Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
March 11, 2017
Jesus’ followers want him to answer the questions we always want God to answer for us too—why do bad things happen to good people? Let us recognize that Jesus, the ultimate “good people” is on his way to Jerusalem, where the “bad thing” of death on a cross will happen to him. So he’s not uninterested in this conversation, we can presume.
It seems as if Jesus and his disciples are reading the newspaper as they walk to Jerusalem. And they bring up the stories of the day to ask questions of their faith, which is what our faith ought to be able to do. We read the news in one hand, the Bible in the other, and see how they connect, or don’t connect, or leave us anxious, or hopeful, or just flummoxed and confused.
Apparently some people had died when a tower in Siloam collapsed on them. We may not know where Siloam is, but this story reminds us of deaths from earthquakes, or mass shootings that seem to be plaguing our society, or people who die too young from cancer, etc—people who were just going about their lives when it all fell apart. Just this week, a bus full of tourists was hit by a train in Biloxi.
The other illustration in Luke’s account isn’t as clear. Some Galileans had been murdered by Pilate. The description is that their blood was mingled with their sacrifice, which tells us a few things.
One, they were in the temple in Jerusalem, because that’s the only place a good Jew would have been making sacrifices. These are faithful people, doing faithful things.
Two, this particular atrocity has political and not just religious implications because the Roman authorities normally left the religious life alone. They may have taxed you and kept you from civic and cultural freedom, but they tended to leave your religion alone.
But in this story, which is only recorded in Luke and not in any outside documents, Pilate has people murdered in the Temple as they are making sacrifice, mixing their blood with the sacrificial blood—desolating sacrilege.
So this illustration may have just been about the first question—why do bad things happen to good people—or it may have been intended to stir up Jesus’ nationalistic fervor—or it may just remind us that being faithful is no guarantee of a long, easy, pain-free life.
In any case, Jesus, on his way to the Cross event, had been calling people to repent and to prepare for the transformation of the world that was about to take place, and takes the time to address the misconceptions behind their questions.
Because the common assumption of people then, and probably of people now, is that when bad things happen, we have somehow done something to deserve it. God is punishing us for our own sins or for the sins of our ancestors.
Jesus stops them in their tracks. “do you think that because these people suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than the other Galileans?”
Well, when he puts it that way, it doesn’t sound quite right.
Jesus calls us to fight the tendency of our culture to blame things on people.
Whether we’re blaming Pilate, or the engineers who designed the tower of Siloam, or the Terrorists, blaming Hollywood or video games, blaming the person in the White House—we want to be able to blame things on somebody. Anybody.
But Jesus won’t let us stay there.
Because good people die in bad accidents and from cancer.
Bad people live to be 100 and die in their sleep.
Bad people die in bad accidents too, for that matter.
But blaming Pilate doesn’t change the fact that life is fragile, beautiful, and uncertain.
Blaming Pilate doesn’t change the real issue under our control.
“Do you really think those people are worse sinners than any of the rest of you?” Jesus asks. “Whether you die when a tower collapses, or die quietly in your bed, don’t ask the wrong question. The real issue is repentance. Yes, life is fragile and short, so don’t worry about the righteousness of your neighbor. Worry about your own relationship with God. That ought to keep you plenty busy.”
And then Jesus goes on to talk about a fig tree.
This fig tree has been in a guy’s vineyard for three years, which is plenty of time for a fig tree to start making figs, but it is barren. It is not doing its job. “Cut it down!”, he says. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Property is valuable, so if something isn’t producing as it should, you get rid of it and plant something else.
But the gardener argues for the unrepentant fig tree. “One more year. If I just spread some manure around it, I’m sure it will produce figs.”
I think this is probably not very good gardening advice. But I think it is a great illustration of the faithfulness of God. Because God, like a gardener, gifts us with mercy beyond measure. Long after we should be moved out of the garden, God for reasons only God can understand, continues to prune us, continues to nurture us, continues to have faith in our potential.
When Jesus confronts the people about the Galileans and the Tower of Siloam folks, he tells them about a fig tree and then says, “what kind of fig tree are you? Are you producing fruit, or are you just taking up space?”
We want to ask, “what will keep us safe?” God wants us to be asking, “what can we do to bear fruit with the life we’ve been given?”
We ask the wrong questions. And maybe the fig tree story is to remind us to ask the right ones.
Because the truth is this—if God were in the business of handing out punishment as consequence for our behavior—none of us would be standing. The vineyard wouldn’t have a single fig tree left in it.
Thanks be to God for the unfathomable mercy of God that our little fig trees are still standing, still striving to be faithful disciples and working to bear fruit in a hungry world.
Our repentance does matter. Repentance, or turning back to God, should call you back to living for God, for standing up for justice, for actively seeking God’s kingdom on earth as a response to God’s love and mercy.
Repentance, for the record, doesn’t mean we think that somehow we will stop making mistakes, or start being perfect, or work our way into salvation. Repentance is the opposite of that. It is an acknowledgement that we try to do it all on our own, and that we deny our created-ness and pretend we have it all together. Repentance is ultimately our acknowledgement that good things happen to bad people, or to us.
So, when we get hung up on the fact, the truth, the reality, that bad things happen to good people, Jesus calls us to remember that good things happen to us as well. It is in the good, the bad, and the boring, equally, that we are called to live out our calling to bear fruit.
As our passage continues, Jesus marches toward Good Friday and the cross, and he hears a report that Herod wants to kill him. “Tell that fox I’m a little busy right now. Maybe in a few days? Thanks!”
Herod has killed Jesus’ cousin and is a real threat. Jesus isn’t being glib or in denial in the face of danger. Jesus isn’t saying danger isn’t real. He’s reminding us that very real threats do not have to define us or our actions. We still have to bear good fruit and do what God has called us to do, even in the face of Herod, terror, and falling towers.
As the story continues, Jesus laments over Jerusalem and uses my favorite imagery for God. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
I love the image of securely sheltering under God’s fluffy wings.
But remember what he just called Herod? And do you remember who foxes like to kill?
Jesus could have said, “Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a bear gathers her cubs in her arms, which are strong and have razor sharp claws”.
He doesn’t do that. He uses maternal, vulnerable, chicken-y illustrations in the same passage as he calls Herod a predatory, chicken hunting fox.
We worship a God who became human. And we may not think about how unusual that is in the history of gods people have worshiped. God chose to become one of us, in a vulnerable human body, subject to the same risks our human bodies face—foxes, falling towers, and all.
Earlier in the text, Jesus said instead of asking “how to be safe?” we should ask “how do we bear good fruit?”. Here, instead of asking, “how do we not be afraid of what might happen?”, Jesus reminds us that while danger and risk is not optional for any of us, even for him, fear is not our focus.
God is our focus, which gets us back to repentance, to turning back in God’s direction.
We live in a world that wants to focus our energy, our federal budget, and our animus toward those things and people we should fear. I’m not saying that some of those things aren’t actually dangerous. But Jesus reminds us we are focusing our energy on the wrong thing.
This week, as we read the newspaper, and watch the news on TV, I invite you to attend to the stories you encounter, and to the way they are being shared with you. Do the news stories lead you to focus on fear or on bearing good fruit in the world? Do they lead you to hope or despair?
Whatever may happen in the world this week, from towers falling to foxes in hen houses, may our faith in the God who fearlessly calls us in love, help us focus our energy toward bearing good fruit in the world.
May it be so. Amen