By The Rev. Sherry Deets
3 Lent – March 3, 2013
While we read this story from Luke this morning in isolation, it doesn’t occur that way. In fact, we are entering an ongoing conversation midstream. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, teaching his disciples and the crowds as he goes. In chapter twelve he has told several potent parables on money and foolishness and always being prepared. He concludes by suggesting that those listening are not just missing the point of his stories, but missing the boat altogether: “You may be able to read the signs to predict the weather,” he says, “but you are utterly clueless about reading the signs of the times.”
Some in the crowd quickly rose to the occasion, stating a case of unjust suffering with the implication that Jesus should interpret its meaning. They told him about some Galileans that Pontius Pilate had murdered in a ghastly event. No question is stated explicitly, but a question is surely implied. What is one to make of that? Did those Galileans deserve it? Was Pilate the instrument of divine judgment against them and consequent punishment?
Those who raise the implied question can hardly be faulted. They represent the usual, or at least a familiar, point of view that says: There is a reason for human suffering, and it usually has to do with something in the past of a person’s life, something that is evil.
The implied question is met head-on by Jesus. He declares that the Galileans who suffered were no worse sinners than anyone else. And he adds to their illustration one of his own. He refers to an accident in Jerusalem. Eighteen persons died when a tower fell on them. Those persons were no worse than anyone else. The accident was random. Anyone happening to be at the wrong place at the wrong time can be the victim of an accident. The point seems to be that tragedy is not a punishment for sin. Good news.
Because some calamity is a result of sin. What if the wall Jesus references was built by a fraudulent contractor (my guess is they had those back in the first century too)? There are all kinds of bad behaviors, in fact, that contribute to much of the misery in the world.
But notice that Jesus doesn’t sever the connection between sin and calamity. He severs the connection between calamity and punishment. “Do you think they were worse sinners than all the others? No. No worse than you.” That, at least, should be good news, right?
Because Jesus next line scares me. “But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” We don’t know, for sure, what precisely Jesus means by “as they did.” Does it mean that they – we! – will be struck dead by sudden calamity, or whether we will be separated from God, or whether we will just die at some unknown future point still mired in our sin? We don’t know. We do know, however, that Jesus’ words call into question some favorite Christian assumptions.
For those who lean far to the left, note that Jesus does not remove a sense of impending judgment. Which, I think, is a good thing, as the flip side of judgment is justice. God cares about how we live our lives and treat each other and will hold us accountable. For those who lean far to the right, note that Jesus doesn’t prescribe what the impending judgment amounts to, and I think that’s good news as well lest we presume to call God’s judgment too quickly onto others.
All that said, we are still left with a certain amount of ambiguity about precisely what Jesus means. Rather than try to resolve things too quickly, let’s turn for a moment to the parable he tells as an elaboration on the pronouncements he has just made. The scene is a familiar one not only to landowners but to anyone who has ever had even a vegetable garden. Sooner or later, you uproot the plants or trees that are not bearing fruit. So upon finding a fig tree that is alive and well yet bears no fruit, a landowner instructs his gardener to get rid of the tree. The gardener protests, asking for one more year, one more year in which to tend the tree by loosening the soil and spreading manure around it. But if it does not respond, the gardener agrees, then, yes, cut it down.
It’s fairly common to assume that the landowner is God and the gardener Jesus. But nowhere in Luke do we find a picture of an angry God that needs to be placated by a merciful Jesus. Rather, Jesus’ portrays God as a father who scans the horizon day in and day out waiting for his wayward son to come home and as a woman who after sweeping her house all night looking for a lost coin throws a party costing even more to celebrate that she found it. Given this slightly different picture of God’s reaction to sin, I wonder if we wouldn’t do better to imagine that God is this peculiar gardener, the one so partial to unyielding fig trees. God, that is, isn’t beneath loosening the soil around us and even spreading manure in the hope that we may bear fruit. Why? Because God loves us and wants the best for us.
And there’s just no “sort-of” about that good news.
So why do bad things happen to good, and sometimes not-so-good, people? Jesus doesn’t say and neither can we. Sometimes misfortune is of our own making and sometimes it is tragically unlucky. But Jesus, son of the all-loving God, isn’t beneath using such occasions to invite us to wake up – or in this case, turn around (repent!) – so that we might look differently at our life and world. Jesus isn’t beneath taking the daily news of his day or ours and using it to jar us into recognizing that life is a gift, that God is seeking us out, and that there is so much good we can do with the time we are given. We do not know how long that time is or how it will come to a close, but we do know it is a gift, not to be squandered but rather spent in the pursuit of good things for God’s people. Amen.
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