The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Tragedy isn’t judgment – sermon of March 11, 2007

with 7 comments

Fig treeThird Sunday in Lent – March 11, 2007
Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

Light the Fire
Potter’s Hand
Purify My Heart

Luke 13.1-9: 1Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.

So people came up with hot news. Galilee – where Jesus is from (this may have been a dig) – was a hotbed of insurgent activity. To the Romans, Galilee was Anbar Province. …

Galileans had been in Jerusalem at the temple offering sacrifices. We don’t know much – apparently they were in trouble with the Romans, soldiers burst into the temple, cut them down, maybe even threw their bodies onto the altar with the sacrificed animals. Horrible.

Now 1st century Jews believed trouble was a sign of the displeasure of God – maybe even the judgment of God. Kind of the opposite of how we joke when something good happens to a friend: “You must be livin’ right.”

The link – real or imagined – between tragedy and God’s displeasure also comes up in John’s gospel:

John 9: As he went along, [Jesus] saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

And it’s a topic of many opinions in our day. Some years back, a famous preacher said:

AIDS is God’s judgment of a society that does not live by His rules.

A US President, revered by many Christians, added:

Maybe the Lord brought down this plague… [because] illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments.

And after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, another famous preacher said:

Katrina was proof that the judgment of America has begun.

Let’s read on, and see how Jesus feels about that:

Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?

[Well, sure! Obviously!]

I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

And then he starts over with another news item:

Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them …

A construction accident? We know there were aqueducts built which required towers.

—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

And then he makes up a story to demonstrate a point:

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

8” ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ “

[All scripture is New International Version (NIV) Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society unless otherwise marked]

OK. Three things here: Galileans slain, tower falls, fig tree spared – two bad things and a good one. But in between, there’s a puzzle. Look:
Galileans slain: Calamity isn’t about sin
Tower falls: Calamity isn’t about sin
But, after each: Unless you repent, you’ll get calamity. Hmm. Seems like calamity isn’t about sin in the strangers’ cases, but it is to the people Jesus is talking to! [I love it when Jesus does this – just when you think you’ve got it cut and dried, he seems to disagree with himself. I think he does it on purpose to force us away from thinking we understand everything.]

How do you reconcile the three? One way would be to wonder if Jesus was suggesting, in the third, a different kind of calamity. Clearly, he’s resisting linking human tragedy with God’s judgment. Perhaps he’s suggesting a greater calamity than an earthly one.

And he follows, then, with the fig tree – a kind story, as if he wants them to get this but he doesn’t want them to be overwhelmed by it. It’s a story, I’d guess, designed to illustrate God’s patience. Fig trees were taking up ground for the purpose of making figs. Like any farmer, the owner would dispassionately remove the plant and replace it with another. But the gardener urges one more try – a little fertilizer, a little cultivation.

Following on the heels of the “unless you repent” statements, it’s meaning is pretty clear.

Here’s what I think Jesus is saying –
1. Tragedy is not judgment:

Matthew 5.44-46 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
[The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.]

When we hear someone say, “Who-eee, God is bringing judgment on them!” let’s say, “I doubt it.” Jesus did.

2. It’s me, O Lord (as the old spiritual says). Remember how he turns the discussion? What about them, Jesus? Jesus seems to say, “Forget about them – what about you?

Maybe how God judges others is not our business.

Jesus makes this case more than once. After the resurrection, Jesus and Peter are talking about Peter’s future, when Peter spies John behind them and says “Lord, what about him?” And Jesus shoots back: “… what is that to you? You must follow me.”

William Loader writes:

Towers fall, buildings fall down, earthquakes shatter, storms hit, disease strikes – another popular theology assumes that these are also programmed by God, ‘acts of God’, as insurance policies may call them. It is a theology which reaches far and wide and takes many forms. ‘God is punishing me because I am sick’ – not uncommon and not helped when the sickness has drained the energy to think of alternatives and compounds itself. ‘They are always having problems; if only they would turn to the Lord.’ It is rarely so crude. It transfigures into prejudices: the unemployed just need to pull themselves together. People in poverty are there because there is something wrong with them.

Isn’t religion meant to give a theological explanation for the way things are? Indeed, one way to peace, as some people understand it, is to have sufficient explanations of such (apparent) anomalies, that one can rest up. There is a serenity in being able to affirm: it was meant to be. ‘What great faith!’ – is one of its rewards. ‘Things go well for the good; things go poorly for the bad.’ This is order and security. It is also a vehicle for control. It is also a lie.

Jesus’ own story contradicts these theologies. Fred Craddock writes:

… For Christians, the fatal blow to the idea that suffering and death are the lot of the guilty came at Golgotha. The One without sin suffered and died on the cross; some present took that as proof that he was not the Son of God (Matt. 27:39-43). But Jesus’ disciples are forever freed from the ancient notion that prosperity and good health are evidence of divine favor, whereas poverty and suffering are clear sings of divine wrath…. Jesus rejects such attempts at calculation, not simply because they are futile, but because they direct attention from the primary issue—the obligation of every person to live in penitence and trust before God without linking one’s loyalty to God to life’s sorrows or joys. All are to repent or perish.
– Source: Fred Craddock, et al., Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 152-3. [And I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten where on the web I found this quote! Let me know if you see it.]

3. And the fig tree – what do you make of it? Is it not a story of the patience of God? Again, this is not the only time such a point looms large in the New Testament:

2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

Many have said the fig tree represents the Jewish nation here. But I think that is a precise one-eighty from the point. Know why? Because that leaves us out. It turns it into a what about them? lesson – and that’s exactly the kind of thinking Jesus is trying to derail!

What about all those people of other religions? What about atheists? What about … ?

If I were asking, Jesus might say back to me, “What is that to you, Monte? You must follow me.”

Related posts:
Readings for Sunday, March 11, 2007
Jesus’ Preference for the Poor: More than Equality
Christ in the Migrant
How Rich Are You? Check Out the Global Rich List
Not Of This World
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Written by Monte

March 15, 2007 at 12:23 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Hey Micky, thanks for sharing your story. Such a battle! I never knew, when I first began to serve God, that he would have such an interest in the psychological elements of life. But it certainly has been true in my case as well, having gone through an utter burnout at the beginning of 2002. I still struggle with anxiety quite a lot, but it is slowly healing.
    Best wishes!


    April 17, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    CHAPTER 46

    9 a Remember the b former things of old: for c I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is d none like me,
    10 a Declaring the b end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My c counsel shall stand, and I will do all my d pleasure:


    Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God [John 3: 3].

    About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staffs were very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

    Peace Be With You


    April 17, 2007 at 4:57 am

  3. I know dear Monte, and I wasn’t seeking an answer.
    Have a great Sunday.


    March 18, 2007 at 9:51 am

  4. I’m afraid the question is listed in a limitlessly large encyclopedia entitled, “Things I Don’t Understand.” Sorry!
    I see only a tiny corner of these things, and the mystery is great in so many ways.
    Much respect –


    March 17, 2007 at 4:46 pm

  5. Monte, why doesn’t God take Cheney?
    When I pray with a deep pain in heart, my prayer gets answered; but I have been praying for this man’s life to end; still no news from God … You see, it’s not that I want ill for Cheney, no not at all, I just wish his soul be saved before he commits a new crime!


    March 16, 2007 at 6:39 pm

  6. Thanks! And congratulations on your good news! Isn’t God good?


    March 15, 2007 at 1:30 pm

  7. Thanks for this message. It’s so good to be reminded that tragedy does not equate to judgment.


    March 15, 2007 at 1:15 pm

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