Gospel Reading for Third Sunday of Lent (Year C)
The heading in my Bible for this passage says "Repent or Perish." It sounds quite brimstony; like "Turn or Burn." Repentance is at the forefront of this passage, but "Repent or Perish" doesn't seem to capture exactly what Jesus is saying. Of course, that could just be me unnecessarily running red flags up, but I think the emphasis is important.
February 26 was Johnny Cash's birthday and when I read this passage, I can't help but hear his version of the old spiritual "God's Gonna Cut You Down." It helps that the music legend's voice sounds like it comes from ancient times. If an Old Testament prophet had a guitar then I suspect that he would sound like Johnny Cash (except, you know, in Hebrew). I digress. But that title—"God's Gonna Cut You Down"—steers us back into "Repent or Perish" territory, doesn't it? Yet maybe we need that edge to be in there. After all, Jesus is talking about sin, death, etc. in this passage.
Then there's the music video for "God's Gonna Cut You Down."
The song was recorded during Cash's American sessions with producer Rick Rubin, but wasn't released until after the singer's death. As such, the video didn't feature the late singer, but a cavalcade of famous stars. This is nearly four years old, but the roster is still impressive: Bono, Kanye West, Chris Rock, Justin Timberlake, Johnny Depp, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Jay-Z, and others. Shot in stark black and white, the video is arresting even if comes off as more than a little over-the-top.
The effect is ironic. Here we have the rich and famous mugging during a song demanding humble repentance. Yet the irony makes the message pierce all the more. Even those on top of the world will one day be dust. Death comes for all of us. The fact that they're lip-syncing to a dead man's voice only heightens that reality. Yes, God is going to cut down even these rich, powerful, and famous people.
Yet that brings us back to that problematic phrase: God's gonna cut you down. The foreboding warnings issued to long-tongued liars and gamblers in the song make it seem like the Almighty is dealing death. God is going to cut you down. It's like God is chasing down the sinners with an ax; the ultimate slasher movie antagonist. It's a common assumption: death, disaster, and tragedy are God's punishment. God cut them down. They did not repent and so they perished.
Confusing matters, Jesus seems to wave off this line of thinking even as he keeps its razor sharp tone. We're not sure why the recently killed in this passage come up in the conversation. We just know that Jesus says these dead were not any more sinful than those talking with him that day. So their deaths were not punishment for sin. Yet in the next breath, Jesus says "Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did." Well, which is it, Jesus? Because that sure sounds like ax-murdering God will come calling if one doesn't repent.
I think if we take what Jesus says here with what he says in other places through the gospels (like his response to the question of why a man was born blind), we can assess that death and tragedy are not punishment for sin. Yet the reality that all of us are going to die and we don't know when may be the source of the seeming contradiction in what Jesus says. The need for repentance is so urgent that, while he dispels the notion that death is God's punishment for sin, Jesus doesn't want to let us completely off the hook. He leaves the door cracked open just enough that his listeners wonder. We still leave the text sensing the gravity of our sin and the urgent need for repentance. It's a persuasive device. And, yes, I admit that brand of persuasiveness makes me a bit uncomfortable.
Taken on the whole, the message is not exactly "Repent or Perish." It's more "You Will Perish (and You Don't Know When) So You Need to Repent." It's important that we turn from the things that are hurting us and those around us and move towards the life-giving goodness of the gospel. God may not be coming to cut us down, but our time on earth will come to an end. Sooner or later.