It is the most natural question in the world, but also the hardest to answer: WHY? We asked it a lot in a run of tragedies this summer, from Orlando to Baton Rouge (first the shootings, now awful flooding this past week), Dallas to Nice. WHY do people walking down the street, or enjoying a night out with friends, get caught up in terror, violence, death? Why is RACE so insidious, does it have such a painful hold on us as a country? As a bunch of doctors in a hospital in Aleppo wrote to the President this past week – why can’t people help the carnage in Syria?1 Why do friends lose their jobs or their marriages fall apart? Why, Alzheimer’s? Why?
It is this desire to know why that seems to motivate the crowds to approach Jesus. Jesus has been challenging us in recent weeks: To Martha, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” To the man who had built bigger barns God says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the bigger barns and open concept kitchens – where will they be?” Last week no one would have faulted us if we thought it was John the Baptist speaking instead of Jesus, proclaiming to those who naively thought that all this was going to be easy that he did NOT come to bring peace, but a sword. He doesn’t come to bring a peace that doesn’t disrupt the present age, that doesn’t turn over a corrupt order, that doesn’t fight injustice and evil. He comes to change everything, calling US to follow. Look, he says, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you know it’s going to rain, or a south wind blowing, you know it will get hot … why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Don’t you see?
Some in the crowd that day took that as a challenge. They cite Pilate’s merciless slaying of innocent pilgrims at the Temple as a sign. Or perhaps the collapse of the tower of Siloam that killed 18 people in Jerusalem – that must be a sign. Apparently they interpret these tragedies as signs of the coming of the Messiah, God coming with vengeance to purge the world of sin and evil. Their conclusion is that those killed in these tragic events got what they deserved,2 they brought on their own suffering. That was why.
This question is as old as humanity, finding classic expression in some Psalms – like 37 and 73, articulated so well by some of Job’s friends. In John 9:2, disciples of Jesus asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” This question, Fred Craddock writes, assumes a direct correlation between suffering and sin, a correlation that in some cases is unmistakably evident.3 Sometimes the person who drinks too much then gets behind the wheel DOES cause the accident. It’s their fault. But too often this line of thought, despite its deep roots in Scripture, soon falls apart. Did sin cause the kind and otherwise healthy person to drop dead at work? Is everything that happens the direct result of a person’s moral failings? Sin = tragedy doesn’t work, weighing one person’s life against another in ways that aren’t helpful and don’t make sense. Even more, this kind of thinking violates something our hearts believe about God. I do not believe in a God that rewards the good and smites the bad, doling out new jobs or terrorist bombings in response. But we cling to it. In confusing situations, sometimes we would rather have a clear, wrong answer than sit in the unknown. We see Christian leaders blaming 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina on our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. This is tough, because we know God is present and active in the world, we feel it, not some aloof deity pulling the strings every once in a while. But Scripture, even within itself, argues about HOW God is present, especially in our most difficult times. We are welcomed into that holy wrestling.
But the thing about God – and I think this is GOOD NEWS – is that God is so much more grand and powerful and mysterious and dynamic than any set of ideas we put together to try and contain God, to try and force God make sense to us. I think that is part of what Jesus is trying to communicate to us in today’s text. As my colleague Heather writes:
The people present read the newspaper headlines and ask Jesus to explain. They show him the picture of the bodies slain… But Jesus tells the gathered crowd, it’s not how or when one leaves this life for the next. Life isn’t possible unless one learns to turn around…. The seeking crowds want solace. They come looking for Jesus to explain the unexplainable. And he whops them over the head in his best John the Baptist voice, “Repent or else. Turn your life around (and don’t be foolish enough to think you can do this on your own) or your life will turn on you.4
First, here, in this text, I think, Jesus is leveling the playing field, so we aren’t judging ourselves or others. Were those people who died really worse than you? Are you really any better? Our job, he says, ALL of our jobs, all of us, no matter who we are and where we have been and how we have lived, is to turn, repent, follow. But once he moves us all onto the same plane, Jesus has something to tell us about the nature of God. He offers a parable about an unproductive fig tree. The crowd begins probably believing God is the man who had the tree planted, who comes looking for fruit and doesn’t find it. Then God can rant to the gardener about the tree not bearing fruit in order to cut it down in an axe-wielding act of divine judgment. But in parables there’s always a twist. There is a new character, this gardener, and he speaks. In responding to the landowner he says, give it time. “Sir, let [this tree] alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” Good gardeners know that there are some things in life you can’t speed up, and growth is one of them. The conditions must be right. The appropriate nurturing must take place. Patience is essential.
Then comes the really gutsy statement: “If it doesn’t bear fruit,” the gardener says to the landowner, “you can cut it down.” Can you imagine, as my friend Joe writes, a lowly gardener telling a land owner, “Cut down your own [darned] tree! I’m not in the business of cutting down trees. I’m in the business of helping trees grow, giving them a chance to bear fruit by nurturing the soil… Trees can’t bear fruit on their own; they need some help. If you want this tree cut down, you’ll have to do it yourself.”5 Maybe Jesus is saying to the assembled crowd, that God may not be a greedy landowner with the axe held high. Maybe God is more patient than that. Maybe God is not so willing to give up on God’s own creation when the fruit doesn’t quickly come. Maybe God is almost infinitely, maybe truly infinitely patient, slow to anger, as Scripture says, abounding in steadfast love.
We live a world in which bearing fruit must come immediately, or maybe our child isn’t destined to be an Olympian, or a concert violinist, or the job that you have just switched to is going to take some adjusting. We are always on to the next thing. Let’s go, let’s drop this, let’s move on to something that will meet our needs immediately. We fall prey to it around the church – we want to put together short term experiences, classes, and things you can come to just once, because we know everyone is busy. A quick mission experience that does some good but doesn’t demand too much. But the most important things – and you know this from your lives – take a lot of time. Nurture. Care. Sustained effort, when a lot of the time you can’t see results.
I’d like to challenge you as we approach the beginning of the fall, to be a part of something that requires that kind of patience. Find one way to pitch in that isn’t sexy, that maybe takes a little longer than you like. Something that requires time, and that you don’t see results right away. It may be something here, like being a Church School teacher or youth advisor, though those are really fun things. It may be taking on a project in the community, or at your child’s school. Being a tutor or a mentor are those kinds of things. It may be about reaching out to a neighbor, or maybe a family member you don’t have the relationship with that you’d like. Do something that takes time, clearing the soil, adding fertilizer, praying that things will grow.
But then, quickly, we’ll hit a speed bump. The tree won’t seem to be bearing fruit. AHHHH! We say. Let’s just cut the stupid thing down. But no, Jesus says, give it time. Make a little space around the roots. Stick some fertilizing here. If YOU want to cut it down later, you go ahead. I’m going to wait, Jesus says. Because that’s who our God is.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. ‘We need action’: Last doctors in Aleppo write letter to Obama, CNN.com
2. This transition is from the Rev. Dr. Joe Clifford’s great sermon on this text at The Well, Birmingham, April 2016.
3. Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p 168.
4. From the Rev. Heather Shortlidge’s super paper on this text at The Well, 2009, Austin, Texas.
5. From Joe’s sermon again.