People talk a lot of crap sometimes in the name of religion, don’t you think? Remember after 911 when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agreed that thousands of Americans died in bloody terrorist attacks as a sign of God’s judgment against America because we are too lax with pagans, feminists, abortionists and gays? That was sure a load of crap.
And what about the Westboro Baptist Church? Remember those idiots? They loved to picket funerals of our war dead or victims of other tragedies, claiming that such untimely losses as the Boston Marathon bombings, 911, battlefield fatalities, or random acts of gun violence were signs of God’s righteous wrath visited on a nation which allowed same gender marriage and abortion.
Like the “frenemies” of Job, lots of folks try to come up with religious explanations of why really awful things happen to otherwise good people. Personally, I can’t buy into that. Who are any of us to judge? I mean, sometimes, bad stuff just happens. Sure, wicked people do things which harm innocent people. And sometimes God chooses not to protect us from the consequences of our own stupidity. But sometimes we’re just victims of gravity.
My feeling is that we are all in heavy boots walking through a mine field whenever we try to speak for God and offer an explanation to the “why” of tragedy. When it’s all said and done, our spiritual walk is not about what happens to us—it’s about how we choose, in faith, to embrace the happening. If we think that living a good and virtuous life will be rewarded by God with nothing but good and virtuous stuff, then we’re not really worshiping God—we’re worshiping Santa Claus. It’s superstition to think that we can influence God. Religion is when we let God influence us.
In the gospel lesson appointed for Lent 3, Cycle C (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus makes it pretty clear that tragedy is not to be assumed to be the punishment of God for sin. Here Jesus is answering questions about two really rotten local events. It seems that Pontius Pilate has slaughtered some Galilean pilgrims for reasons which aren’t clear to us. No other historic source records this event, but these sources do record that (to paraphrase a great quote from Raymond Chandler) there are 175 different ways to be a bastard and Pilate knew every one of them. Galileans weren’t his citizens, and he’d have no trouble ordering them killed if they got out of line. Jesus’ response to this is pretty clear:
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” (Luke 13:2-3)
Jesus has a similar response to the victims of a collapsing tower (13:4). Sudden tragedy is not a punishment from God. It is, however, a reminder that life is dangerous and we’d best consider how we live it. Every loss or tragedy is a call to repentance—a call to reassess our lives, priorities, relationships, and our faith. Contemplation of fragility can be a valuable gift which calls us back to our relationship with God, and a very real reminder of the deep sorrow of having died without really having lived.
To illustrate his point, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree which doesn’t produce the fruit for which it has been planted. The orchard owner has been patient with it up to a point, but it can’t go on using up the ground forever. Sometimes we are given more “second chances” than we know or deserve. But what good is it to live to be 90 if all you love or care about is yourself? Better a short life lived in God’s purpose than a long and meaningless existence.
Here’s another thought about this week’s gospel: Luke glues Jesus’ call to repentance occasioned by the two local tragedies to the fig tree parable found only in his gospel. If we use what smart Bible scholars call “canonical criticism,” we assume that the two parts of this lesson, the theology lesson and the parable, inform each other. That is, Luke had a reason for sticking them together (unless someone was standing behind Jesus with a steno pad taking down everything he said as he said it, which is not real likely). But, the smart guys of the Jesus Seminar seem to think that the parable, which is similar to parables in the rabbinic tradition of the time, might just stand on its own.
In Jewish tradition, a fig tree was often a metaphor for the spiritual health of the people. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus finds a barren fig tree and curses it for not producing fruit. We could assume that Jesus is either embarrassingly short tempered whenever he can’t get a snack, or that the story is a metaphor meaning that a society, church, or individual which doesn’t produce according to God’s loving desire is doomed to wither up and die. I like the second choice better. Nevertheless, if the parable stands on its own, it could be open to multiple interpretations.
My wife always feels sorry for the fig tree. She suggested that maybe the tree wants to bear fruit, but the environment, time, or circumstance just don’t permit it. This gets me to thinking that maybe we need to take a little more crap (v. 8) before we can really blossom.
Let me know what you think. Thanks for dropping by. God love you!