Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Third Sunday of Lent, 24th of March, 2019
Why do bad things happen to good people? It’s such a common question. Why do some people seem to be targeted by fate, while others seem to float through life? Why do some live into their nineties, while others die by accident or violence or illness in their twenties? Why do some live in places of safety, while others see their loved ones swept away by floods? Why were fifty people in mosques in New Zealand killed by the Australian terrorist last week, while we worship here in absolute safety? Why is the world so demonstrably unfair?
Biblical answers to these questions are not always helpful. The very first psalm in the Psalter tells us that: ‘[i]n all they do, [the righteous] prosper’ while ‘the way of the wicked will perish’. (Psalm 1:3, 6) In a later psalm, the psalmist says: ‘I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.’ (Psalm 37:25) God gives people what they deserve; the righteous flourish while the wicked are destroyed. It’s not only in the Hebrew Scriptures that we find this theology. John the Baptist warned those coming to him for baptism: ‘Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ (Matthew 3:10) Like the Psalmists, John warns people that their deeds will receive their due reward or penalty.
This is an attractive theology for those of us who are healthy and prosperous. We can pride ourselves that we are being rewarded by God for our righteousness. Strangely enough, it can also be an attractive theology for the poor and suffering because it gives them a sense of control. If God is punishing them for their sins, then if they stop sinning they will no longer be punished. They are not the victim of random forces; their rescue is in their own hands. This is why the ‘prosperity gospel’ can be as popular among the world’s poor as among the rich. Those who preach it tell their hearers that God wants them to be rich, and that if they take the preacher’s advice about what constitutes righteousness they will be rich.
Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke is a response to that sort of theology. Some people tell Jesus about Galileans who have been killed in a particularly appalling way. Pilate has mingled their blood with their sacrifices. From Jesus’ response to this, it appears that the people who told him about it were assuming that the Galileans had done something to deserve their fate. The righteous prosper while the wicked perish. If there is an effect, there must be a cause, and if the effect is untimely death, then the cause must be human wickedness.
Jesus does not agree with this popular explanation of the way the universe works. He turns the assumptions of those present back on them: ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?’ ‘Or 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?’ We may want to live in a cause-and-effect universe, in a world in which people get what’s coming to them, but we don’t. We live in a world in which, sadly, bad things do happen to good people. We know this because Jesus was executed on a cross, a dreadfully degrading punishment. As followers of the crucified One, we are deeply aware that sometimes the innocent suffer. And so in today’s reading Jesus challenges the popular theology that asserted that suffering is caused by human sin. Instead he reminds those around him that they, too, are vulnerable.
Jesus uses the death of the Galileans killed by Pilate to warn his hearers that death is always close to us. It can happen at any time and in any way, whether by the actions of a tyrannical ruler or by a sudden disaster. It can happen through illness or accident. It can happen when a white supremacist with access to firearms storms a mosque. Death can come so suddenly that we have no time to repent, to turn to God and set our affairs in order. And so Jesus warns those around him: ‘unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’ Jesus is on his way to his own death, he knows that his time is almost up, and he warns those around him to be prepared; for their time may come at any moment, too.
My problem with Jesus’ response is his suggestion that if those around him do repent, they won’t perish, or at least they won’t perish in sudden and horrifying ways. While Jesus is clear that neither the Galileans nor those killed by the tower of Siloam deserved their fate, he, like John the Baptist, seems to be suggesting that repentance among those listening could make a difference to their fate. I understand the point Jesus is making; it would certainly send those listening to him home to think about the fruits they are demonstrating, but it still seems too close to cause-and-effect theology for me.
Yet when Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the fig tree, there’s no talk about immediate perishing. The fig tree in this somewhat scary parable isn’t immediately cut down. It has been a useless tree for three years, and yet it is still given a fourth year in which to bear fruit. More than that, it is given every opportunity to bear that fruit – the gardener is going to dig around it and fertilise it before finally giving up on it. The owner of the fig tree wants to cut it down, but his gardener persuades him to give it one more chance. I think that in this parable God is both the owner and the gardener, and we are seeing God’s judgement being tempered by God’s mercy.
It is probably no accident that the gardener in Jesus’ parable is so specific in his plans for the barren fig-tree: ‘I [will] dig round it and put manure on it’. We can be fairly certain that the mention of manure is a pointer towards humanity’s need for humility. There are some Bible versions that translate the Greek word koprian as fertiliser, but they’re being overly delicate. Koprian means manure or, as the King James Version puts it, dung. Our repentance will not always be pleasant. Sometimes it may be profoundly unpleasant and even a bit smelly. But just as manure is healthy for fig-trees, so repentance is healthy for us.
Jesus’ warning to those around him is ‘Repent or you will die just as the Galileans and the eighteen who died at Siloam died’. But having got their attention and challenged their faulty theology, his parable gives a gentler message. God’s mercy is greater even than God’s justice. We know this, because we are journeying with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem; walking with the Son of God towards the cross where we will see just how much God loves us.
Why do bad things happen to good people? I don’t know; that is one of the questions that I hope will be answered when I finally see God face to face. But when those bad things happen, we can be certain that God is with us. In Jesus God has experienced everything humanity experiences, and so God is with us as we experience both the good and the bad. Through Lent, we accompany Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, to his betrayal, rejection and death. And Jesus is with us on our own journeys through life, up to and including the moment of our death. When bad things happen we are not alone. Thanks be to God, Amen.