From Pastor Kenny's Desk
March 24, 2019
On the same occasion, there were people present who told Jesus about some Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their own sacrifices.
Jesus replied, “Do you think these Galileans were the greatest sinners in Galilee just because they suffered this? Not at all! I tell you, you’ll all come to the same end unless you change your ways. Or take those eighteen who were killed by a falling tower in Siloam. Do you think they were more guilty than anyone else who has lived in Jerusalem? Certainly not! I tell you, you’ll all come to the same end unless your change your ways.”
Jesus told this parable: “There was a fig tree growing in a vineyard. The owner came out looking for fruit on it, but didn’t find any. The owner said to the vine dresser, ‘Look here! For three years now I’ve come out in search of fruit on this fig tree and have found none. Cut it down. Why should it clutter up the ground?’
“In reply, the vine dresser said, ‘Please leave it one more year while I hoe around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine; if not, then let it be cut down.’”
~ Luke 13:1-9
This sacred text is filled with both promise and danger. The promise is to address one of the persistent questions many people have: why is there so much suffering in the world? Or, put more in a spiritual way, is suffering connected to our behavior? Does God cause suffering? Is suffering or calamity a form of punishment? These are questions usually asked in moments of extreme suffering and loss and they are as distressing as they are important.
Of course the danger is to imagine that we … or I as your pastor … can answer all those questions! We’ve all heard so many less-then-helpful … and sometimes downright awful … explanations of suffering, running the gamut from someone
saying to explain the death of a child that God needed another angel in the choir to TV preachers saying a particular calamity is God’s punishment for sin and wrong-doing.
Which means that probably the first thing we should understand about this sacred text is to remind ourselves that it’s never a good idea to develop a whole spiritual understanding about something from a single passage. Having said that … as people of faith … what can we say about suffering and loss and the cause of evil from this single passage. I think several things.
First, suffering is not a form of punishment. If there is anything we can take from Jesus’ sharp response to his audience … Do you think these Galileans were the greatest sinners in Galilee just because they suffered this? … it’s that suffering and calamity are not God’s punishment for sin. Just to make sure the crowd listening gets the point … Jesus goes on to offer a second example of folks killed when a tower fell on them … asking once more, Do you think they were more guilty than anyone else who has lived in Jerusalem? again answering definitively, No.
Second, just because suffering is not punishment doesn’t mean that it is disconnected entirely from sin and wrong-doing. Pilate’s murderous acts of terror … as well as those horrific actions of today’s tyrants that we read and hear about each and every day in the news … are sinful. Furthermore, what if the wall Jesus references was built by a fraudulent contractor … sound familiar? Sin and wrong-doing have consequences, and there are all kinds of bad behaviors that contribute to much of the misery in the world, and the more we can confront that wrong-doing the less suffering there will be.
All of which brings us to a third … and very important … thing we can say from this sacred text: God neither causes nor delights in suffering and calamity. This is where the parable about the fig tree comes in. Now, a quick warning: we tend to read this parable allegorically, assuming that the landowner is God and the gardener Jesus. But nowhere in Luke’s story do we find a picture of an angry, vindictive God that needs to be calmed by a friendly Jesus. Rather, Jesus portrays God as a parent who scans the horizon day in and day out waiting for the wayward son to come home and as a the woman who after sweeping her house all night looking for a lost coin throws a party costing even more than the coin is worth to celebrate that she found it. Luke’s story overflows with the conviction that “there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance” … Luke 15:7.
Given Luke’s consistent picture of God’s reaction to sin and wrong-doing, then perhaps the landowner is representative of our own sense of how the world should work. That is, from very early on, we want things to be fair and we define fair as receiving rewards for doing good and punishment for doing evil. Except of course, when it comes to our own mistakes and misdeeds … then we want mercy! So perhaps the gardener is God, the one who consistently raises a contrary voice to suggest that the ultimate answer to sin isn’t punishment … especially in the name of justice … but rather mercy, reconciliation, and new life.
If this is true, what might we say to offer words of comfort and grace when those around us are suffering? Remember … this whole discussion takes place on the road to Jerusalem as Jesus is making his way persistently to the cross. And in light of this passage and the whole of Luke’s story, we might then recognize that the cross is not about punishment for sin and wrong-doing either. Not for Jesus’ sin, certainly, but also not for ours.
That is the traditional interpretation of the cross: that because God is just, God has to punish sin and wrong-doing, and because God is loving, God beats up on Jesus instead of us. But I have a hunch that this understanding of the cross says more about our inadequate understanding of justice than it says about God. In contrast to this theory, I’d suggest that the cross is not about punishment but is instead about identification, solidarity, and love.
That is, rather than imagine that God has to punish someone … and that we’re just lucky Jesus was around … what if instead we recognize that God’s answer to sin and wrong-doing isn’t punishment but instead is love. That is, in Jesus God loves us enough to take on our lot and our lives fully, identifying with us completely. In the cross, then, we see just how far God is willing to go to be with us and for us, even to the point of suffering unjustly and dying the death of a criminal. And in the resurrection of Jesus, we see that God’s solidarity and love is stronger than anything … even death!
So what can we say in the face of suffering and loss? That God is with us. That God understands what our suffering is like. That God has promised to redeem all things, including even our suffering. That suffering and injustice do not have the last word in our lives and world. And that God will keep waiting for us and keep urging us to turn away from our self-destructive habits to be drawn again into the embrace of a loving God.
Can you IMAGINE what our world would be like if we lives our lived based on this truth? Can you IMAGINE a world without suffering? A world where our behaviors and actions do not hurt people and we are not hurt by the behavior and actions of others? A world when people are faced with calamity and suffering they are reminded of God’s loving embracing and justice? A world when people make mistakes and bad decisions they are not discarded but given the opportunity to make amends and given a second chance? A world where love and justice mean second chances are limitless. A world where ALL people get what they need to thrive as the Beloved of God. A world where people are affirmed for who they are and celebrated as beautiful, unique, brilliant individuals, made in the image of an all-loving God. This world … God’s world … has never been needed more than today. How will YOU help this world be a reality? Amen.