The news greets us with stories of pain and suffering day after day after day.
We have seen the images of mass destruction from two powerful earthquakes followed by a tsunami. Hundreds and thousands have lost their lives and we ask why. Why do these terrible things happen? These people did nothing to deserve this.
Of course, we are not immune to tragedy in our personal lives as well. Years later, I still remember the grief in our family when my brother and sister in law’s first child died of leukemia before her second birthday. She was an innocent child. Parents should not have to bury their own children; that’s not the right order of things.
Before the Olympic Games began in Vancouver, two facilities occurred. In a trial run a bobsled flipped, killing the driver. Then there was the heart breaking loss of the figure skater’s mother stricken with a fatal heart attack. Why? Why? Where is God in times like this?
There is the persistent teaching that sinful behavior causes disasters. That’s not true in these illustrations. But, if you do believe that, then is it ok when bad things happen to bad people? Is it a greater problem when bad things happen to good people? (An open discussion about this occurred.)
Now let’s see what we can discover in the scripture passages for this third Sunday in Lent.
What do you suppose was on the mind of the people when they told about the cruelty of Pilate as he ordered his soldiers to slaughter a number of Galileans as they offered their sacrifices. Were these Galileans worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, says Jesus as he answers his own question.
Then Jesus brings up the incident where eighteen workmen were killed when an aqueduct at Saloam fell on them. Were they worse offenders than all others in Jerusalem? Again, Jesus says no.
There is a slight difference between these two stories. In the first, Pilate had a history of cruel acts and he intentionally caused the death of these Galileans at the altar. In the second story, the tower fell. It was an accident—there seems to be no reason for this tragedy.
Sometimes there is a clear link between sin and suffering. Pilate was a mean, sinful man—he was the reason those Galileans died. If someone drinks too much, then drives too fast, resulting in serious injury, the damage is related to the person’s action. But the tower just fell down. No one is to blame as far as we know, and people died.
Is it easier to accept a disaster if blame can be pinned on someone? If he/she had not acted in this way this event would not have happened. Randomness usually makes us feel uneasy. If there can be found a reason for this happening, then we can tidy up our personal space and feel a bit safer and more secure. We want life to be fair! And perhaps what we desire most is to have control over the chaos of our lives and the lives of those we love.
The people came to Jesus with news of a horrible event which terrified them. Why did this happen? Perhaps they feared for their own safety. Jesus said, “No, those deaths were not caused by the person’s sinfulness.” Then he adds, “But unless you repent you will perish as they did.”
He turns the tables on those who ask the questions. He offered no explanation or rationale to the past events. Suddenly all the attention shifts to the lives of those present. “How about you?” “Is your life in order?” “Have you repented, have you turned away from a life of self seeking, have you turned toward a life of self giving?” “Are you making use of all the gifts with which you have been graced?”
So now, Jesus challenges us to look honestly at ourselves. Remember, we’re in the season of Lent, a time of self examination, a time to honestly look at our own faults and shortcomings.
We began with questions today, hard questions, and that is a good thing. It keeps our hearts and minds open, seeking, learning, and growing. Yet in the midst of all these challenging questions, with which we are confronted, we can still find Good News. Jesus does give us assurance and an indirect answer, right here, nearly hidden in this little story of the fig tree.
Jesus presents this parable of the fig tree and in this short story I hear a message of comfort and hope. This immature tree is not producing fruit. Then why should it be using up good soil? “Cut it down”, says the owner of the vineyard. The gardener however pleads for mercy, “Let’s wait a little, give it one more chance.” Then he offers to give the tree special attention. “I will dig a trench around it, I’ll add fertilizer to the soil, and I’ll give it some extra care. Let’s give it a little more time.” Thanks be to God for a compassionate gardener who tends us, who grants second chances and gives us the special care we each need.
Frederick Buechner says it like this, “For what we need to know is that there is a God right here in the thick of our day by day lives trying to get through our blindness as we move around, knee deep in the muck and misery and marvel of the world. It is not the proof of God’s existence that we want, but the experience of God’s presence. AMEN.