Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
On late Sunday afternoons when I finish with my preacher’s day I like to settle down with the Sunday paper. One of my favorite parts is where people write in with thorny questions about human character and behavior. They look for guidance and wisdom; for validation of their views, or for condemnation of others. The reason why I like these Q&A columns so much is that I don’t have to answer the hard questions!
I don’t get off the hook though when “some present” in a crowd bring a problem to Jesus. Their problem becomes my problem, because aren’t a lot of us asking similar questions about people who lose their lives in unexpected and tragic ways? Here the question is, what offense did the Galileans commit, to die so horribly? It’s a script for a morality and mortality drama. It is about sinners getting their comeuppance.
And maybe a little bit about of schadenfreude too. Getting some joy out of others’ misfortune. We want a judgment on the unfortunate dead! It plays into the blame game and the question of our worthiness and value. And it places God in the defendant’s seat. Because if God is good and loving, how could this happen?
Explaining what God is up to in tragedy and misfortune is called a Theodicy. It’s how we attempt to make sense of the senseless. Like in 1 Corinthians where Paul says, “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down.” And, “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed.” This is Paul’s Theodicy to comfort and encourage the distressed faithful. (As Job’s helpful friends had done generations before.)
Jesus wonders about some others – moving the question from what about those Galileans… to:
…what about these in Jerusalem at the Tower of Siloam. They died horribly too. What did they do? And is it somehow also meaningful, or perhaps ironic, that Siloam is where the famous healing pool is located? As in, and they died right next to the healing place!
Jesus leaves unanswered this demand for a tidy Theodicy, which is curious. It invites some serious contemplation. If Jesus doesn’t answer the question, what makes us so eager to try?
Jesus says, But enough about them. Let’s talk about you. Everyone offends. Which explains Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians. “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
We pause here briefly for a little excursus on the subject of sin. Many people feel that Christians are way too focused on sin. And talking about sin brings such a negative vibe. Where does all that fixation on sin come from? And what does sin mean anyway?
The first reference to sin pops up in Genesis 4:7. “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." Humans had scarcely entered the picture and already there’s trouble.
Cain (remember him?) struggled with the easy relationship his brother Abel seemed to have with God. Here, Cain is being assured by God that he does not have to compete for God’s attention. All that is needed for him to be acceptable to God is to do the right thing.
Cain however is not able to master the lurking force that desires him. In this case, the force is the virulent jealousy that will cause him to take his brother’s life. Jealousy is one expression of what will eventually come to be called covetousness in the Ten Commandments.
The Hebrew word for sin means to offend or cause offence. It lurks at all our doors, hungering for the opportunity to enter and cause havoc. This force wears many masks. Therefore sin also has many names.
Sin isn’t some concept invented by early humans to make people feel guilty. It is the word that best expresses the fracture line of betrayed relationships. Sin is what happens when we know what is good and right, yet fail to do it. All the bible does is give a name to what we all do.
So back to the gospel…
The thing is, dying unexpectedly is lost opportunity to change this life. To repent is to turn around, to reverse course, to return in the direction of good in the aftermath of sin. It’s what Isaiah means by saying, “Let them return to the Lord, that [God] may…have mercy…and abundantly pardon.” By invoking Holy mercy, restored relationship is possible with neighbor and so with God. This restoration is Shalom - wholeness for all injured people and creation.
Then, Luke turns to a parable. About an unbearable fig in the vineyard of virtue. Luke places it here because in his mind it “bears” (pun intended) on what Jesus has just said. The tree offends with its unfruitful life. Enter the vineyard owner, a man of judgment. And if we take Jesus seriously we have to ask, how do we watch this play out? With pleasure or concern?
After three years the offensive fig had failed to get it right. Worthless fig tree! That’s the obvious judgment. Not only was the fig tree fruitless, but its very presence in the soil was an abomination. It is unworthy of the ground it occupies. (By the way, the word abomination, rarely used in the bible, comes from the Hebrew word for offensive.) The vineyard owner’s judgment is severe. This tree is done. Out of here.
Well, thank God for the gardener! Or, should it be thank God the gardener? Because this character is so much more hopeful than the vineyard owner. This garden keeper is way more merciful than the vineyard owner.
After all, the gardener has a plan to help correct the fig tree’s offense. The gardener respectfully advocates for the hapless tree. The gardener is willing to stay with the tree and help it turn around, reversing its awful barrenness into wonderful fruitfulness.
And the prescription for this outcome is the simple application of manure. And some digging around the roots. Fortunately there was someone who cared enough to do it. And perhaps that is the key to this parable. Resisting the impulse to assign blame when there is offense to God or to neighbor. And trusting in the power of simple caring love to turn an unfruitful life around. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.