Our text this morning comes from the gospel of Luke, chapter 13, verses one through nine. I invite you to follow along in your own Bibles, or the pew Bible:
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
So our nation was deeply impacted by that murder of those 20 children and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook school just before Christmas. Meanwhile in Brazil, 235 young adults were killed in a nightclub fire in January, due to a number of safety and code violations. And then two weeks ago in Damascus, 59 people were killed from a massive car bomb near the ruling headquarters for the Baath Party. But of course, most of the victims were just innocent civilians. Wednesday, in response to the hearings going on in Congress about the drone strikes, a group of independent journalists released their report of those strikes in Pakistan since 2004, over 300 drone strikes killing at least 411 civilians in the process. Nearly half of those were children.
So I ask you: amidst all of these tragedies and innocent people that die in such ways, which is worse? Which is the greatest tragedy? Can we really put that kind of value on them? Whether by human error, gross negligence, or malicious intent, each and every death of an innocent victim is a tragedy of its own right. And it defies any easy explanation or rationalization. You know, just ‘being in the wrong place at the wrong time’ is a judgment on the randomness of human life that is hard to swallow. We as human beings, by our very nature, seek to find meaning in life.
And since the time of Job, we have sought an answer to that perennial question of suffering — why is it that innocent people, good people, can suffer so? And in many cases die terrible deaths. Jesus is presented with thie age-old problem in the case of a group of Galileans, evidently slaughtered by Pilate when they came to offer their sacrifice in the Temple. We don’t know why, presumably for some political purpose, maybe there was some unrest, some kind of protest. And knowing Jesus and the Disciples were from Galilee, we can imagine that the person who is bringing this news of this terrible tragedy would anticipate some expression of outrage from Jesus against this brutal injustice by Pilate. And instead, Jesus compares their murder to that of the 18 innocent victims who just happened to be a in the wrong place at the wrong time when a building collapses. And in the process, raises then this question of the common assumption, of the conventional wisdom of the day, that somehow they had it coming to them. That they must have done something to bring this judgment upon them. And in fact, Jesus says whatever sin they may have been guilty of was no worse than anyone else’s. And indeed, if you accept that logic — that suffering is God’s punishment for sin — then we all deserve a similar fate, Jesus says.
And I would suggest this is not a judgment by Jesus on the sinfulness of humanity, as much as it is a judgment by Jesus on the absurdity of that logic which turns God into the divine punisher who inexplicably selects a few as examples to suffer that fate, while sparing the rest. Making God out to be capricious — and even more malicious — than Pilate. And I absolutely reject that kind of notion of God.
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopalian priest who teaches religion at the Piedmont College, a popular speaker, preacher around the country, author of many books. She began her career as a hospital Chaplain. And she says the hardest calls, invariably, she had to make were those on the pediatric ward. When she would be brought in to comfort some family after receiving some devastating news about their child. And this one particular instance that stood out was a five-year-old who had collapsed and had suddenly gone blind. A CAT scan revealed a tumor on the brain that was cutting off the optic nerve. She goes to see the mother, in tears of course, reeking of cigarettes. And this woman confessed to the Reverend Taylor that it was her fault — not that smoking caused the tumor (no one could say whether or not that was the case) — but that God was punishing her for her failure to quit, and failing to get her attention, God inflicted this tumor upon her child. And we wonder why people are angry at God.
So let me be clear, God does not punish us by inflicting pain upon our children. I mean, if a person did that today, what would we do? We’d have them arrested, they’d be convicted of child abuse. So whatever our concept of God, if the behavior of God does not hold to the basics of morality and decency, I would suggest to you that the problem is not with God, the problem is with our concept of God. For the God I worship does not engage in immoral actions.
So whatever the cause of suffering, I do not believe God is one of them. When someone suffers, we want to know why. We need a reason to make sense out of it. And even if I’m the reason, if it’s something that I did for which I’m being punished, well better that than nothing. Because then at least, there’s still order to the world — the good are rewarded, the bad are punished.
But the response Jesus gives to that kind of logic is an unequivocal, definite. “NO!”. Tragedy and suffering is not an indication of punishment for sin. And in his refutation of this conventional wisdom to explain why people suffer, is both good news and some troubling news. The good news is that God is not this divine punisher who arbitrarily decides who will suffer and who will not. The troubling news is that life is not that predictable. Being a good person does not guarantee that you will be free of pain and suffering. I think we all know this.
Even though Jesus denies any direct correlation between our actions and divine judgment, at the same time our actions have consequences. Unless you repent, Jesus says, unless you change your way of life, unless you go a different direction, all will receive the same fate. And that seems contradictory — are we punished for sin, or are we not? And I think the source of confusion comes out of our limited understanding sometimes of sin and of God.
The typical understanding of sin is that of breaking laws of God. And then that makes God into the cop who arrests us, and the judge who sentences us. And after all, I think this is what we learned as children, right? You sneak a cookie out of the cookie jar before dinner, what happens? You get sent to bed without any dinner. And so we learn — only steal cookies out of the cookie jar when we’re having liver & onions for dinner, right? 🙂
So, we’re not children, and hopefully our understanding of God and sin matures with age. As adults, we see sin not so much as the breaking of laws, but as missing the mark. As choosing something less than what God desires. And in this understanding of sin, God is not the traffic cop who writes us a ticket for speeding, but God is the traffic cop who directs us into the right direction.
When I was 19, I went to work for our General Office in youth ministry in Indianapolis. Of course, home of the Indy 500, and I was so excited when one of our co-workers said “Would you like to go to the race?” He knew somebody that knew somebody, and could get me in on the ticket crew. The only thing was, I had to show up at 5 a.m. to get the orientation and training to take tickets on turn #2, and then I’d be free for the rest of the race, to go and enjoy. So I said “Great!”. So I show up there at 4:00 or 4:30 a.m., I’m headed to the race track, and as I’m approaching, there’s a place in the road where obviously they have to re-direct the traffic because it leads into the racetrack. And only those with the right identification, with the right sticker or something were allowed through. Everyone else had to turn right. So here’s this traffic cop, and he’s directing the traffic, and every now and then someone is allowed to go through. Well, here comes this pickup with a big camper, and he wants to go straight. But he obviously does not have the right identification, and the cop is saying he has to go this way. No, he wants to go straight. NO, you can’t, you have to go this way. The cop is being very emphatic. And this driver is saying “NO! I’m going straight”.
Well, pickup and camper probably weighs 7,000 pounds, police officer 200 lbs, do the math 🙂 So he gives it the gas, and he’s going straight. Well, the policeman has one of these big, industrial flashlights, big, long heavy-duty thing. And he’s directing traffic with this, and as the truck drives by, with one smooth motion, he just flips it up and turns it over, and with all of his force he whacks the rear-end of this camper, shattering the tail-light in a 1,000 pieces. And then he turns around, flips the flashlight back over, and has this big grin on his face, like “Oh, that felt good” 🙂 Well, that’s not my image of God 🙂 Probably a terrible illustration 🙂 Up until that point, he was doing great, directing traffic, it was when he go violent that he lost it for me.
Well, you see, at every intersection of life we’re faced with choices. Sin is making the wrong turn, is making that choice other than that direction which God would have us go. And the consequence of going the wrong direction may be minor, it may be nothing more than we end up with a dead-end, and we need to turn around and go back and start over. Have you ever been there, done that in life? You make the wrong choice, you learn your lesson and you’ve got to go back and try again.
Or, it may be major, it may lead to a cliff, right? The results of the wrong turn is not punishment imposed by God, but natural consequences. And thus, the role of God is not to punish us for every wrong turn, but to constantly seek to persuade us at every possible moment, to make the right choice, to turn in right direction. And it’s not that God is going to whack us one if we make the wrong choice. Otherwise I’d be in serious trouble – I would have been whacked long ago 🙂
The parable Jesus tells us is a great illustration of this kind of understanding of God. This orchard owner wants to cut down an unproductive fruit tree — makes sense, right? It’s just using up good soil. The gardener persuades him, no wait, give it one more year, and I will do everything I can, pull out all my gardening tricks to help it produce fruit. Now, he can’t make it do that, right? What gardener can do that? But he can do some things to enhance the possibility that it will bear fruit.
Now, ask: where is God in this story? Is God the land-owner? Is God the gardener, taking orders from the land-owner? That’s kind of an interesting idea. At the very least I think we can see that God is in the gardener, helping to direct the choice, giving another opportunity, showing some grace. God is pointing us, you see, in the right direction. That does not guarantee us that everything is going to go well in life, but it gives us the best chance to bear fruit, to find a life full of meaning. Even in the midst of pain and suffering.
And note there’s also in this parable, then, a cautionary warning that comes with this grace, of this suspended judgment, if you will, of another chance at life, that there are consequences for not bearing fruit. And this is a stark reminder, along with this warning of Jesus, that if you don’t change your life, if you don’t turn around, if you don’t go in the other direction (that’s what ‘repentance’ means), there will be consequences .
If we continue to live in ways that are contrary to God, that are harmful to ourselves or to others, damaging to our own lives or damaging to the earth, there will come a time when it’s too late and nothing can be done to save us. Whether we’re discussing our own personal morality and choices we make in our lifestyle, use of drugs or alcohol, or whether we’re talking about the national budget or climate change, the point is that our actions have consequences. And in some cases, those consequences of the wrong choices or the wrong turn can be devastating.
What alarms me, I think, about the particular national debate around our budget and the sequestration is that this is a train wreck that everyone knew was coming. We all saw it. And if our leaders cannot postpone, cannot redirect the trains on the track with a year’s warning, how can we expect them to do any better with decades of warning and the trends we see with an issue like climate change?
Every situation in which we find ourselves, as individuals or families or church or society or our nation, presents us with choices that have real consequences.
And note the end of the parable — I didn’t cut it short, that’s the way it ends. We’re not told what happens to the tree. Does it bear fruit, or does it not? Is it spared, or is it cut down?
You see, the future is radically open. It depends on our choices.
Following God’s direction may not guarantee success, but it gives us the best chance for making the right choice that will further life and spread God’s goodness. So the direction we choose is up to us.
May we all be open to that direction that comes to us from God.