Isaiah 55:1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
One of the biggest reasons that people reject religious faith is this simple question: “Why would a loving God allow terrible things happen to good people?”
It’s a tough question to answer. Maybe an impossible one. Yet from the beginning of recorded history, people have been trying to resolve this tension. How is it possible to believe we live in an ordered, meaningful universe when every day we are witness to suffering, environmental destruction, injustice, and war?
Probably the most common response to this question has been this: Bad things happen to people who have done wrong. Good people are blessed with health, wealth, and long life. Those who do evil are punished – if not them personally, then their children. Everyone gets what they deserve in the end, even if it takes a generation or two to sort itself out.
This idea of cosmic justice is pervasive throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. It is an enduring image of how the universe works. It appeals to the human mind by providing us with a sense of order and control over our lives. If we want to be blessed, we should act with justice and fear God. If we sin against God, we’re in for serious trouble.
This was the logic of Job’s friends, who counseled him after he lost all of his wealth, his children, and his health. Clearly Job had done some sort of evil to bring this misfortune on himself. If he would simply turn from his wrongdoing and honor God, he would be blessed.
But Job knew that he hadn’t done anything to deserve his suffering. He had been upright and loving all of his life, caring for those around him and honoring God. The suffering and loss he was experiencing was an unexplainable tragedy – one so intense that even the God-fearing Job was inspired to demand that God come and explain himself!
The common wisdom of cause and effect breaks down in the face of tragedy and horror. How do we explain it when we face unjust treatment, suffering, oppression? How can we embrace the idea of a God who allows terror and violence to befall the innocent?
What sin did the children of Newtown, Connecticut commit to be massacred in their school? What evil act caused people in Kansas to be gunned down by a co-worker this week? What did so many of our African American brothers and sisters do to deserve the generations of brutality they’ve experienced at the hands of police? In the face of this kind of evil, our faith in a loving, all-powerful God just doesn’t seem to add up.
There are several ways to make sense of why bad things happen to good people:
One is to blame the victim. If we can imagine that those who are suffering brought it on themselves, then we no longer have to wrestle with questions of justice. Quite the opposite; it’s just bad people getting what was coming to them. We see this all the time when we’re told that those living in poverty are only poor because they’re lazy, or shrug at the deportation of immigrant families, saying that they shouldn’t have broken the law in the first place. It’s easier to blame those who are being crushed by the system than it is to question the structures that perpetuate suffering.
Another way to explain suffering is to blame the perpetrator, assuming there is one. We can chalk up mass shootings to the inhuman evil of the gunmen. Police brutality can be reduced to “a few bad cops”, rather than an indictment of American racism in action. By scape-goating the perpetrator, we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility.
Finally, there’s the tried-and-true method of blaming God himself. If God is all-loving and all-powerful, shouldn’t he prevent racism, war, genocide, and economic oppression? This is probably the single most convincing argument for modern-day atheists. Regardless of any superficial appeals to “reason” and “science”, at the heart of most atheism is an inability to answer the question, “Why does horrible, unthinkable evil befall the innocent?”
In the gospel reading today, Jesus tackles this question head on. Yet, he does not resort to any of the three usual answers that people give to explain the existence of evil in the world. He doesn’t blame the individual victims of injustice. He doesn’t blame the perpetrators of evil. And he doesn’t blame God.
What Jesus does do is to turn conventional wisdom on its head. He denies the common assumption that misfortune is caused by individual sin, while the righteous are blessed with health and wealth. Instead, Jesus lays the responsibility for horror and injustice on all of us. We are all participants in a society that perpetuates evil. Though we are tempted to blame it on others – or even on God! – Jesus calls us to this simple truth: We all carry within ourselves the seeds of violence, oppression, and injustice.
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Jesus’ stern words of judgment are accompanied by encouragement. There is hope for change. We can find it when we are willing to embrace a total turnaround of our perspective and way of living. A total change in thought and action, from darkness to light. Jesus called that “repentance.”
Repentance isn’t easy. It’s not about saying you’re sorry for your sins and then going about your life as normal. It’s not about “sins” at all, in fact. True repentance is only possible with a radical shift in behavior and mindset. Most of the time, most of us aren’t willing to go there. Yet Jesus warns us that our refusal to change will result in destruction for ourselves and our society. If we are unwilling to take responsibility for the way our actions impact others, we will be subject to God’s judgment.
The news tells us every day about war, environmental catastrophe, and economic injustice, yet so often we imagine it can’t happen to us. Do we think we’re somehow exempt from the consequences of the systemic sin of our society? How long do we believe that we can continue living as part of this fallen order and not experience its side effects?
As Jesus says in this passage, we are no different from those whose suffering fills the newspaper every day. We are no better than the ordinary people of Ethiopia who are facing potential starvation, or those living in the occupied Palestinian territories. We in this congregation are not more righteous than the persecuted church in the Middle East, or the untold millions who even today are living in slavery.
We know all of this, I hope, at least intellectually. So why is it that, in our gut, we don’t want to believe that such things could happen to us?
We are all – all of us – sinners standing under the judgment of a righteous God. Our only hope is to turn around now. We must experience the genuine repentance that leads to changed lives, hearts, and minds. With the guidance and assistance of the Holy Spirit, we can begin participating in the new community of love and justice that Jesus is inviting us into. Even if it gets us into trouble.
When Jesus speaks about the deaths at the tower of Siloam, I can’t help but think about the 9/11 attacks in New York City. I remember watching those towers burn and crumble, the office papers fluttering in the air around the World Trade Center. I can never un-see those TV images of desperate men and women throwing themselves from the inferno, plummeting to the ground below.
Seeing those images, witnessing that kind of monstrous horror and suffering, I think that most of us wanted someone to blame. I know I did.
Some of us blamed the US government and its imperial foreign policy for inspiring the attacks. Others blamed Muslims. And there’s no doubt that many people around the world blamed the very people who died in those buildings. In the eyes of some, the US Empire is so dreadful, so violent and cruel, that anyone who was working at the heart of its financial system had it coming.
But in this passage, I find Jesus saying something completely different. He’s not blaming the government, or Muslims, or the people inside those buildings. He’s saying to us, “You don’t get it at all. You are the US government. You are the Muslim terrorists. You are the people in that building. You think you’re any more innocent than they are? Wake up!”
What does it mean for us to wake up? What does it mean to embrace the reality that our whole society is under God’s judgment, and that we’re fully a part of it? I think that Jesus gives us a clue with his parable of the fig tree.
The fig tree wasn’t doing what fig trees are supposed to: bearing fruit. This tree existed for itself, not for its God-given purpose. Because of its lack of faithfulness, the master of the estate ordered that it be chopped down. In the same way, God is looking at our world and grieving our lack of faithfulness. We have strayed so far from God’s intention for the creation, how could our loving and righteous God not want to cut this tree down?
But our God is also a hopeful God. And there is a gardener who cares for the tree. He believes in the tree. “Give it another chance,” says the gardener. He promises to work with the tree, to lay on more fertilizer. He’ll help it to grow, to change into the kind of tree that bears fruit and blesses the earth.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to be like the gardener. We are invited to struggle for the redemption of this society we live in. Despite the well-deserved judgment of God that hangs over all of us, we can trust that there is still enough goodness in the creation that, with the Spirit’s help, we can find our way to repentance. With the gardener’s help, we can become a community of justice and peace. We can bear fruit worthy of repentance.
We are all one. There’s no escaping it. We are all responsible for the death, pain, and injustice that we see in our world. Yet Jesus the Gardener stands with us, ready to strengthen and inspire us to the kind of total life turnaround that can redeem us and heal the earth.
Another way of life is possible, one that serves God’s people and the creation. It’s a life of restoration that brings us out from under judgment, through the flaming sword, and into the paradise of God. With Jesus tending our roots and the Holy Spirit shining on us like the sun, we don’t have to be cut down. Destruction is not inevitable.
As a community of healing and reconciliation in our broken world, we are invited to discontinue the search for people to blame. Instead, we can imitate Jesus, who for the sake of the limitless love within him was willing to bear unjust suffering in order to liberate those who stood under judgment.
When we walk with Jesus, undeserved suffering takes on an entirely new meaning. Come what may, all of our pain and confusion can be redeemed in his love. He gives us power, courage, and boldness to say – in the face of that great day of judgment:
“Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”