In Luke 13 we hear of a couple of news stories that would fit right in with today’s 24-hour news networks. First, Pilate apparently had some people killed while they were worshipping – their blood mingled with the blood of the sacrifices they were offering. A horrific story, not attested to in any other places but also not out of the realm of possibility considering Pilate’s reputation for ruthlessness. And second, a story about how 18 people were killed when a tower fell on them.
Jesus asks: Do you think these who died were worse sinners than the other people around who didn’t die? Why them? Did they have it coming? In a Clint Eastwood movie called “Unforgiven” a young man who has just killed a man says, “Well, I reckon he had it coming.” To this the grizzled old gunslinger played by Clint Eastwood replies, “We all got it coming, kid.”
Hmm. Do we all have it coming? Does suffering indicate we did something wrong? I don’t think so. But the question remains – how do we account for unjust suffering in the world? If God is so great why do innocent people suffer?
Let’s stop right here. Take a minute and think really hard about that question. There are two glaring assumptions in it that I take issue with. The first is that the world works on reward and punishment – that being good should earn you benefits and being bad should earn you trouble. And the second is that God chooses certain situations to intervene in and others not to. I think both assumptions are profoundly wrong.
Jesus says elsewhere that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Life happens. We get angry at God when sweet, little, old Aunt Mabel gets ill but the nasty guy around the corner who cheats and steals seems to keep getting richer. What kind of God lets Aunt Mabel suffer while the jerk seems to be cruising through life?
It’s an understandable question because it feels like injustice, but the question is misguided. It asks what kind of God would do this when we should know better. A reward/punishment God would be like Santa Claus. Do good and get a toy, do bad and get a lump of coal. There’s no room in that kind of God for grace, or love, or forgiveness, or mercy.
The reality is that the nature of human life is what it is. Why do we suffer and die? – Because we’re human. Eventually every single one of us will die. Why do bad things happen to good people? – Because we’re human. Natural disasters, unfortunate circumstances, and plain bad luck are the realities of life. Aunt Mabel gets ill because people often get ill. It’s not God’s judgment, it’s genetics, diet, exercise, choices, habits, environment, and a thousand other things.
Think about your life and your choices and your habits. Think about the good you do and the not-so-good that you wish you didn’t do. Now, honestly, do you really want a god that keeps score? – a book-keeper god that weighs your good and bad and dishes out your life accordingly? I didn’t think so! And you’re in luck, because that kind of god is alien to the Christian faith.
The God who is Really Real is Love, and can be none other than love. And this Love God does not operate on the level of possessions and happenstances but on the level of the heart and soul and spirit no matter what one’s circumstances might be. So, my first objection is that asking why there’s unjust suffering assumes that only the bad people should suffer and that’s not how God works at all.
My second objection is about why God doesn’t intervene. Ask yourself this: who should God intervene for? – the good people? We just talked about that – we don’t want God to keep score. Maybe God should intervene for people who pray? Isn’t that the same thing as reward and punishment? So that can’t be right either.
Maybe the problem is the word ‘intervene’? For God to intervene where would God have to be? For God to ‘come down and intervene in our lives’ where would we have to imagine that God resides? Out there somewhere.
But we are Trinitarian. We speak of God not just being ‘out there’ but also being all around us and most especially within us! God is beyond, around, and within. So how exactly does someone/something come down and intervene in our lives when that someone/thing is already present in every breath and every heartbeat?
We can’t have it both ways. Either God is present or not. I vote for present! And if God is here, if God is already in me, then God can’t ‘intervene’ God can only ‘extra-vene’!!!! (Does your brain hurt yet?) A person of faith doesn’t need to call on God to come and help them, they need to call forth God’s Spirit and cooperate with it to help them deal with whatever may unfold.
Now let’s return to the so-called hardest question people of faith have to wrestle with. If God is perfect, loving, and good then why is there unjust suffering?
Can you see that while suffering is a reality of life that God neither causes it nor eliminates it but in fact does something much better? God faces it with us. God doesn’t swoop down and save some and punish others; God journeys in and with all who would allow it. God loves us so much God lets us choose (we call it free will) whether we will cooperate with God or resist God no matter what circumstances befall us. When we cooperate with God we co-create our future together – and with God all things are possible.
Now more stuff to bake our brains: To challenge their assumptions about God, Jesus told those stories from their local newspapers and then punctuated it with this zinger: Luke 13:3,5 “But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
That seems really harsh and judgmental, but think about it for a minute. What’s Jesus really saying? He’s saying unless you shift your orientation to embrace the Really Real (which is what repent really means – the Greek word is metanoia – to change your path, literally to have a change of mind or a transformation of the heart)
– unless you learn to cooperate with God’s presence in you, you’re consigning yourself to living as though you’re under the whims of the Santa Claus god, and if that were true, well Clint told us “We all got it coming, kid!” Spiritually, you will surely perish just like the people you think died because they had it coming. That is a small and fearful life. But Jesus invites us to something much different – an overflowing and abundant life.
God is the Really Real. God is present in every moment. Life happens, and we have two basic choices – cooperate with the Love that is Really Real, or don’t. The question of why the unjust suffer is a non-sequitur for me. People suffer. Period. It’s unpleasant, and perhaps hard to hear, but it’s life. Just-ness has nothing to do with it.
The question that boggles my mind is why do some people choose to cooperate with the Really Real and others choose to resist that love? Buddy around the corner may have lots of stuff and seem to be getting away with murder but if his life isn’t bearing spiritual fruit then he’s battling against Love – and that to me is the worst suffering there is.
And that brings us to the second half of today’s reading from Luke – this mysterious parable about the fruit tree.
“Then he told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” [Luke 13:6-9]
What on earth does that have to do with what we’ve been talking about? Stay with me and hopefully we’ll see…
What is the purpose of a fruit tree? – To bear fruit! What good is a fruit tree if it isn’t producing fruit? – Not much. So by extension, what is the purpose of a follower of the Way of Jesus? Is it to memorize bible verses? To protest environmental problems? To keep a fading church open? What is our purpose? Isn’t it to bear fruit? Isn’t that the point?
What is fruit? Galatians 5:22 tells us “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Now for the uncomfortable question: what are we to do with someone who is not producing fruit? What are we to do with ourselves if we are not bearing fruit? What do we do with someone who says they’re a Christian but does not demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
Do we get out the axe and whack down they go? – cut them off from the fellowship, send them out on an ice flow, and wash our hands of the whole mess? Not according to Jesus we don’t.
Jesus’ parable lays it all out. While our first reaction might be to cut loose the fruitless tree Jesus tells us to slow down and get involved first. He tells us that the tree is not to be left alone and left to its own devices to try to figure out how to be fruitful. He tells us to be a better gardener.
I like to call parables “thought bombs.” They’re designed to shake you up and make your brain hurt. They’re meant to zap you with an unexpected insight. So what’s the thought bomb here? That God is judgmental and will punish you if you don’t bear fruit? Hardly! That’s what we talked about before.
For me, the thought bomb is that while I might expect that I’m being judged for being an inconsistent and distracted follower and that my fruit production is pretty meagre, that isn’t the truth at all. The thought bomb is that I’m not being judged I’m being invited to something wonderful. I’m meant to bear fruit, but if I’m not doing it then the solution isn’t an axe, it’s manure!
Remember who the accuser is? Remember who the devil is? (we talked about this two weeks ago, you can look it up on our website if you missed it) The accuser is you. You’re the one who’s impatient about your fruit production, not God. (Did you know fig trees generally don’t produce fruit until their fourth year? – but the guy in the parable wants fruit after 3. It takes time to cultivate!)
The invitation is to stop beating yourself up about it and do some digging and fertilizing – do some gardening – tend to your spirit! Left alone it will not bear fruit. It needs nurture. Presumably, that’s why you’re here today – that’s why you’re on this journey with one another – because we shovel manure here!
But there’s a barb in this thought bomb. It says that the nurture part is essential but if the tree isn’t bearing fruit the next year it should be cut down. Ouch! But despair not! Remember, these are all metaphors, don’t take them too literally. Jesus is not talking about cutting down your physical life he’s talking about the shape of your spiritual journey.
If your journey is producing fruit, great! If your journey is not producing fruit – if you’re not experiencing and embodying love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – then you need to do some nurturing, some digging, some fertilizing. You need to spend more time in prayer, worship, learning, serving, and sharing – cooperating with God’s Spirit within you.
And if that doesn’t help you produce fruit (which I guarantee it will if you actually do it) but if it doesn’t then it makes perfect sense that you ought to quit wasting your time and “die” to that unproductive path and get replanted in a new one – one that leads you to bountiful fruit!
At first blush this reading seems like it’s all doom and gloom but it’s actually the opposite. Jesus is inviting us to awaken to a radically different view of life than the veiled, blurry vision that we thought was real.
He’s saying that God isn’t out there with a naughty and nice list and an axe; God is in here with the stuff that makes us grow – but we have to cooperate!
He’s saying that God isn’t out there capriciously choosing who to help and who to ignore; God is in here offering the indescribable gift of cooperating with us to empower us and support us as we co-create our future together.
God is inviting us to bear fruit – not because we have to or else, but because that fruit is a sign that we are participating in the abundant life that Jesus showed us – no matter what our outer circumstances might look like.
Jesus is inviting us to choose how we understand God – as foe or as partner. Faith and life can certainly be a very rocky road, and I don’t know about you but I’d certainly prefer a partner along the way.