Ripped from the Headlines
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Why do we suffer? Both Jesus and Paul take a crack at this in today’s readings and reach different conclusions. This is part of why I love the Bible. What some call maddening I call “realistic complexity.” We almost never hear one side of a story. There are so many voices from different perspectives and ages; within the Bible itself we’re often given ways to wrestle with it – once we allow it a big enough frame and let the voices speak to each other. For me, that’s part of what God-breathed inspiration looks like.
In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus’ listeners do what many of us wish we could do. They hand him that day’s headlines and ask why. Why this terrorist attack, why that hurricane – or in this case, why this lethal abuse of power? A group of Jesus’ peers, fellow Galileans, were offering their sacrifices - they were at worship - when they were senselessly slaughtered by Pilate’s death squad. How could a good God allow that to happen?
Jesus knew what they suspected – that it was somehow the Galileans’ fault. A world in which violence can happen to anyone anywhere at any time was too frightening to contemplate. They must be reaping what they’ve sown. It was the only way Jesus’ listeners could make sense of it. Otherwise, the bad guys won. We can’t live in a world like that. If that kind of violence is somehow under our control, then we can prevent it from happening to us and the people we love. Better to blame the victim, they thought, than to accept a world where evil just wins.
To be fair, his listeners came by this way of thinking honestly. It was part of their faith. One of the louder voices in Scripture is that of the Deuteronomist – where God works by rewarding good and punishing evil. There are times when we need to hear this, when we need to remember that evil won’t stand forever. In this worldview, if you want good things to happen, be good yourself. If not, well, prepare to suffer the consequences. Or to say it more bluntly, grow up. Take responsibility. Stop blaming God for everything. Don’t think your membership in the people of God gives you a blank check for doing whatever you like. If you can’t see how your actions are hurting others, then God might let you hurt until you’re ready to cry “mercy,” repent and start again.
That’s where Paul is coming from in today’s reading from 1st Corinthians. Idolatry and sexual immorality were tearing up this community. The people’s divided loyalties were destroying trust; they were leaving shattered relationships in their wake, so Paul tries here to scare his parishioners straight. In so doing, he oversells his point. In warning them to turn again to God before they do more damage, he ends up portraying God as an insecure, homicidal tyrant. Passages like this are part of why the Old Testament gets a bad rap. According to Paul, those who died in the wilderness so suddenly and unexpectedly were meant to serve as examples for us, to instruct us on how we should or shouldn’t behave.
I don’t know how else to say this. He’s wrong on this one. I don’t care if these stories didn’t actually happen the way the text says they did, whether or not the numbers were exaggerated to make a point. God does not use us as object lessons; God doesn’t use us as objects, period. No human life is disposable in God’s eyes, ever. We might learn something from others’ struggles, sure, but their suffering or death is never simply a means to that end.
That being said, Paul’s not entirely wrong either. He’s right about lots of things. He’s right about God’s faithfulness – and about our ability to endure things as a community that we’d never be able to shoulder alone. That “you” in the last verse – about not letting you be tested beyond your strength – in Greek it’s plural. No individual is meant to carry the weight of that verse by themselves. He’s also right in that we are all characters in the same story of God’s love for us. We can’t assume that we are any wiser or holier than our ancestors in the faith. We are subject to the same flaws and vulnerabilities, and neither we nor they have unlimited time to make things right.
That’s part of Jesus’ point in today’s Gospel. Read carefully. Unlike Paul, Jesus does not give an explanation for why others died so suddenly and unexpectedly. He doesn’t tell us why the Galileans were slaughtered or why the tower fell on some but not others. He certainly doesn’t blame the victims for their deaths. Rather, he turns the focus back on his listeners. Do your own work, he says. Repent. Turn again to God. Realign yourself, reorient – do whatever you need to in order to face the right direction while there’s still time to repair what’s broken, because you’re not doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes. The book has not been closed yet on your life; you’re not limited to who you’ve always been. The clock hasn’t run out yet. He doesn’t answer all our questions, but that part still sounds like pretty good news.
At the same time, Jesus does not deny the possibility that our own lives could end suddenly and unexpectedly. To pretend otherwise would be naïve. This is hard stuff, I know, but if we can’t tell the truth in Lent under the shadow of the cross – then, when can we? Tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us. But the value of a life is not determined by the way it ends. That’s true in Mozambique; it’s true in Nebraska; it’s true in New Zealand, it’s true in the hospitals and streets of our city, and it’s true here. Every human life is unique and invaluable and irreplaceable in God’s eyes, including our own. We can’t count anyone out. Even a barren fig tree can be given another chance.
I like the way today’s Gospel ends. Here Luke gives us a new way to wrestle with another piece of Scripture that’s beyond the bounds of this text. Some of you might know it. In Matthew and Mark, there’s a moment when Jesus, in an apparent moment of orneriness, looks for figs on a tree that’s not in season. When he sees none, he curses the fig tree and moves on. Matthew and Mark are making a different point with that story, and perhaps it is apples and oranges to compare them. But Luke just can’t let it alone. He doesn’t deny that Jesus might have done that at some point, but rather than focusing on a curse – he finds a blessing instead.
He gives us a parable that can find us wherever we are. Maybe we’re the fig tree today, fearful that our time is running out and we haven’t produced enough to make our lives worthwhile. Or perhaps we’re the owner, frustrated that we’ve invested so much in something that hasn’t yet borne fruit. Or we could be the gardener in the middle, shoveling the manure. That’s who I am most days - hoping for a different outcome that I can’t quite see. Regardless, the good news is the same. God isn’t finished with any of us yet. In the silence that follows, I invite you to think of how you might turn again to God this Lent, how you might realign or reorient yourself so that you can grow again and hear all of the voices speaking in Scripture. In the Name of the One who loves us too much to give us just one answer – Amen.