(A Sermon preached on Luke 13:1-9 at All Saints' Church on 3/7/2010)
This would have been a great time for me to take last week’s advice and preach on the Hebrew Scriptures. Moses’ encounter with the burning bush is a great story, and is a great preaching text.
The problem, for me this morning, comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:1-13). I feel obligated to engage the Gospel text because of what Paul brings up in his letter. Paul’s sense is that the people of the Hebrew Scriptures, to a certain extent, got what they deserve: struck down in the wilderness for various reasons. Paul then puts forth the notion that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13) That's the common saying today that God never gives you more than you can handle.
This was good news to those at Cornith under the oppression of the Romans. It might be helpful today for someone in the midst of trials and tribulations. There are, however, serious theological and practical problems with this, which is perhaps why it is paired with this Gospel.
We have to remember that Paul’s letter, in addition to responding to particular issues of the Christian community at Cornith, comes from the early 50s. The Gospel of Luke was written later, not before 70AD. Luke’s Gospel, therefore, sometimes expands on themes in Paul’s letters, and other times clarifies or even argues with Paul’s specific context about what is to be ultimately understood concerning Jesus and his ministry. This is one such time where the writer of Luke, at the very least, sees things differently then his brother Paul.
Jesus is told that there were Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. It is bad enough that the Romans came in and killed a group of gathered Jews, but to then mix their blood with the blood of sacrifices that these faithful people were offering to God and the temple in sacrifice was an abomination: a terrible sign of rejection by God.
Those bringing up this occurrence to Jesus are likely looking for two things: they want Jesus to acknowledge that an atrocity has occurred, and they want to know if God was punishing these Galileans for a specific sin. It’s a horrible conclusion to come to, but not an uncommon one. This is the conclusion of Job’s friends in response to his affliction, as well as a general assumption found throughout Hebrew Scripture, as well as Paul’s writings: whenever something terrible happens to someone, it might mean that God is displeased and is punishing people.
Michael Curry, Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina, tells a story to illustrate this human tendency to bring explanation to the aches of the human heart:
“I remember as a child, when a light-hearted occasion of misfortune befell someone, hearing the old folk say in jest, “You ain’t been living right.” I never heard it said seriously when someone was really hurting. However, I have heard the principle behind the saying articulated when things fall apart for someone, when the burden of the heat of the day becomes unbearable, when things seem to go from bad to worse, when someone cries out from a bed of affliction or shrieks in despair from within a vale of tears. “Why?” “Why me?” In the painful struggle of trying to make sense of something senseless, the age-old logic of “You ain’t been living right” sneaks into our conscious. Common sense suggests that if there is a demonstrable effect, there is an explainable cause. The desire to comfort by explanation is part of who we are as human beings. It comes with the territory.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2009, p. 93)
Jesus, with his response, expresses that these Galileans have suffered, but is careful not to suggest that this was caused by particular sin. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you.” Jesus brings up what must have been another well known tragedy: “Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.” (Luke 13:2-5)
Jesus does not accept a simple understanding to the question of “Why has this happened.” There is no blame assigned to those afflicted, and there are no quick explanations to address why people suffer. What Jesus does do, in the midst of this tragic news, is suggest a missional response to those who are hearing of this tragedy. “But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
This might seem like an odd and off-target message, but I believe contains an important point. Jesus doesn’t choose to identify sin in those who perished, but instead the sin of those who would hear of someone’s misfortune and then choose to live in fear.
A common result of witnessing or hearing about tragedy is paralyzation: coming to the conclusion that nothing we do matters, or the equally problematic conclusion that what we should do is play it safe and protect only our interests.
Bishop Curry writes:
Facing the reality of mystery and the limits of what we can know is not an excuse to stand still and look sad, as Luke describes some of the disciples, paralyzed at the time of the death of Jesus. Jesus is on a mission. Those who would be disciples of Jesus, who would follow in his way in the power of his Spirit, are on that mission. Much is unknown. Many questions remain unanswered. In the end, the future is God’s, but we share in the mission of unfolding the future. That is clearly where our responsibility lies. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, 2009, p. 95 Curry used the RSV, but I replaced it with the NRSV)
The parable of the fig tree illustrates this. A fruitless fig tree is to be cut down, but the gardener persuades for it to be tended to. The gardener insists that now is not the time for judgment to be placed on the tree: refusing to speculate what has caused the tree not to bear fruit. The gardener is determined to do what she can do for the tree: open to a future of possibility for the tree that she does not control. Despite the uncertainty, the gardener is willing to put time and effort into the tree.
Certainty and control are not part of our human lives with God. We will never figure out God’s kingdom in our lifetime, and it’s a guarantee that at some point, we will be cut down...it happens to us all.
Our options right now are this: we can choose to be trees that will not flourish or produce fruit, or we can be trees that are open to receiving the care and nourishment offered not just by God and Jesus, but by other gardeners as well: people like you and me.
Then, within that nurturing love, we are able to produce fruit by being gardeners ourselves: workers in God’s kingdom that tend to one another, and helping to make God’s promises possible.