In 1978 a book was published by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Its title was When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Now, if 1978 seems like a long time ago, consider the fact that Kushner’s question could easily have been the sub-title for the biblical book of Job, written centuries before the birth of Christ. The question of “why?” is a very old and universal question. Kushner’s book was his personal and theological reflection on the suffering and death of his son, Aaron, who died at age 14 of a genetic disease. Kushner’s book sold like hotcakes and, although it did not pretend to represent orthodox Christianity, many Christians read the book and it generated a great deal of discussion among church goers. (The beginning of church book clubs, perhaps.) I would venture the guess that most Christians were not as focused on Kushner’s answer as they were on his question: Why? Why do bad things happen to good people? And how, as believers in a good and gracious God, can we make sense of the random “badness” of life in this world? And how are we called to respond when bad things happen to good people?
Some of you have heard me say that, over my years in ministry, I’ve discovered that people would rather believe that God purposefully visited some evil upon them than to consider that their suffering could be random and inexplicable. Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor tells of her experience as a hospital chaplain early in her ministry. Taylor approached a woman in a waiting room whose little girl was in surgery for a brain tumor. Taylor approached carefully and quietly. But soon the woman emotionally burst out with her explanation, her self-indictment, that her daughter’s tumor was God’s punishment for her smoking. When Taylor tried to explain that she believed in a loving God, not a vengeful God, the woman become even more distressed. Something so horrible and hideous must surely have a cause and someone must surely be to blame. There had to be a rational cause and effect for what was taking place… even if the cause was a damning proposition.
In this morning's gospel story from Luke, Jesus has been teaching a crowd of people and they interrupt to tell him about a senseless tragedy that had occurred. Some Galileans were preparing to offer temple sacrifices – a normal part of Jewish religious practice – and Pilate had mingled their blood with the blood of their sacrifices, meaning, we can assume, that, in the course of them devoutly practicing their faith, they were slaughtered by Pilate, whose acts of terror were infamous.
Now, Jesus' response to his listeners might make us uncomfortable and initially seem to confirm our very worst fears about a God of vengeance. After all, theirs is a question of human suffering and Jesus responds by introducing the topic of sin. But, Jesus' response would have been an answer to their unspoken question, their silent assumption, for, in Jesus' culture, it was the assumption that people who prospered – those who were the proverbial healthy, wealthy and wise – were in that position because God had blessed them for their righteousness. And, it was also the assumption that people who suffered – those who were poor or sick or had a family member who embarrassed them or burdened them – were in that position because God was punishing them for their sin. You might recall in John’s gospel that the story of the man born blind begins with the disciples inquiring of Jesus who had sinned: this man or his parents? As I’ve already mentioned, even today, many of us more enlightened, sophisticated folks still have fears that nag at us when calamity strikes. Is God testing us? Is God angry with us? If only we could be a better person, maybe our troubles would just go away. Even when life is going well, there are those moments in the middle of the night when we anxiously wonder if our good fortune can last. Over the years I have even seen good Christian folk pull away from others who have suffered an inexplicable heartbreak. Simply being in their presence feeds that constant nagging fear: could something so senseless and so terrible happen to me too?
However, we ought to notice that Jesus does not perpetuate that kind of thinking by his response. He’s careful not to turn this into a blame game, a fault-finding mission. He challenges the assumption that it was a punishment for their sin by asking a very obvious question – a no-brainer, we might say. "Just look around," we might paraphrase it. "Do you think those Galileans were any worse sinners than everyone else?" We all sin. If every sin committed by someone was responded to by God with such exacting revenge, we'd all be done for. If that were truly how it worked, we'd have all been struck down for something by now. There'd be nobody left to sit in the sanctuary this morning.
Incidentally, it might also do us good to pause at this point in Luke's story and remind ourselves that Jesus is already well on his way to his appointment with death in the city of Jerusalem; where he, the holy Son of God, will be tortured to death in a fashion reserved for the vilest of offenders. So Jesus is quite clear: in this world, we don’t get what we deserve.
Jesus does not give credence to that common assumption that we all get exactly what we deserve in this world because if that is what we believe, our response to suffering will inevitably be one of judgment and bitterness. It will cause us to run from those in pain and to turn a blind eye to suffering. It can even lead to shame and self-loathing when we are the ones getting the short end of the cosmic stick, so to speak. When we feed the fear that suffering is the result of sin, we build a wall between ourselves and others; we build a wall between ourselves and God.
But Jesus redirects the ponderings of this crowd that has gathered around him. Jesus uses this occasion to call all of those present to repentance. You see, Jesus does want us to live differently, to live faithfully seeking the will of God. But not out of the vain hope of earning an easy life devoid of any nasty, messy stuff. No; Jesus wants us to live differently because choosing to follow him, to live within the kingdom of God, necessarily means that things are different. The word for repentance in this story means "to think differently" or "to reconsider," in other words, to consider things in a different way: God’s way.
Now if we are to get a good understanding of repentance in Luke, if we are to get an understanding of what God’s way looks like, we need to read more than this morning's verses and we need to figure out why Jesus appears to shift gears on these folks to tell them some story about a fruitless fig tree and a very patient gardener.
Early on in Luke, John the Baptist responds to those who are coming to him to receive baptism. He tells them that they are to “bear fruits worthy of repentance… for every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down.” That sounds a little like Jesus’ parable of the fig tree, doesn’t it? When the crowd asks John the Baptist for specifics, he instructs them: those who have two coats must give one to those who have none; they must also share their food. Tax collectors shouldn’t take more money than is required. And soldiers shouldn’t extort money from people. The fruits of repentance, John points out, have to do with living in a way that cultivates community: a merciful, gracious community. Repentance not only moves us closer to God, it draws us closer to one another. John the Baptist makes clear that the fruits of repentance have to do with living in a way that advocates justice and mercy for others. Repentance builds community. When we see others suffer, our first question shouldn’t be “I wonder what they did;” it becomes “I wonder what I can do to show mercy and grace?”
In Luke, chapter 6, Jesus also speaks of trees and fruit. He teaches that trees are known by their fruit. Good trees don’t produce bad fruit and bad trees don’t produce good fruit. So, a good person out of their good heart produces good. Such “good” Jesus associates with loving one’s enemies and doing good even to those who hate you. Such “good” Jesus associates with forgiving others, rather than standing in judgment over them. That is what it means to produce good fruit.
Friends, the Gospel of Luke, from beginning to end, is a gospel infused with the message of forgiveness and mercy. From the parable of a wayward son whose father eagerly welcomes him home to the story of a sinful woman forgiven over dinner, it is a story that reminds us that life is hard enough as it is. We needn’t make it worse for ourselves or others.
Jesus comes to show mercy to the last and the lost. Jesus wants people to think differently about getting what they deserve because, thank God, none of us really do. We would all fare much, much worse if our God were not so lavish with his mercy and forgiveness.
Friends, life in this world is hard and, as was made abundantly clear on the streets of Paris this weekend, life is fragile. So we have choices to make. We can live fearfully isolating ourselves from the pain and sorrows of others. We can live with bitterness, shame or anger; assigning God or ourselves the blame for our own sorrows. Or we can choose to think differently; we can choose to live differently. We can repent of the need to explain what is inexplicable. We can choose, instead, to live as Jesus lived… knowing that sorrow, fear and even death can be ultimately overcome with an abundance of mercy, patience and grace. Amen.
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