Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9; Lent 3C
I confess: This is not my favorite Bible passage.
Jesus sends a mixed message. He says, “No … but.” As in, “No they weren’t worse sinners, and no they weren’t worse offenders. That’s not why suffering befell them, but you will meet the same fate if you don’t repent.” Well, which is it? Do bad things happen to bad people because God pushes the cosmic “smite” button or not? Is there a cause-and-effect relationship between our behavior and falling towers? If not, why not? If not, why doesn’t God intervene and spare the innocent? As my youngest is fond of asking often (and with endless variations), “If God can do anything, why doesn’t God put an end to war, poverty, etc., etc., etc.?”
Do bad things happen because people are bad? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, the same thing will happen to you. What is Jesus trying to say here?
We all will, of course, perish; no one gets out alive, as the saying goes. But surely Jesus is addressing something more than just our mortality and finitude. There is the whole repent part of the equation in this passage. We hear echoes of John the Baptist. Is this then akin to a fire and brimstone preacher questioning those gathered at a funeral: Do you know where you will go if you die today? Is this a text not about physical death or the cause of earthly suffering, but about our eternal fate?
Could it possibly be a text inviting us to abundant life and the promise of life eternal? How, exactly, is this good news?
I think we have two tools that help us decode the crux of the passage: the parable of the fig tree and the Isaiah passage appointed for the day.
Keeping in mind that figs and fig trees are often metaphors for Israel or Judah, the emphasis of the passage isn’t on the Galileans or those living in Jerusalem, but rather the focus is on God’s faithfulness to the covenant and God’s mercy and patience towards humanity. God is endlessly ready to have us repent and turn and return. God is ridiculously patient, waiting well beyond any reasonable amount of time, willing to do foolish amounts of work to seek us, nurture us and help us to bear fruit. God even sends Jesus Christ to suffer in our stead so as to keep us from being cut down. God has mercy and abundantly pardons. Why? Because God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways not our ways. This is the message to be sure to proclaim on the third Sunday of Lent with Jesus well on his way to the cross.
We may want a cause-and-effect, karma-type scenario (for others), but God does not operate that way. No, they weren’t worse sinners, but you, sinner, will meet the same fate unless you repent and accept the gift of life abundant and eternal that I long to give.
Fred Craddock sums it up this way in his commentary on Luke, “The obligation of every person is to live in penitence and trust before God, and that penitent trust is not to be linked to life’s sorrows or life’s joys. Life in the kingdom is not an elevated game of gaining favors and avoiding losses. Without repentance, all is lost anyway.”
That isn’t a satisfying answer because we often want to be able to explain away suffering as a means of distancing ourselves from it. Or we really want God to give those we think evil or wrong what they deserve. Or we want works righteousness even when we say we believe in grace. (God helps those who help themselves, right?)
The problem with making our relationship with God a transactional one rather than a covenantal one is that at some point the math just won’t add up. We will be persecuted by Pilate for no reason other than Pilate chooses to persecute us. Or, the tower will fall on us because we were at the wrong place at the wrong time. We will seek a reason, some logical explanation, some underlying purpose and it simply will not be there. Then what? Are we bad people? God forsaken?
You may have seen the recent article in the New York Times, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me” by Kate Bowler. A professor at Duke who researched and wrote about the prosperity gospel, she wrestles with how that theology of the righteous being blessed impacts her understanding of being diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35. She writes:
Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith…
Tragedies are simply tests of character.
It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.
“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.
“Pardon?” she said, startled.
“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.
My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.
In other words, is she a worse sinner? Did she smoke? Eat poorly? Bad genes? If the answer is no, then what will keep the wolf from my door?
Kate Bowler continues:
CANCER has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential…Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.
But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.
Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard. Life in relationship with the Triune God and with one another is a gift to be received and cherished even when it isn’t fair or reasonable. So perhaps, who sinned or who is the worse sinner is irrelevant when Jesus came to save sinners. Maybe this third Sunday of Lent is an opportunity to change our focus from rationalizing suffering to the suffering One who intercedes for us, tends us and stays with us in all circumstances.
- Take a look at John chapter 9 and the whole back-and-forth about who sinned and why the man was born blind. How does that story relate to this one in Luke? How is it different?
- It is worth noting that there is a time for judgment. In the parable, the gardener says “one year.” It is also important to recognize that the end of time is up to God and the judge of fruitfulness or not is God alone.
- Do a word study on “fig” and “fig tree” and note how they are metaphors for Israel and Judah (Isaiah 5:1-7, Jeremiah 24:2-6, etc.). How does that metaphor apply to this text in Luke? Is this a text about personal or corporate repentance? Both and?
- Note that the verses 1-5 in the Luke text cover a lot of ground: suffering caused by human persecution and natural disaster, Galileans and those living in Jerusalem. Why is it important to include all of these categories?
- There are no parallels to the Luke text. What Lukan themes do you notice in this text? Take a look through Luke and notice the emphasis on repentance and forgiveness.
- What do we say to people who are suffering that echo the disciples’ questions in Luke? Do we succumb to the prosperity gospel in our understanding of suffering?
Want to receive Looking into the Lectionary content in your inbox on Mondays? Click here to join our email list!