3/3/13 – WHY TRAGEDY? by Lynn Naeckel

LENT 3 C

Luke 13:1-9

Do you remember how some preachers blamed hurricane Katrina on the “sinfulness” of New Orleans? Others say the increase in bad weather events is due to our acceptance of gay and lesbian people.

In other words, God is punishing people by murdering others. In today’s Gospel Jesus clearly says NO to such logic. People may use disasters to serve their own agendas, but God does not step into the natural world to punish sinners with bad weather, economic failure, illness, or death.

You remember Job’s story. When he has lost all his wealth and his wife and his children, his friends who have known him for years, claim he must have done something wrong, because clearly God is punishing him. While this was and still is a popular understanding, the implications of holding such a view is horrible. It means that God intentionally killed Job’s family just to punish him. What kind of a God is that? Talk about collateral damage!

It’s one thing to accept a God of judgment, but something else to believe he murders people. How could a God of love and mercy do such a thing to his own children?

Today’s lesson unfolds while Jesus is teaching a large crowd of gathered people. Someone tells him about Galileans whom Pilate had murdered as they sacrificed.

Certainly Pilate killed many Jews, but this story adds the horrible detail of doing it while they were at worship, which would also defile the temple. This is comparable to the murder of Thomas a Becket or Oscar Romero – both bishops who were murdered in their cathedrals.

The crowd would have expected horror and condemnation of Pilate from Jesus – or at least some sort of “ain’t it awful” response. Instead, Jesus projects his response back on the storytellers, essentially calling them to account and telling them to repent. Instead of railing at Pilate, he rails at them, a typical Jesus maneuver.

He also confronts directly the unstated question of the crowd, a question that we all share with them across the centuries. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does tragedy strike one person and not another?

The OT tradition usually associates bad events with sin. It’s amazing that Jesus says NO to this connection, given the culture in which he grew up – but he says it clearly.

NO! The people murdered by Pilate were no worse than others. Likewise, those who died in a building collapse were no worse than others. Some tragedies come by chance. All the more reason to put things right with God by repenting. If you never know when the end might come it’s best to be prepared.

Certainly we do know of tragedies that are the result of sin. Drunk drivers kill people. Abusive parents maim their children. These could be avoided had the perpetrators repented and changed their lives.

When Jesus says, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did,” he is not speaking literally. It’s just that we are all subject to death one way or another and we must be prepared.

Keep in mind that the subtext of the crowd’s question is not just why do bad things happen to good people, but what can I do to keep it from happening to me? And Jesus responds to this unspoken fear.

Jesus essentially says that you can’t avoid random tragedy, but you can avoid being the person who causes tragedy. And you don’t have to die with bad deeds on your conscience. You can’t control what others may do or cause, but you can control your own actions. You can choose repentence.

When Jesus turns to the parable of the fig tree he is moving from the personal to the national, at least in part. The fig tree is planted in a vineyard, and a vineyard was a common metaphor for the nation. The fruit God expects from the nation of Israel is godly living.

The fig tree may represent the leaders of the nation – the scribes and the priests. If so, the crowd would have had a good laugh about the “gardener” throwing manure and water on the tree.

The owner wants to cut the tree down, but the gardener pleads for one more year. What a great metaphor for the working of God’s grace. We’re given another chance, but we never know when it may be the last chance to repent and live righteously.

Isn’t this the ultimate good news/bad news joke of life? The good news is – we always get another chance; the bad news is – we never know which one is our last chance. While Jesus may have been directing it at the leaders and the whole community, doesn’t it apply to us and our community as well?

Another piece of this parable I really like is that the gardener will do all he can to help the tree bear fruit. In other words, we’re not in this alone. If we want to change, either individually or communally, we can count on Christ, our gardener, to help us, support us, encourage us, and provide what we need to accomplish it. The will to change, the commitment to change must come from us.

The lesson in this Gospel is central one, I believe, for our lives as Christians and as ministers to each other. As we take care of each other or reach out to others in crisis, it’s important to remember this lesson. How often have you heard someone say, "Oh God must have wanted Bobby in heaven” or “This is all my fault; if only I had left sooner.”

Reread this lesson from time to time to remind yourself NOT to say such things. A God of love does not snatch children from their parents. A God of love does not blame us for accidents. And no matter what public pronouncements you may hear from Washington, a God of love neither starts wars nor wins wars for one group of people over another. There are saints and sinners on both sides, so that all stand in need of repentence. God always gives us another chance, but we cannot know when it will be our LAST chance.

I found a poem in an on-line sermon service that pretty well wraps up the connection between the two pieces of today’s lesson.

God has not promised skies always blue,

Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through.

God has not promised sun without rain,

Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.

But God has promised strength for the day,

Rest for the labor, light for the way,

Grace for the trials, help from above,

Unfailing sympathy, undying love.

Thanks be to God.

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