1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Today’s text from the Gospel of Luke begins with some comments by Jesus regarding some recent tragic events in Jerusalem. First, Jesus is told about a recent violent event involving the deaths of some Galileans who were slaughtered by Roman troops under Pilate’s command. What’s more, it appears that the slaughter took place while those Galilean Jews were offering sacrifices (almost certainly at the Temple in Jerusalem). It’s not clear in Luke 13 whether this was a very recent event – “Breaking News” – or if it had happened some time earlier but was still a hot topic of conversation among Jews in the greater Jerusalem area. Either way, it was a tragic event.
We might liken this conversational topic to people today discussing 911. A tragedy occurs, and for days, months, and years afterwards, we talk about it. We try to make sense of it. We wonder about how it might have been avoided. We argue about what and who caused it. We worry about when, where and how it might be repeated.
Or perhaps it’s more like the tragedy last year when a man broke into a one room school house, killing some students and taking others hostage. We talked about that one for a while too, but now I can’t even remember the details.
In today’s society, responses to tragedies like these usually include outrage and anger. Over and over, we are shocked and horrified that there are people capable of committed such inhuman acts. And the questions that fly around among us surround issues of whose fault was it? What could we have done to avoid it? What went wrong? Who can we blame?
The main focus is usually around making sure that nothing like this can ever happen again. We increase security. We put systems in place to identify troubled or disturbed people, or young people who are bullied or withdrawn. We try to account for every eventuality so that we don’t have to experience this kind of thing again. And of course, we lament and mourn for those who have been lost. We offer flowers and teddy bears, notes and candles, and place them at the sites of the tragedies. We hold vigils, we cry, we pray, and we mourn for those who have needlessly lost their lives.
Jesus’ response it different. Jesus does not get angry at Pontius Pilate, or at the Roman occupying authorities. He does not even offer any words of lament for the slain Galileans. All things considered, this is a very strange response from the otherwise compassionate Jesus. But the way Jesus does address the situation — and his bringing in another tragedy involving a tower in Siloam that collapsed and killed some people there — tells us something about why he responded the way he did.
From the looks of it, many of the Jews in Jesus’ day were distant relatives of the friends of Job. Do you remember Job’s friends? They’re the ones who watched as Job lost his family, his livestock, his land, and finally his own health… and they’re the ones that told him he must have done something wrong because God was punishing him.
There was no tragedy so great that they could not look upon it in such a way so as to conclude “They must have had it coming to them.” There was a fairly simple understanding of the meaning of suffering back then… “If someone suffers and dies — be it in a natural disaster or even at the hands of the dreaded Romans — it must represent a divine judgment, and so we must conclude that the slain people were sinners who got what they deserved at the hands of almighty God.”
Jesus’ own take on this is rather different. He tells the people around him that day that such simple equations of sin and punishment don’t work. Although the bible never denies that a given terrible event MAY be the result of a direct action of God, the bible also tells us repeatedly that for the most part, we cannot know if and when and where that is the case, and so, we had best adopt an attitude of agnosticism when it comes to identifying other people’s sins and God’s supposed punishment for their sins.
But Jesus knows something else, and I think that’s the main reason that he said what he did. Jesus knew that for the hyper-religious, chalking up the tragedies of others to a just punishment of THEIR sins is a very handy way to not deal with one’s OWN sins.
“Why did the Tower of Siloam fall on those folks and not on me? I guess God likes me better. Why did those Galileans get their blood mixed in with the blood of the animals they were sacrificing, whereas I’ve been to the Temple many times without ever once getting so much as a scratch? I guess God likes it better when I am in the Temple as opposed to those shady Galilean types from out in the sticks.”
Jesus perceives this line of thought and so cuts right through it. And as his parable goes on to show, Jesus also perceives that more often than not, the people who get the most hung up on pondering and parsing the sinfulness of OTHERS are the same ones who tend to be bearing the least amount of spiritual fruit in their own lives.
Jesus makes it clear to his listeners that the Galileans weren’t killed by Pilate’s soldiers because they were worse sinners than anyone else. And God didn’t plan for the Tower of Siloam to fall on the most sinful people in that city either. No, those people weren’t worse sinners than Jesus’ listeners that day… “BUT” Jesus warns, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
He’s not talking about being murdered by the Romans, and he’s not talking about having large buildings fall on top of them. What he’s talking about is God’s judgment. He’s talking about spiritual death, separation from God. He’s talking about “death” getting the last word for us, instead of eternal life in relationship with God.
In her startling story “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor introduces us to Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a fussy woman of a certain age who spends her life nurturing gratitude in her heart that she is not like most of the other people she meets. Without knowing it, Mrs. Turpin has narrowed the confines of her world steadily downward to the point that she gives off waves of disapproval to most of the people around her.
One day, while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, Mrs. Turpin engages in just enough conversation with another woman in the room as to tip off a college girl named Mary Grace regarding Mrs. Turpin’s true attitude towards others. Listening to Mrs. Turpin’s nasty comments, Mary Grace finally becomes so incensed at Mrs. Turpin that she hurls a text book at her, and blurts out “Go back to hell where you belong you old wart hog!”
This shakes Ruby to the core. She’s just so sure that she’s not an old wart hog. From hell. Sure, she has spent her days being grateful not to have been born “a nigger” or “white trash,” but still, there is nothing really wrong with her.
But the words of Mary Grace don’t go away until one evening Mrs. Turpin gets a revelation. In her mind’s eye, she looks off towards the horizon of the setting sun and sees a giant staircase to heaven. On these stairs the whole mass of humanity is trekking towards God’s heavenly kingdom. But to her shock the black folks and the white trash folks and the Mary Graces of this world are all leading the way to God’s kingdom, and Mrs. Turpin and her ilk are taking up the rear.
In Luke 13, Jesus tells us to be less concerned with the sins and shortcomings of others, and more concerned with out own character and our own godliness. We all have the tendency to pay more attention to the sins of others than we do to our own. Sometimes we use our time to zero in on another people’s problems (whether real or imagined) precisely as a way to prevent ourselves from having to look in the mirror.
Three weeks into the season of Lent, we are called once again, to consider our own sins — and to repent of them, to turn away from them and towards the ways of God, shown to us in Jesus Christ. And there is urgency in Jesus’ message! He warns us to “repent, or perish!”
Our destructive habits, our selfish indulgences, our false idols, our cruel insults, our judging avoidances, our spiteful acts of revenge, even our uncaring neglect… our sin leads to our death, our spiritual death, because God is not willing to have followers who live only for themselves and produce no fruit for the kingdom.
But Jesus follows up his warning with a parable. Despite this passage’s grim message, there is Gospel here. And the good news is this: there is still time. We can still repent. We can still let the Holy Spirit turn our lives around and cultivate in us the fruit of that same Spirit in ways that will let us display the glory of our God.
As fig trees that have failed once again to produce any fruit, we are offered another chance, and other chance, and another chance to be the trees that God has made us to be. As we continue through Lent, let us give thanks for the love of God that will not let us go, that will not give up on us.
And during these next few weeks, perhaps we can allow Jesus some space and some time to work on us, like a gardener who who tills the soil, and adds fertilizer, and pours on plenty of good water and light. With God’s help, may our lives produce abundant fruit for the glory of God and the coming of God’s kingdom. Amen.