“I write because I am going to die.”
–Karl Ove Knausgård
We are going to die. Death, for all of its mystery and ambiguity, is the last undisputed fact in a world committed to the marketplace of ideas. We like to believe the most disgusting ideas are still up for debate, all in the name of free speech. Death needs no deliberation. It is the square peg which fits in every round hole. One moment we’re here, the next we’re gone. Death resists arguments over language, gender, violence, and income inequality. Why? In the end, both reactionaries and progressives are going to die and the world they left behind, damaged irreparably by climate change, is dying. Death claims all political agendas, facts, ideas, beliefs, and environments. Yet death belongs to no one, property of no ideology or theology. Death is a fact of life. In the life and death struggles of a polarized world, the “You’re dumb, I’m smart” political discourse, who wins when everyone is going to die? No one is victorious.
Why am I talking about death? In Luke 13, Jesus is focused on mortality. I’m taking his lead. He’s asking hard questions. Much like the questions many of us have wondered over the past week, “Why do innocent people suffer in senseless tragedies?” “Where is God amid violence?” Jesus is also posing questions that have no answers, answers we don’t like, refuse to hear, and don’t want to acknowledge.
What are we not acknowledging? Between our incredulity at Pilate’s brutality, towers collapsing in Siloam and the gun violence of our own time; what are we missing? Most people would put it this way: in one way or another, we are on the hook for our own death. Death is our fault and responsibility. We say this because it is Jesus’ response. “No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” (Luke 13:5)
Death is inevitable but not as I’ve described. For Jesus, our mortality depends on a change in our hearts and lives. This is what we ignore. Death is once again up for debate because our hearts and lives are subjective. If the way we live impacts the way we die then rules of the game have changed. Jesus alters the parameters of what defines human existence. We step back from the 1st-century headlines of these first few verses of Luke 13 with one message: how we think, talk, understand, approach, and relate to death is up for debate. As was the case when we started, all of death’s cards are on the table. Now, we’ve been dealt in. We have a hand. We’re in the game. Death can and (spoiler alert) will lose.
I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t Jesus say, “Change your hearts and lives; you will die just as they did.”? Yes, you read him right. Doesn’t that mean we need to shape up or risk eternal damnation in Hell? No, it doesn’t. A God who embodies and gives love does not send people to Hell. Keep reading: we all receive one more year. No one is going to Hell. Even the most barren fig trees find themselves blessed with a load of holy poop and another year to live. We keep getting “one more year.” The gardener loves me, this I know. When I die, it will be from natural causes, not because the gardener cut me down or burned me to the ground.
Richard Lowell Bryant