March 24, 2019, Lent 3C, Luke 13:1-9
A little over a year ago Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, was released. Kate is a professor at Duke Divinity School and a historian with a focus in the American prosperity gospel. You might be aware that the prosperity gospel is the belief that God blesses with success and prosperity in life those who faithfully follow God’s ways. It also says that the opposite is true, those who sin or fail in following God’s ways are punished with bad things in their lives. The book tells the story of how at thirty-five years old Bowler was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and quickly realized as people gave her advice on healing that echoed that prosperity gospel mindset, that she too in some ways clung to the mentality that if only she thought positively and lived in the right way she would be healed from the dreaded diagnosis that threatened her life.
Living in an American culture that tells us that if we only pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, work hard, and follow all the right rules we will find success for ourselves, this can be a very easy way of thinking to buy into. And thus the opposite is easy to believe as true as well. If we become ill, lose a job, experience a failed relationship, or encounter tragedy, we have done something wrong to be on the receiving end of this bad thing. Therefore, in the face of mass shootings, terrorist attacks, or senseless violence we can want to know who we put the blame on. Or in the face of cyclones, floods, wild fires, or tornadoes we can wonder who sinned to cause this to happen. Our human inclination is to seek answers or assign blame for things that seem to defy our human logic. Our inclination is to try to find a way to make sense of the bad in this world which seems to us to be senseless otherwise.
In our gospel reading from Luke today we encounter Jesus addressing people with the same type of beliefs and questions. It seems that Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, executed a group of Galileans who were worshiping in the temple at Jerusalem and offering sacrifices. Probably not that unbelievable an occurrence given Pilate’s reputation for violent oppression of the Jewish people over whom he ruled. And Jesus’ question of them isn’t unexpected either as he knew of the commonly held belief of the time that you were rewarded or punished by God for your behavior. Do good and receive blessings. Do bad and receive punishment. An ancient form of the prosperity gospel. Jesus doesn’t buy into that however. He tells the people that the Galileans killed by Pilate weren’t any worse sinners than all other Galileans. And Jesus then goes on to ask about eighteen people killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them whether they were worse offenders than all other people living in Jerusalem. In each case he tells them no, they didn’t sin any more than others to deserve their fate.
And yet, even though Jesus says the people didn’t die because of their own sin he doesn’t offer us much comfort here. Jesus doesn’t offer us the easy answers we seek that would make us feel good about our own protection from death in similar ways to the victims in these two tragedies. He tells us that we can’t try to explain these things away by blaming the victim, but he doesn’t give us any insight into the deep secrets of life we want answered either. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why doesn’t God prevent tragedy from happening? What are the reasons behind the painful and senseless acts of violence and injustice that happen every day in this world? We don’t get answers to those questions here no matter how much we want them.
Jesus simply won’t play into our human inclination to write all this off to sin and our human failings and be free of it. We can possibly chalk some of it up to sin. The death of the Galileans in the temple is because of Pilate’s sins of abuse of power and using any violent means necessary to maintain control. The death of those at the tower of Siloam could be because of the sin of greed if the problem was shoddy workmanship and cutting corners by a building contractor. Yet, Jesus doesn’t go there. He offers little in the way of comfort other than saying it wasn’t because of their sin these people died before he tells the people listening that if they don’t repent the next time something like this happens it might be them!
It certainly seems like Jesus skipped Pastoral Care 101 here. The people are asking for comfort and solace in the wake of senseless tragedy and violence and all he seems to offer up is “better repent or next time it might be you!” Because our view of repentance tends to be tied to sinful behavior and guilt we tend to hear this as “stop your sinning and get your morals in order or face the same fate!” However, Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary says understanding repentance in this way would be wrong. He says rather, “The word translated as ‘repent’ is, at its root, about thinking and perception. It refers to a wholesale change in how a person understands something. It implies an utter reconfiguration of your perspective on reality and meaning, including (in the New Testament) a reorientation of yourself toward God. Your behavior might change as a result of this new perception, certainly; but repentance first involves seeing things differently and coming to a new understanding of what God makes possible.”
So, Jesus isn’t offering up a threat here that if you don’t change your ways the same death awaits you. Not at all. Instead, he offers up an opportunity to repent, to reorient yourself toward God and God’s way of thinking, and see that a different way of living is possible with God. We don’t have to buy into the sin tabulation system that says the one with the worst or most sins gets punishment doled out worthy of those sins. We don’t have to buy into the cycles of violence, anger, fear, despair, retribution, blaming, and shaming that way of thinking perpetuates. That’s the world’s way, not God’s way. Instead, Jesus’ call to repentance here is a call to turn to him and in doing so turn to the hope, forgiveness, and new life available to us through God.
Jesus emphasizes this by telling the parable of the fig tree immediately after he addresses the crowd’s questions. A landowner sees a fig tree in his vineyard that hasn’t produced fruit for three years and he wants it cut down so it will no longer waste space and instead will make room for a more fruitful tree. However, the gardener asks for one more chance for the fig tree. He wants to dig around it and put manure on it to see if it will grow fruit next year and if it doesn’t then the landowner can cut it down. The gardener’s actions certainly seem like a waste of time. Three years and no fruit? And yet in the next year the gardener wants to waste more valuable resources and space on that fig tree that has shown no promise at all in its three years of life.
Perhaps Jesus didn’t fail Pastoral Care 101 after all then. Because what seems to us to be the senseless behavior of the gardener in this parable points us to what his call to repentance offers us. It points us NOT to our powerlessness to a system that punishes us for performance that fails to measure up to impossibly high standards where the almost certain result is despair and death. Instead, it points us to the hope and possibility for new life with God who is waiting to offer us one more opportunity to prosper no matter how useless it might seem by the world’s standards. It points us to the fact that knowing the answers to the questions we have to the whys of life – Why am I suffering like this? Why am I being punished like this? Why didn’t God stop this tragedy? – aren’t as important as knowing the answer to the question of who – who is the One who gives us life and who is there always waiting for us to repent and reorient ourselves to seeing and experiencing the wonder and mystery of abundant life in and with this God of life? Through this parable Jesus points us to the fact that the way of repentance is an urgent call to us to stop wasting time with the other way, to begin again with him, and to bear the fruit of God’s purpose and hope for us and thereby take part in the coming of God’s kingdom here and now.
Too often we get stuck floundering in the big questions of life as we face personal tragedy, natural disasters, and national and worldwide catastrophes. It isn’t that those questions of why things happen aren’t important, they just distract us from what IS important because they get us stuck in anger or despair trying to find someone or something to blame or to explain the inexplicable. Or we get stuck there in our grief and loss or in the fear and worry that somehow our situation is our fault. Jesus never leaves us there in that thinking though. Instead, he lifts us out of our stuck-ness by pointing us to the way of repentance. He points us to the only source of life and grounding we have at such times, indeed at all times, because he points us to our relationship with God. He points us away from the world’s ways of cynicism and despair and reorients us to God’s way of hope and possibility. He points us away from the way of death to God’s way of life. In this season of Lent as we face the challenges of our own personal crises, a divisive political climate, mass shootings, plane crashes, and natural disasters, in whatever we face may not get lost in our suffering, but instead see it as an opportunity to reorient ourselves toward God and find there the way of hope and new life only Jesus can offer. Amen.