Some Bible passages, like toxic materials, really ought to carry a warning: “Handle with care.” Our Reading from St. Luke 13, with its questions of evil, sin, divine judgment and patience…this passage is certainly one of them.
Somebody in the crowd near Jesus brings up tragic news to see what Jesus might say. He asks them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?”
Now, before we hear Jesus’ response to His own question, let’s just let it hang there a moment. After all, this is one of the most common questions people ask. “Are the bad things that happen to us our fault?” “Do we deserve them?” “Are they punishment for our sin?”
We may ask such questions when something minor goes wrong and we wonder, “Well, what did I do to deserve that?” Or the questions may stick in our throat in a more profound, heart-wrenching way, when calamity strikes us. Very likely many of us have sat with someone at the hospital or in the funeral home who attributed a serious illness or a death to some kind of punishment from God.
But Jesus doesn’t let us hang for long. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” And He says, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Then, in case they missed His point, Jesus adds another story of calamity out of the headlines and repeats the same point: “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others? I tell you, No.”
Good news…sort of…because He doesn’t say that the tragedies were not the result of sin. Some calamity is a result of sin. What if the tower in Siloam fell because it was built by a fraudulent contractor? They likely had them back in the 1st Century. There are all kinds of bad behaviors which do, in fact, contribute to so much of the world’s misery.
But Jesus doesn’t sever the connection between sin and tragedy. What He does sever is the connection between tragedy and punishment. “Do you think that they were worse sinners than all the other sinners?” “No,” He says clearly. “No worse than you are.” Well, that should be good news, right?
Sort of. Because it’s Jesus’ last line that unnerves anyone who’s actually listening to Him. He says, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Ugh! Does Jesus mean to say that they…we?…will also be struck dead by a sudden tragedy? If not, what is He saying…really?
There are those who think that the Gospel means that since all is forgiven nothing really matters with God; and if God loves us as much as He says He does how could He not want us to happy with whatever it is that we want to make us happy? But with these words, Jesus doesn’t remove the sense of judgment for human sin. He holds us accountable.
Now there are those who fall off the other side of the horse, like Job’s three friends in the Old Testament. They’re the folks who say that bad things don’t happen to good people. If bad things happen, they say, then those people aren’t really good. They’ve done something wrong or God wouldn’t be punishing them. For every sin there is a punishment. It’s basic physics.
These are the folks who are always so quick to respond after a tragedy with some explanation of precisely who is the sinner and why this tragedy struck them down. But Jesus cuts off this argument of perverted logic.
So what does Jesus mean? As He often does, He tells a parable to explain Himself. The scene is familiar to anyone who has ever had an orchard or a garden. Sooner or later, you have to uproot the plants that are not bearing fruit. So upon finding a fig tree that is alive yet bearing no fruit, the landowner instructs his gardener to get rid of the tree. The gardener protests, asking for one more year to tend the tree by loosening the soil and spreading manure around it. But…if it doesn’t respond, “Cut it down.”
It’s very easy to go straight to those dreadful words: “Cut it down.” Can’t miss that point. But if that is all we hear, then we miss the labor of love in that story intended to save the tree.
It’s the same point Jesus makes in His parable about God as the father who scans the horizon day in and day out waiting for his prodigal son to come home. It’s the same point as Jesus’ parable about God who is like the woman who sweeps her house all night looking for a lost coin, and then throws a party costing more than that coin to celebrate finding it.
So here, God isn’t so high and mighty that He is above loosening the soil around us with His own hands, even to spreading some manure, in the effort that we might bear fruit—that is, faith, and the deeds of faith. Ultimately, He’ll shed His own blood for that possibility. That’s love. God’s desire is not to cut us down, but to do whatever it takes that we might live and bear fruit.
So why do bad things happen to good, and sometimes not-so-good, people? Jesus doesn’t say why; and if we were prudent, neither would we. Sometimes tragedy is of our own making; sometimes, like Job, it comes out of nowhere.
But Jesus, Son of the loving, gardening God, while Jesus doesn’t answering our “why?” the point of His parable is that God still uses calamities to wake us up, stop us in our tracks—or in this Reading, to turn us around—that we might look at our own life differently. It’s not a bad thing, Jesus implies, for us to feel how fragile our lives really are. It’s not a bad thing when we lay awake at night listening to our heartbeat or to our breathing, not a bad thing at all if it turns us toward Him.
And it is that turning in faith, repenting, which He desires. The rift which tragedy tears open inside of us is the very place where God is at work. Oh yes, it may hurt…a lot…but in Christ, it is a hurt that leads to life everlasting.
Now, depending on what sort of God you prefer, this may or may not sound like good news. Certainly not for those who prefer a God who indulges their desires; certainly not for those who want God to punish every sin. But for us who have discovered, because of the crucified Christ, who have discovered that we cannot make life safe nor can we make God tame, for us this parable is plenty of Gospel.
We don’t know how long the time is that God has given us, or how our time will come to an end. But we do know…by Jesus’ parable…that our life is a gift from God. And knowing that…we can see His face, even in tragedy!