Distractions on the way to the cross…
Isaiah 51:1-3; 1 Corinthians 10:1-14; Luke 13:1-9
Diana Butler Bass-Lent and Dying to Self (3:50 video)
Diana Butler Bass names the task of the Lenten journey—to practice dying. Giving something up is a way we ritualize the exercise of learning to die to self…so that Christ might live in us. Where are the places I’m being held back…in which I am still holding on to that old way of being? The readings for today invite us to consider these questions.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is on the road to the cross. The narrative in Luke’s Gospel turns in 9:51, where Jesus “sets his face” to go to Jerusalem. Along the way we see Jesus encountering people, many of whom want to distract him. The distractions come in many forms. Theological debates. Fascination with the news cycle and alarmist reports of conspiracy. Cynicism. Idols.
On the road to Jerusalem there are voices which are hostile toward Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees are cross-examining him in many things, lying in wait for him, trying to catch him in something… (11:54)
Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem—to confront the powers. He will not do so power over. Jesus is not on his way to Reform the Temple order or replace those who have become corrupted by the positions they fill in The System. He is not playing the insider/outsider game. The only power Jesus wields is the power of subversive questions, unarmed love and radical mercy.
On the road to the cross there is controversy…tension…political subplots. Jesus has begun to speak in apocalyptic parables which point to divine judgment. Jesus indicates that the invisible signs of God’s coming judgment are on the horizon (12:54-56), even though people can’t “see” it.
Now we come to the text we heard today. The context of controversy and impending judgment continues, but Jesus introduces a new theme: the unexpected, surprising mercy of God.
We are told that “in that very instant” someone announces to Jesus the deaths of some Galileans. The Galileans had been killed by the order of Pilate while sacrificing in the Temple at Jerusalem. They were performing their religious duty. Their lives were cut short.
Jesus perceives a question behind their announcement. He fleshes it out. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus exposes the agenda behind the report—the distraction of focusing on the sins of others and needing to figure out the score.
Distraction #1: Focusing on the sins of others (judgmentally)
This distraction is often couched in matter-of-fact reports of what is happening all around. Often accompanied by an almost imperceptible smugness. Sometimes casually chalking the tragedy of the month up to God’s justice being meted out. It is the stance of the friends of Job who attempt to explain suffering as a sign of God’s judgment. This distraction is alive and well today.
There are always those who seem eager to do the divine calculus and determine whether a tragedy is a sign of divine judgment. From the murder of the Galileans in the Temple…to the fall of the tower of Siloam…to the fall of trade towers of 9/11…to the AIDS crisis…to Hurricane Katrina…to the Haiti earthquake… There are always voices that attempt to connect the dots between human tragedy and divine justice.
Jesus does not get reeled into this kind of language. The way of the cross involves a different orientation so he turns the question back on his conversation partners. Jesus tells them that if they really wanted impartial justice in the world, they wouldn’t stand a chance. They need to repent.
3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
Carmen Acevedo Butcher reminds us that the journey toward the cross is a journey of letting go of the need to judge others from a position of power over righteousness. (Rather than judging others…) we should instead be asking, ‘How can I live out my faith? How does repentance transform us? What does sincere godliness require? How can we learn Christlike living?'”
The Lenten journey calls us to remember that there is hope even for the blackened, ashy places of our hearts. But that journey requires repentance. We may not even feel all that ashy most of the time. We may think we are doing pretty well. Focusing on the sins of others blinds us to our own sins. Fasting, self-examination, humility…help us see the ashy parts a little better and receive the gift of God’s grace.
Distraction #2: Idolatry of the ”spiritual” experience
The epistle reading reminds us that our spiritual calculus is often incorrect. In this text we see a second distraction on the road to the cross—the idolatry of the “spiritual” experience.
Paul essentially is saying that as far as “spiritual experiences” are concerned, our ancestors in the faith had had all the right ones. They had been led by the cloud. They had all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses.
They all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. They drank from the spiritual rock that followed them. They drank from Christ. That is pretty good raw data if we are doing a spiritual inventory. And yet, we read that God was not pleased with most of them. They didn’t make it out of the wilderness.
So what’s wrong with seeking and having “spiritual” experiences?
Paul is addressing the distraction of making our spiritual practices and experiences idols. The Corinthian context was heavily influenced by Plato’s way of looking at the world. Their mindset was steeped in the view that the spiritual realm was the ideal and the physical world was bad. They had become a community of faith that sat down to eat and drink—to have a spiritual experience—and then got up to play. Paul is deconstructing this view that separates salvation from our physical lives in this world. The view that finds time to go to church whenever it is convenient, but basically plays by the rules of the dominant framing stories of culture.
These things occurred as examples for us…so how can we learn not to give into idolatry?
The journey of Lent calls us to see the connection between the physical and the spiritual. We give something up that is non-essential. It hurts. Lent gives us 40 days to practice dying. We die to superficial Christianity…to living superficially. We die to the idol of spiritual experiences which become ends in themselves. We learn how to walk the journey of the cross with Jesus.
After addressing this second distraction, Paul names a few others—sexual immorality, putting Christ to the test, complaining. We will consider one of them—the Idolatry of Sex. This is Distraction #3 on the road to the cross.
We all need to be loved. We all need to be important to someone. We need this as much as we need daily bread. Without the knowledge that someone cares that we are alive—life quickly becomes meaningless. And in the midst of this meaningless existence, many turn to sex to find what they are looking for…which is to be loved, to be needed, to be significant.
The tragic irony, as Josef Pieper describes it, is that we chase after bread that does not satisfy in the form of sex partner after sex partner:
“The mere sex partner does not come into focus as a personal being…where the playboy is concerned, the fig leaf has merely been moved to another place; it now covers the human face.”
Another philosopher points out that “Everything that makes the sexual encounter easy simultaneously speeds its collapse into insignificance. What can be had on demand necessarily loses both its value and its attractiveness. So much sex and so little meaning or even fun in it.” (Ricoeur)
Chasing after that which is not true bread is a constant distraction. These distractions look more appealing than the road of self-denial. And so, as the prophet Isaiah perceives, we labor for that which is not true bread…for that which does not truly satisfy. The invitation is to come away from the distraction of that which does not truly satisfy and come to Jesus who is true bread…true drink.
After naming the distractions on the road to the cross, our text invites us to consider the unexpected mercy of God. Jesus tells a parable of a fig tree which bears no fruit. The owner (God in the parable) wants to cut it down but another (the gardener) convinces him to wait one more year. If we really got just what we deserved, as the controversialists seem to want in 13:1-5, the tree would be cut down. Those who indulge in sexual idolatry, in the idolatry of spiritual experiences, in the idolatry of self-righteous judgmentalism…the tree would be cut down. But the owner gives another year, even though there is no indication that the tree will bear fruit. Jesus’ point is that if we just wanted “justice” from God, none of us would survive. We need the grace of “one more year” to “produce our fruit.”
May we embrace the journey of repentance from the distractions which keep us from Jesus. May we be in awe of God’s justice, which unexpectedly allows for one more year of grace so that we might produce the fruit of discipleship.
Even so, Lord Jesus come.