The task of ‘domesticating’ Jesus has been attempted many times. We witness this being done when one calls Him merely a good moral teacher or wonderworker. Or perhaps a cynic philosopher, or non-violent anti-imperial. Domesticating Jesus makes Him less threatening. It makes Him more accommodating of our thoughts and desires. We can just fit Him in anywhere that makes sense for the time and change later if that is what we need to do.
I would argue that a major reason behind this effort is the conception of love, at its pinnacle, as fully accommodative. The thought goes that if I love someone, I want them to be everything they want to be. I want them to fully actualize themselves no matter what. I want to support them in all their efforts. So, if God is love, and Jesus is God, then Jesus must be fully accommodative to us. From this, it follows that any teachings of Jesus that are threatening to this view must be suppressed or radically reinterpreted.
Jesus of course did teach the things of God and did many miracles. To think He was a cynic is an extreme stretch and claims to anti-imperialism are equally strained. Reading Jesus through any modern paradigm or ‘lens’ will most likely fail to do justice to what we read about Him in the Gospels.
Today’s passage is striking and will offend the moral sensibilities of those who want Jesus to be accommodative in the sense of just letting us be us. It undermines the idea of a domesticated Jesus. He tells the crowd gathered around Him to repent or perish. These are harsh words. How dare anyone say that! It would certainly take some heretofore unheard-of audacity to speak authoritatively about repentance or perishing. To place such a choice in front of people and presume the objective truth of this dichotomy turned many people away from Jesus’ message and mission. The same holds true from that time until now.
One cannot think Jesus is merely a good moral teacher or sage and still believe He spoke things like what we read in Luke 13:1-5. It would require rejecting the text or contorting it beyond recognition. If Jesus did not speak with divine authority, from the very person of God, in uttering these things then He could not be a good moral teacher. He would be teaching something very immoral when placing this stark contrast as fundamental to His ministry.
To repent is to turn, it is to change one’s way of thinking, to fundamentally reorient one’s life to the truth of God revealed. Jesus happened to preach this message often, so there must be something to it. Are we attentive? The idea at work here is that we must accommodate ourselves to Jesus, not the other way around. The love of God does, in a certain way, accommodate itself to us. It is forever reaching for us, reaching into the world, penetrating through sin and darkness. God continually makes the first move, meeting us where we are…but not desiring that we should stay where we are. Not desiring that we should stay on the same track of self-destruction. The love of God calls us upward. We must take Him at His word. We chose to reject Him, to not repent, at our peril. The very essence of true love comes out in Jesus’ message to repent or perish.