Theme: Do bad things happen to good people?
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, we grieve for the loss of life in the disasters in Haiti, Chile, and in other places where natural disasters have occurred: be with those who are recovering physically, emotionally, and spiritually from these seismic events, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The elephant in the pulpit these past weeks has been first, the earthquake in Haiti and second, the earthquake in Chile. (An aside on Chile’s pronunciation)
How do we make sense of the senseless? What is God’s role in all of this? To the people of Jesus’ time, God is active in causing good and ill or there is no God at all. The latter concept, in those days, was unthinkable.
We are only beginning to get a handle on the number of dead in Haiti while the dead are still being counted in Chile. Chile had a much stronger earthquake, but their infrastructure was much more advanced than in Haiti. But Chile suffered a double whammy that Haiti did not. Chile had a quake triggered tsunami. There may end being more dead from the tsunami than from the earthquake. Aftershocks continue to plague Chile.
Over the years, I have heard many people ask, “How can God allow people to die from a natural disaster (fill in the blank)?” For many, the implication is that there really is no God or certainly not a loving one. I read that some scientists are saying that some billions of years from now the plates on the earth that cause earthquakes and volcanoes will once again join the continents together into one super-continent.
When this happens, the plates will freeze (no more earthquakes), the oceans disappear (eliminating tornados and hurricanes), resulting in the earth looking like Mars. This will be a life ending event. My conclusion is this, God gave abundant life to this planet and the price for this is earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. God is no dummy. There is a trade off. The alternative is much worse.
At this point in Luke’s gospel where Jesus addresses these issues, Jesus has been in a seemingly bad mood for quite some time. He chewed out a crowd who gathered around him. He accepted an invitation to eat at a Pharisee’s house and criticized them. They then started to look for ways to get rid of him. He instructed his disciples. And then when crowds gathered once again around him, Jesus chewed them out again. Jesus also questioned their intelligence.
Then for some unknown reason, maybe the topic came up in casual conversation, some people who were around Jesus brought up the issue of some Galileans that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had killed. (It is unlikely Pilate had a direct hand in any killings. He would order people killed, but Roman soldiers also knew what was necessary to keep order without checking in with the boss.)
And this was particularly an offensively violent act. The Galileans were making a sacrifice to God. The only altar that could officially be used was the altar at the Jerusalem temple. The blood of the sacrificial animals is normally prevalent on a daily basis at the temple. In order to be at the altar, the Galileans had to be priests. So Pilate seems to have ordered the executions of these priests while they were making sacrifices to God. This was a significantly offensive act to Jews.
But instead of being angry about this event, there seems to be a theological assumption applied here. Jesus is refuting an unmentioned assumption that these Galilean priests died because of some sin they carried with them to the altar. In this case, Pilate and the Roman soldiers were merely carrying out God’s will to have these priests punished for whatever sins they did. And it doesn’t even matter if no one knows what the sin is! God knows and that is enough!
Jesus says that’s not why they died. He then tells the crowd that unless they repent they, too, will die. Now we are all going to die. But that is not what Jesus is saying. What Jesus is saying is that unless we repent, we will die just as they did. Jesus seems to imply that yes they sinned, but that is not why they died. But if we don’t repent, then we too will die.
Jesus leaves a lot more questions than answers. Is what he is saying apply only to priests? (That would make me uncomfortable.) Or is he warning all unrepentant people to repent and shape up? And if not, then what? Is Jesus saying that we stay dead without a resurrection? Jesus doesn’t elaborate. But if I heard him, in person on that day, I think I would be scared. Maybe that is what Jesus was trying to do.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Jesus addressed the theological reason for someone being killed by another and now he picks up the case of an accident – what insurance companies call, “an act of God.”
Jesus asks if the people who died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them are worse than any other sinners. It was thought then, and still is in some quarters today, that God punishes people for their sins. In other words, bad things happen to bad people. But that is not how the world works. We know, that at times, bad things happen to good people. That is what the Book of Job is about. The fact is – stuff happens.
Jesus once again says that they didn’t die because they were particularly bad. It just happened. But he warns them again, unless they repent, if they don’t turn back to God, they too will die.
Then just in case they still don’t understand what Jesus is saying, he offers a parable. First of all, who has a fig tree in the middle of their vineyard? Is this guy in the fig business or the wine business? Make up your mind! Maybe the owner really likes figs and was disappointed to keep going out to get figs on the tree and finding none.
If we look at this parable as an allegory, we might look at it this way. The vineyard is God’s kingdom, as it usually is in Jesus’ parables. The fig tree is one of us or Jesus may have even meant it to be all Jews. The owner is God. No fruit – cut it down.
Next comes the gardener. The gardener offers to make sure it is well fed and watered. If it receives all of this and still does not produce fruit, then the master can cut it down. The gardener may be Jesus. Jesus is feeding people the Word of God. John the Baptist offered water for forgiveness of sins. If they do not produce fruit after applying the Word of God and being washed in forgiveness, then they don’t deserve to stay in the kingdom of God.
This is, according to this parable, a deserved death – not being killed by Pilate or having a tower fall on you. It is a spiritual death, not a physical death. It is a sad death. It’s a sad death, because the person who does not bear fruit for God’s kingdom rejects God and does not enjoy God’s company in the afterlife.
What is it like to bear fruit for God’s kingdom? To answer that we need to know what the kingdom of God looks like. It is, basically, a return to Eden. There is no want. There is no strife or violence. There is no sickness. It is a total wholeness in harmony. This is what God wants for us.
So, bearing fruit for God’s kingdom is what we do to bring about the kingdom of God. Are we providing for those less fortunate than us? Are we promoting peace at home and elsewhere? Are we doing what we can to make other people whole? If not, Jesus is saying there are consequences. If we do these things, then we have a glorious future waiting for us.
The people in the crowd are trying to make sense of the senseless. It was easy to blame the victim, because, after all, God can’t purposely cause pain and suffering – right? But the thinking is that God still had a hand in pain and suffering, only it was through a deserved punishment for sins known only to God.
Jesus made it clear that God does not go around each day plotting punishment for the world’s sinners. One person said that if God did such a thing there would be no one left to populate the planet. Jesus is saying no to simple answers to complex questions. There are no quick fixes to deep troubles.
Yet, Jesus does preach responsibility, “Get off your butt and help people!” We share in Jesus’ mission. Our job is to witness and leave the rest up to God. In the Lord’s Prayer, we don’t pray my kingdom come or our kingdom come. We pray your kingdom come. We are not in charge here. We are workers not designers. We are prophets of a future we share with God.
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, increase in us spiritual energy to help us bring about your kingdom: give us your Spirit always and never turn our ear from the words of your son, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we pray. Amen.
Text: Luke 13:1–9 (NRSV)
1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or 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? 5 No, 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. 7 So 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”