (Ibid.)

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  David Buttrick always cautions the preacher to be very aware of how many "moves" are made in the sermon design.  A listener can only follow a few large moves - 3 or 4 at the most.  Are we being careful to rein in our tendency to want to exhaust the subject, thereby only exhausting our listeners?

Blessings on your proclamation!

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