A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California
March 20, 2022
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 plague our society, or people who die too young from cancer, or Putin invading Ukraine, etc—people who were just going about their lives when it all fell apart. Just this week, a golf team was killed in a car accident in West Texas. It is not hard to find the towers of Siloam in our world today.
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—a 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 he pauses to take 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 to us, we must 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 a tragedy on its victims.
Whether we’re blaming the victims, or 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.
In truth, our good and bad dichotomy is false from the beginning. The best of us are not entirely perfect, and the worst of us are not beyond God’s redeeming.
Blaming others doesn’t change the fact that life is fragile, beautiful, and uncertain.
Blaming others doesn’t change the real issue under our control.
Repentance isn’t a word we maybe like to hear, but stay with me.
Jesus asks, “Do you really think those people are worse sinners than any of the rest of you? 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 landowner’s vineyard for three years. It is not doing its job and bearing fruit. “Cut it down!”, he says to the gardener. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do if you believe that things are only of value for what they produce, for how they bear fruit.
So that’s our question for this third week of Lent. From where does our value come? From our productivity? Our success?
The gardener argues with the landowner on behalf of the unproductive fig tree. “One more year. If I just spread some manure around it, I’m sure it will produce figs.”
I am not convinced this is very good gardening advice. But I think it is a great illustration of the faithfulness of God.
Because God, like a faithful 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, not for the value we add to someone’s economy, but for the way our lives bear fruit of love in the world.
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 going to be?”
We want to ask, “what will keep us safe?” God wants us to be asking, “what can we do to bear fruit with the one beautiful and fragile life we’ve been given?”
We ask the wrong questions. And maybe the fig tree story is to remind us to ask different 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.
Isaiah reminded us of God’s mysterious mercy too:
Seek the Lord while God may be found,
call upon the Lord while God is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for the Lord will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
God is not a mystery to untangle. We’re called to seek God, not answers.
Our repentance does matter. Repentance, or turning back to God, calls us 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 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.
Repentance 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 response to our awareness of grace, that good things happen to bad people, and so to us.
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 good people 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.
The invitation of God in Isaiah’s gospel remains for us:
everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
We’re reminded in scripture, again and again, that God’s economy is different than ours. God seeks our flourishing and our health.
What happens to the fig tree after Luke’s story ends?
We don’t know. The Gospel doesn’t tell us.
Which means we must write the story in our own lives. We are the fig trees who have been nurtured by the faithful gardener. We can still write the ending.
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