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I came home from a doctor last year hopping mad. We were making conversation about our lives briefly during the visit, and I mentioned that I noticed he had opened a second clinic in another town. He responded by noting that the other location is “the future.”

Then, he said, “I don’t want to scare you but things are changing around here.”

“Here,” meaning, you know, where I live. “Changing,” meaning less money and more people of other colors. I had been to this doctor in the past, and usually the visits gave me a sense of healing and relief. But not this time.

I came home angry, very angry. I don’t know why I was so triggered that day, but for some reason I had had enough of urban and suburban cowardice laced with racism. It is ever present. It is has soaked into our souls like a marinade cooked into chicken after a day in the crockpot. If you live in the south suburbs of Chicago, or really anywhere on the south side, you take in that food every day. And, I’ve spent enough of my years in small towns to know that that little marinade is in all of our food. Some contexts just bring out the flavor more than others. And, that day, I wanted to vomit. As I often do.

Self-Examination in Lent

But, it is Lent. During the Ash Wednesday service at our church, we were encouraged not to get hopping mad at everyone else and their marinade of cowardice. We were, instead, encouraged to undergo – and this is straight from the liturgy – “self-examination and repentance.” Self-examination and repentance. Not the examination of others and calling them to repent. But, self-examination and our own repentance.

The two texts in Luke 13.1-9 bring this home. In the first text, Jesus interacts with an unspecified group of people who spoke about some Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”

The fall of the Tower of Siloam

It is a little shocking to read Jesus’ response. Strangely, in this context, he doesn’t call for Pilate’s head or even remark on Pilate’s character. He doesn’t even offer some public sympathy for his fellow Galileans. He’s quite capable of both of these actions. But, not this time. For some reason, in this context, he says this: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” He answers his own question: “No.” Then, he warns them, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” He makes matters worse and points to eighteen people who had died from a building collapse, and issues the same warning.

Maybe those present were evaluating the Galileans, and saying they got what they deserved. Maybe they were using the retribution principle: if you suffer, then you must have sinned. Maybe they were evaluating Pilate, and using their imaginations to think about what he deserved. Maybe they were filled with anger and hatred of Pilate or morally disgusted with these Galileans. Maybe all of that. What we know is that Jesus had had enough of their exo-examinations. He wanted some self-examinations.

Why does he want self-examination? Because his audience will perish if they keep this up. The word translated as perish in this text is translated as lost elsewhere. In Luke 9, Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it.” Luke 15, there is the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son. Do self-examination or you will be lost. Jesus remembers the beginning and the end: “in the day you eat of it, you shall die” (Genesis 2.17) and those who do not drink from the water of life will have “the second death” (Revelation 21.8). He wants less death, and more life.

If we do not examine ourselves – if we do not take a look at the truth of our lives, as opposed to the truths of others’ lives – then we will be working to save our lives at the cost of our own. In the context of civic and cosmic evil, Jesus restates that we need to take logs out of our own eyes so that we can see others more clearly. We need self-examination because often – maybe even usually, maybe even all the time – we become most outraged with dynamics in others that we do not like in ourselves. We would rather not face ourselves. We use our rage and our activism in order not to face what we hate in ourselves. To refrain from self-examination is simply to let that self-hatred fester. The festering of self-hatred. That sort of sounds like the definition of death.

The Fig Tree

We can’t forget the parable of the fig tree that Jesus tells in the second half of the text. A man has a fig planted in his vineyard. According to Jewish law, he is supposed to wait three years. But after three years, he says to his gardener, “See here. For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down!” But the gardener asks for another year, to care for it and put manure on it. He says, after that, if there is no fruit, cut it down.

Given all the scriptural usages of fig trees and vineyards, it is best to understand the fig tree as a sign of Israel. The warning is still present: the fig tree will be cut down. Jesus’ audience was thinking about those Galileans as opposed to themselves. Jesus recasts his audience as part of the same fig tree. As Paul says, “if one member suffers, all suffer.” If one part of the fig tree goes bad, it affects the whole. If the fig tree is cut down, that’s everyone. Hating others is hating yourself. Seeing others will mean seeing ourselves. We can call others to repentance but only if we are repenting at that same time.

But, what makes that possible is not our ability to see ourselves and to see others. Augustine wrote that it is not so much that God sees what we are as it is that we are because God sees us. We can only see ourselves and others well if we participate in God’s sight. In the parable of the fig tree, the owner of the vineyard saw the fig tree and had been looking for the fig tree’s growth. God in Christ sees the whole of Israel as a tree worth waiting for.

And, then there’s the manure. As one Bible scholar puts it: “Putting manure on trees is not mentioned in the Old Testament.” The whole of Israel is worthy of manure, worthy of care, worthy of time, worthy of getting dirty. We should add: Just so, is the whole of Chicago, the whole of the Midwest, the whole of whatever. That is what God in Christ sees, and so that is what we are.

We have to see something. We could see ourselves and others, our places and the places of others, as worthy of being left, forgotten, dismissed or erased. We could also, by the gift of God’s life in Christ, see what God sees: a fig tree that will bear fruit, worthy of God’s patience and care.

Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg teaches theology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.

5 Comments

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Two replies – 1. Wish I had read this before preparing for this week’s sermon…. and (jokingly), I can’t quite see myself standing in the pulpit and saying, ‘you may think your life, this church, this town, ain’t worth sh*t, but I’m telling you, God says you are worth sh*t!” Somehow the idiom doesn’t quite translate. And you do know that I’m joking. Thanks for the thought-provoking meditation!

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    I hope, for your doctor’s sake, the “future” is across state lines. Otherwise, he is making a bad business decision. I believe there are three reasons why middle and upper income people are fleeing the South Suburban area of Chicago.

    1. Racist and classist housing policies of Chicago. Around 30 years ago it was decided by Chicago politicians and real estate investors (Daley, Pritzker, Jarrett) that the poor black people who lived in the near west and south side areas contingent to downtown had to be removed. These poor people were directed through the Section 8 voucher program to the south suburbs. This destabilized these suburbs with higher crime and lower home values. Any middle class families who lived or contemplated living in these suburbs had to decide if higher crime and loss of home equity was acceptable. Not many people make that choice. These housing and real estate policies worked, however, for the Chicago elite – downtown and near north areas of the city are booming, filling up with wealthy white people.

    2. Illinois is in a death spiral of increasing property taxes and pension obligations. Working class communities in the south suburbs (outside of Mike Madigan’s district) are being destroyed by property tax bills that are almost as high as mortgages. Who would want to buy a house that will decline in value even as the tax bill increases every year? And, to make matters even worse, commercial taxes (say, on your doctor’s office) are even more burdensome.

    3. Immigration policies are changing communities. In the past 30 years, Bridgeview, Burbank, Oak Lawn, and other southwest suburban communities have seen a large influx of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East. This group has been particularly cohesive and homogeneous. In addition to establishing their own places of worship, they also have been successful in opening their own retail stores and professional services, such as doctor’s offices.

    We should see the south suburbs and the people there the same way that God sees it – full of sinners created in His own image that are in need of the Gospel. But, increasingly, they will also be in need economically, thanks primarily to oppressive and destructive government decisions.

  • David Stravers says:

    Keith, what a great meditation for Lent. Your use of the word “shocking” for Jesus’ statements helped me see Luke 13 again for the first time. I needed this reminder to look to myself rather than to others, for repentance. I hope you are preaching this?

  • Kathy Van Rees says:

    This is wonderful, Keith! And like Paul J, I preached this text this morning. I like your teasoning, and Paul’s. God believes we’re worth sh*t.

  • Marjorie VanderWagen says:

    I wish I had read your message before Ash Wednesday. I would have included the liturgy for Self-Examination before Communion. This has long been abandoned by RCA pastors. Thank you for speaking the truth and encouraging us to speak the truth.

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