Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
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This is the Gospel story we need right now.
In this long, suffering season,
when grief is piled upon grief,
when violence is on the rise,
when our leaders fail us,
when it seems nature itself is taking aim at us—
from global weather systems,
to a microscopic virus—
this is a Gospel word that speaks to something
we spend a lot of emotional energy on—blame.
Luke 13 gives us the burning question:
“Who is to blame, for the terrible things that happen in life?”
The suffering in Jesus’ day was also ratcheting up . . . and up.
And people wanted to know who to blame.
As Jesus continued his steady march toward Jerusalem
in the Gospel of Luke,
he kept getting peppered with questions.
The questioners in Luke 13 were sincere,
unlike last Sunday’s “expert in the law” who tried to trap Jesus.
Today some people come to Jesus with breaking news.
Yet another tragedy took place in the nation’s capital, Jerusalem.
We don’t get details,
but it seems there was targeted violence
against innocent religious pilgrims from Galilee,
perpetrated by Governor Pilate himself.
Jesus had been talking lately about God’s judgment,
so people were curious.
Was this tragedy an example of that judgment
you were talking about?
Was God punishing the Galileans?
Jesus replied with a flat “no!”
Then quickly added,
“But nevertheless. You still need to repent.”
And to strengthen his point, he gave another example.
Not of violence, but a terrible accident.
A large tower in Siloam fell, and crushed 18 people . . . to death.
Same deal, Jesus said.
Were they more guilty than those that escaped?
“No! . . . But . . . you still need to repent.”
And then he told a short story.
A landowner was hungry for figs,
but his fig tree wouldn’t bear any,
for three years running.
He told his gardener to cut it down.
It was wasting the soil.
But the gardener begged for patience.
Give it another year.
I’ll fertilize it well, work some manure into the soil.
If it still doesn’t bear fruit, okay.
Then, you cut it down.
In other words, don’t blame the tree,
and . . . if you want it gone next year, you hold the axe.
Notice how he gave the responsibility back to the landowner?
I wonder if Jesus is the gardener in this story,
always looking for redemption,
always waiting for a fruitful season,
slow to blame and condemn.
We live in a world that is not the way it should be.
The world is broken.
The world is full of deep and profound suffering.
And . . . we live in a world full of people missing the mark,
that is, sinners,
people rebelling against the good work of God.
So the question still hangs in the air.
What’s the connection between the two?
How are sin and suffering related?
Truth be told, people aren’t quick to blame suffering on sin today.
In the ancient world, the world of the Bible, they were.
If a man was blind, his parents sinned.
If a person was crushed by a tower,
there was some god somewhere getting even.
Today we don’t explain tragedy as God’s punishment.
And the words of Jesus here would support us in that.
No, Jesus said, victims of disaster, and violence, and illness,
are no worse sinners
than those who happily escape that fate.
Jesus was pushing back against the world view of his community.
And since that is not our world view,
we might think we’re off the hook here.
But is something deeper going on here,
rooted in human nature,
that we also need to own up to.
Are we not also blamers?
Blamers, because we are controllers.
The attempt to explain, and point fingers at a cause,
is really an effort to control.
If we know why something happened,
or who caused it,
we’re in a better position to control our environment,
and get a better outcome.
Sounds innocent enough.
But there is a more insidious shadow side.
If we keep the finger always pointing away from us,
we can avoid our own discomfort, or shame,
or the cost of repentance and reparation.
If we consistently point our fingers at an evil out there . . .
we don’t have to come to terms with the evil in here.
When I point at easy targets—
the armed and violent white supremacists and haters,
then I don’t have to name and confess
the white supremacist leanings that reside in me
(and yes, they do).
I may get righteously angry at COVID minimizers,
who put their own freedom and convenience
above the welfare of others
(and yes, righteous anger is certainly justified here).
But I am also at risk of getting caught in a vortex of blame,
and never having to face my own independent streak,
or repent of the times I put my own agenda first.
And I can certainly be vocal and vehement in my opposition
to the hateful rhetoric of a conservative talk-radio host,
without becoming gleeful at his death,
or suggesting he got his just deserts.
The latter keeps me from being honest
about my own prejudice or vanity.
Whenever I say someone died because God was judging them,
I am skirting around the hard work of self-examination.
That’s exactly what Jesus was getting at here,
when he answered their questions, with “No, but . . .”
They wanted to fix blame, maintain their innocence.
They wanted to build a hedge around themselves.
They wanted to believe they were in control.
Jesus said, “You all need to repent.
You need to turn around.
You need to live in the world differently.”
Jesus is not saying tragedy is punishment.
If Jesus were standing among us now,
and we asked him who is to blame—
for the ones who die of COVID-19,
or who are victims of killer storms,
or political or racial violence,
or tragic highway accidents,
or random ravaging illnesses
that take people in their prime of life . . .
who is to blame for all this, Jesus?
Are they being punished?
Did God pull the trigger?
I think Jesus’ response would be the same.
“No . . . but . . .”
No . . . these are no worse sinners
than those who come out unscathed.
But . . . we still live in a world steeped in sin,
and sin has consequences.
Not necessarily tit for tat on a micro level,
but on a broader scale, in God’s cosmic economy,
sin does, in fact, result in suffering.
In Paul’s words from Romans, “the wages of sin is death.”
Sin breeds death and decay.
Things go downhill when humanity rebels against God.
Creation itself is suffering from the sin of humanity—
there is a connection between sin and climate-related
hurricanes and wildfires and winter storms.
The earth is groaning.
Fig trees are not bearing fruit, so to speak.
Repentance breaks the cycle.
Repentance opens the door for God to act.
Repentance tells God, “We let go of our controlling ways,
work in us, loving Creator.”
I think that was Jesus’ intent in telling this parable of the fig tree,
right after a discussion of human suffering.
Jesus, in his mercy, urges us all to repent—
to let go of our need to control, to be strong.
If we do, we will be granted one more opportunity
for God to work through us
to produce the fruit for which we were planted.
So let us repent of all self-justification,
humble ourselves before our Creator,
and join whole-heartedly with God’s redemptive work in the world.
There’s a very appropriate confession for this moment
in the back of our new Voices Together hymnal, #898.
It’s also in your order of service.
You may either read along with me,
or simply listen, and join your heart with this prayer.
Christ our companion,you came not to humiliate the sinnerbut to disturb the righteous.Welcome us when we are put to shame,but challenge our smugness,that we may truly turn from what is eviland be freed even from our virtues,in your name.Amen.
—Phil Kniss, February 28, 2021
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