In recent weeks we’ve been shocked, again, by the latest mass shooting (this time in New Zealand); we see the stunned people in the midwest losing everything in historic flooding. We get nightly reports on the horrors of war – wherever it is this week. A refugee crisis seems to be a constant somewhere. It’s not unlike the old Kingston Trio song about “They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain …” On top of all that, many of us suffer tragedies on a more personal level.
It seems quite natural for us to ask then, “Why?” Why did this have to happen to this person? Perhaps the victim was a good, loving person. Meanwhile we hear of scoundrels who live in relative happiness and prosperity. We question God’s goodness and fairness. Sometimes we might even doubt His existence. It’s the classic philosophic problem of evil: How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow good people to suffer and wicked people to prosper?
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us some answers to these difficult questions.
In the context of the Gospel of Luke, in the chapter just before this, Jesus used an illustration of a man who is going to be dragged into court with a losing lawsuit against him. If he is smart, Jesus says, he will quickly settle with his opponent before it’s too late. His point being that we all have a debt of sin toward God. If we are aware of our situation, we will be quick to get right with God before we come into judgment.
Now in today’s Gospel, Luke reports, “on the same occasion,” people reported to Jesus about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. The idea of Pilate's mingling the Galileans own blood with their offerings must have meant a massacre of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. We don’t know the why, but it corresponds with other historical writings about Pilate's brutality. And the verse does offer an ominous characterization of the Roman governor in advance of his appearance in Jesus' trial.
Then Jesus brings up another tragedy from their recent history, “the tower of Si-lo-am,” apparently a tower in the wall around Jerusalem that must have collapsed without warning and crushed 18 hapless Jerusalemites.
Jesus comments on these news stories of his time. It almost seems a little like gossiping. Just as in our time, narratives of destruction and distress capture the attention. As always, Jesus is telling us not just to look out but is asking us to look in; He is concerned not just with what is going on in our heads but wants us to look at what is happening in our hearts and ask how God is opening us to compassion, prompting us to repentance and leading us to new life.
I think Jesus figured he was speaking here to people who probably didn’t apply much spiritual truth to themselves. From His reply, we can also guess that these men were smugly thinking that those who suffered such tragedies were deserving of God’s judgment, whereas the fact that they had been spared such tragedies meant that they were pleasing to God.
Jewish belief held that whatever evil befell a person was a punishment for sin. So the more a person had to suffer, the greater their sinning must be!
But Jesus rejects this simplistic notion and corrects the view by showing that we all are sinners worthy of God’s judgment. Twice here He drives it home asking whether those who suffered were greater sinners? “I tell you, no,” He says, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In emphasizing repentance, I think, Jesus means a turning around toward God and one’s neighbor.
Then Jesus tells this parable about the fig tree that underscores the point: If you don’t repent, you will soon face God’s judgment.
This short parable about a tree speaks of imminent judgment. We’re reminded of the Advent lessons about John the Baptist as Luke uses similar images earlier in his third chapter: “Even now,” Luke quotes the Baptizer, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
These tree parables tend to reinforce ideas in the first half of today’s lesson. Here a cultivated yet unproductive tree may continue to live even without bearing fruit, only because it has been granted additional time to do what it is supposed to do. Unless it begins to bear fruit (used here as an image of repentance), the result will be its just and swift destruction.
Like Jesus' earlier words responding to recent tragedies, the parable warns against false reassurance. Just because you have not been cut down, don’t presume that you are bearing fruit.
The tone of the parable emphasizes that patience and mercy temporarily keep judgment at bay. The role of the gardener offers a crucial picture of this patience and mercy. The tree has not been left to its own devices. Everything possible is being done to get it to act as it should. Correspondingly, God does not leave people to their own resources but encourages their repentance.
It would be tempting to talk about allegorical interpretations of this parable – identifying the vineyard owner as God, the gardener as Jesus, and the tree as … whomever we wish would hurry up and repent – but I don’t know that that’s such a good idea – I think that strips the parable of its power and maybe produces some confusion.
Nowhere else in the books of the Luke author does the writer imply that Jesus tries to pacify that Old Testament God who is too eager to clean house.
Instead, I think part of the parable's power comes through the suspense it generates. Will fruit emerge in time to thwart the ax? How will this season of second chances play itself out? How do the gardener's efforts make the tree's existence a state of grace and opportunity? (Tune in next Sunday when we bring you more Days of Our Lives!)
So, rather than asking the question “Why?” with regard to suffering, perhaps we should ask the question, “What?” What does this tragedy teach me? I think Jesus’ answer is: Tragedies should teach us that since death and judgment are imminent, we need to be ready through true repentance.
You know, Jesus could have used this occasion to jump into a critique of Pilate’s cruel ways, but He’d have missed the spiritual opportunity.
He could have plunged into a philosophical discussion of the problem of evil, but His listeners would have gone away unchanged.
Instead, Jesus took this general topic and homed in on the consciences of those who had raised the subject. He applies it to them twice, and then He further drives it home with the parable.
Jesus seizes on these two calamities that were probably subjects of recent conversation around the local watering hole – one an instance of state-sanctioned terror, one a random accident. It’s tempting to compare these events with happenings in our time like nightclub fires and ferry sinkings and earthquakes and mass shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Charleston or New Zealand.
Any of these tragedies saw people snuffed out with little warning and mostly no clearly apparent reason. These events lead the rest of us to feel how precarious our existence is. Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong, nothing that caused their demise. Life is just as chancy as it can be nasty and short.
Although these events might allow Jesus an opportunity to defend God against charges of mismanaging the universe, he does not go that route. He only implies that we mustn’t equate tragedy with divine punishment. Sin doesn’t make atrocities come. They just come, no matter what some televangelists say or whom they might blame.
What life's fragility does do, Jesus says, is give it urgency. Jesus turns attention away from disasters, victims, and "why?" questions to talk to those of us who so far have survived the hazards of the universe and of human society. We shouldn’t mistake our good fortune as evidence of God’s special blessing.
When Jesus says, twice here, that unless you repent you will perish like those others did, he does not promise that the godless will be struck by an asteroid. He refers to death in the sense of the destruction of one's soul. He emphasizes the suddenness with which this death comes.
Just as the victims of Pilate or the tower or more recent tragedies did not enjoy the luxury of choosing the time of their demise, likewise the unrepentant will suddenly find they have delayed too long and lost themselves.
Is Jesus exploiting tragedy here to score theological points? Yeah, I think so – to make a point – He certainly capitalizes on recent horrors to stress the suddenness of death and the unpredictability of life. In today’s world we’re used to the fear mongering that politicians and others whip up after many a natural and unnatural disaster.)
But notice the approach that Jesus takes is along a slightly different path. He doesn’t promise freedom from calamity, but urges his audience against false self-assurances. If fragilness of life demands speed, demands urgency, that urgency shows that life itself has carved out an opportunity for us to jump on God's
graciousness, as the parable suggests.
So what are we to take away from this lesson?
I think probably we should each examine our own lives and look for fruit. There’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5, or the fruit of John 4:36 that you store up for eternal life. Or as John 15 reminds us that it is not possible to bear fruit apart from the Branch, Jesus, for apart from Him we do nothing.
There are many types of fruit that could be examined: the fruit of giving, praying, righteousness, forgiveness, tithing, discipling, leading others to Christ, missionary support, etc. Each is different, but in a sense, each is from the same tree, the same Lord.
Each of us is different with different gifts and fruit (I’ll refrain from likening us to fruit salad), but we are all of the same body.
Let’s use what God has given us for His glory, to bear fruit, and to further His Kingdom.
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