Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Third Sunday of Lent, 20th of March, 2020
Humans have a dreadful tendency, in our need to make sense of life, to blame victims. We tend to see it when a woman is raped or murdered, when the media report on where she was, what she was wearing, what time of day or night it was, whether she had consumed alcohol or other drugs. We have seen it recently with the floods in Queensland and NSW when Shane Stone, the Coordinator-General of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, responded to floods consistently described as ‘unprecedented’ by saying, ‘You’ve got people who want to live among the gum trees – what do you think is going to happen? Their house falls in the river and they say it’s the government’s fault.’ It is a natural human impulse to look for reasons that bad things happen, and if we can tell ourselves that the reason is something we would never do – walk alone in a park at night, get so drunk we pass out, live on a flood plain – then we feel safer.
According to today’s gospel reading Jesus had no time for victim blaming. People tell Jesus about some 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. There was a strand of Jewish theology, seen particularly in the Wisdom literature, which supported this. The very first psalm in the Psalter tells us that ‘In all they do, [the righteous] prosper’ while ‘the way of the wicked will perish’. (Psalm 1:3, 6) Proverbs says that ‘The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous’ (Proverbs 3:33) and that ‘The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked’. (Proverbs 10:3) The righteous prosper while the wicked perish. The Lord blesses and feeds the righteous; the Lord curses and thwarts the wicked. So it only makes sense that if someone suffers or dies a premature death it must be because of wickedness. As the disciples ask Jesus in the Gospel according to John: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2)
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 is coming to them, but we don’t. We live in a world in which, sadly, bad things happen to good people and our choices do not always protect us or our loved ones. If we had any doubt about this we have only to look at Jesus’ execution 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 asserts 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 natural disaster. It can happen through illness or accident. 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. Their time may come at any moment, too.
I struggle with Jesus’ implication that if those around him do repent they will not perish, or at least they will not perish in sudden and horrifying ways. While Jesus is clear that neither the Galileans nor those killed by the tower of Siloam deserved it, he does seem 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 is no talk about immediate perishing. The fig tree in this somewhat-scary parable is not immediately cut down. It has been useless 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.
Today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah gives the same message. To a people who had been conquered and exiled God offers the best wine and milk, the richest food. In a world in which the wealthy flourished and the poor suffered, Isaiah said that God’s vision was for a world in which those without money could buy and the poor could delight themselves in rich food. The Wisdom literature might say that the righteous flourish and the wicked perish, and imply that the poor must have been wicked; the prophets including Isaiah countered by saying that God wants everyone, and especially the humble, broken, and marginalised, to flourish. But the wicked should, of course, cease their wickedness. If they do, they will find God waiting with open arms to abundantly pardon them.
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 will have mercy and abundantly pardon us; God will not demand compensation or impose punishment; because God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways; God’s mercy is always 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 currently have no answer; that is a question that I hope will be answered when I finally see God face to face. Why, when bad things do happen, are we so quick to blame the victims? I am not sure, but we need to stop it! Jesus has no time for it, and neither should we.
And when bad things do come to us, as in every life they will, we can be certain that we are not undergoing them alone. In Jesus God has experienced everything humanity experiences; God is with us in both the good and the bad. During Lent we accompany Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, to his betrayal, rejection, and death. Jesus is with us on our own journey through life, up to and including the moment of our death. When bad things happen we are not alone. Thanks be to God, Amen.