Readings: Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
Some people came to Jesus with the daily news. A group of Galileans had been put to death by Pilate. They had been worshipping in the synagogue. They were killed and became sacrificial offerings themselves. The onlookers were horrified by what happened. They want Jesus' opinion. Why does God allow such things to happen? Were the deaths judgement for their sins?
Jesus in turn tells the story of another disaster, a tower that fell over killing eighteen people. The accident created a sensation as such disasters do. Outrage followed. “How could God permit it?” was the overriding perception.
It was a warm and sunny day in Port au Prince as the Haitians began their day's work. Planes landed delivering people ready to enjoy a wonderful vacation. Then the earth began to shake. Buildings crumbled, killing thousands of people, leaving countless others injured. The infrastructure of a whole country collapsed with the total devastation of their capital city. During the days that have ensued there has been widespread misery. Lack of food! Lack of water! Lack of shelter! Lack of medical care for the injured!
The world was horrified by what happened. How could God permit an already poverty stricken nation to suffer so horribly? Many questioned, “Why does God permit such bad things to happen?
It is a very contemporary story! Towers do fall, building are crushed, earthquakes shatter, storms hit, tsunamis destroy, disease strikes. Some popular theologies will always assume that such events are “acts of God”, programmed by a God who punishes arbitrarily and at will.
It happens on a personal level as well. “God is punishing me because I am sick!” That is not an uncommon thought. It is also not a helpful thought. That kind of understanding of God when sickness has drained one's energy and there is none left to think of alternatives leaves one with no resources. The voices of so called friends simply echo one's own feelings. “They are always having problems. If only they would turn to the Lord.”
It is the kind of thinking that easily translates as well into common societal prejudices. “If only the unemployed would pull themselves together!” “What is it with those welfare bums? They just sit around waiting for a check so that they can head to the beer store.” Many in society have the preconceived notion that people who live in poverty are there because there is something wrong with them.
Jesus tells a parable that reminds us of our need to be in right relationship with God. It resonates with the wonderful compassion of our loving God. He tells the parable to dispel the misconception in listeners’ minds after hearing stories about terrible tragedies, that have them believing that sin and suffering are linked. Indeed, Jesus' own story contradicts the very notion. Jesus, the righteous one, suffered and died on the cross. He knew that bad things happen. He knew that it is simply part of the human condition. He wanted those who came to him for advice to see Pilate's massacre as Pilate's massacre and not as something that Pilate did by God's authority. “We cannot” Jesus is saying, “lay the blame for society’s wrongs on a few. The whole of society is responsible.” He tells the parable of the fig tree, with its image of judgement and grace.
A man has a fig tree in his vineyard that has failed to produce any fruit in three years. He tells the gardener to cut it down. It was not unusual to plant a fig tree in a vineyard. But it had to be fruitful. Fig trees require a lot of water, which in an arid climate might better be used in the production of grapes. The gardener persuades the man to nurture the fig tree for one more year and see if it will bear fruit.
The parable is a good description of what we need in order to become spiritually whole. Healing requires the right conditions. To become whole we need to make some changes in our lives. We need forgiveness for the past so that we can begin to live a healed existence. We need to stop laying the blame for what has happened in society and in our own lives and open ourselves to change and wholeness. As Christians, we need to bear fruit, to be everything that God is calling us to be. We need to be part and parcel of changing society so that it reflects God’s kingdom on earth.
Lent gives us an opportunity to come into right relationship with God. God is there to prune us and stir us up so that we can be everything God intends us to be. It is not up to us to explain human suffering. We simply cannot explain it. We cannot explain the actions of God. But we can take responsibility for one another. We can be accountable for our own lives, and for those who share our faith journey.
While we cannot explain the actions of God, we can experience God with us. Jesus is present again and again whenever we allow him into our lives. He is with us through pain and sickness. He is with us through disaster. His love quenches our thirst and satisfies our hunger. He is there reaching out to us as we reach out to others. And God’s kingdom of mercy, compassion and hope draws us in.
So how do we as Christians move towards a just and equitable society? What is our responsibility for our own actions, our community and the world? Lent is a time for generosity. It is a time for justice. It is a time for repentance. It is a time for change. Let it be a time of conviction in our lives. Let us take steps to become good stewards of God’s wonderful creation.
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