At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” – Luke 13:1-9
At the end of my senior year of college, the compassionate and kind-hearted 15 year old sister of my college boyfriend was killed in a car accident. I will never forget some of the things people said to us after she passed away.
“God just wanted another angel.” “God’s timing is just not our timing.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Just remember, even though you can’t understand it now, this is all part of God’s plan.” “God only tests us to make us stronger.” “God is in control.” “God never gives us more than we can handle.”
While these family friends meant well, some of the things they said not only made us feel additional pain and anger, inadequacy for not being able to “handle” this tragedy the way we were expected to, and misunderstood and alone during one of the most difficult times of our lives, but they also reinforced some incredibly dangerous ideas about God’s character and God’s relationship with humankind.
I didn’t want to have anything to do with the God these friends spoke of. To be quite honest, I had to work very hard to refrain from screaming back at them: “That’s bull… you know what!” Really? – I kept thinking. This was in God’s plan? God gave this tragedy to us… to test us!? And God wanted another angel, huh? I wanted to ask. Well then, why didn’t God take someone who had lived a long and wonderful life, not a girl who only got to live 15 short years?
And if everything happens for a reason: what about the horrific violent acts that occur across our country and our world? Are those part of God’s plan, too? – I wanted to ask them.
… As Proverbs 25:20 says: “Like vinegar on a wound is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”
A few years after I graduated from college, I found out my college boyfriend and I were not the only ones whose friends sang songs to heavy hearts. When my colleague’s mom was battling cancer, one of his mom’s friends told her she was not praying hard enough… That if she prayed more often and had more faith that God would heal her, she would be healed of her cancer. She prayed frequently but she never healed and she eventually passed away. My colleague told me that even though his mom was one of the most faithful people he knew, sometimes she felt like her cancer was a result of her just not being faithful enough.
While incredibly hurtful and unhealthy, the way this friend responded to her cancer and the way friends responded when my college boyfriend’s sister passed away are very common human responses to tragedy. We want to seek answers to why there is suffering in our world. To make sense of the things that just don’t make sense. Because there has to be a reason for the senselessness in this world, doesn’t there? There has to be a cause for the effect. There has to be someone or something we can blame for human suffering… when our friend’s younger sister dies in a car accident or our friend is diagnosed with cancer. When our brother goes through a painful divorce or we see homelessness and unemployment rates begin to skyrocket. When an earthquake kills thousands or a terrorist attack shakes up our sense of security.
Because if we find a reason – if we find a cause for the tragedy – we think we will then be able to quickly fix the pain of those who are hurting. And we think that we – ourselves – will be able to avoid the tragedies that we see others face and that we fear might one day hit us. We think that we will be able to avoid these tragedies if we just find their root cause. If we just refrain from committing those sins, if we just pray more than that person prayed, if we just work harder than those people do, or if we just avoid those people and those places altogether.
This is similar to what the Galileans who spoke with Jesus in our passage in Luke were struggling with. They – too – were seeking answers to why certain tragedies had recently occurred. They wanted to know why the Roman governor Pilate had slaughtered a group of fellow Galilean Jews while they were making sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem and then mixed the dead’s blood with the sacrificial blood. These Galileans who were talking with Jesus wanted to know why a tower near the pool of Siloam unexpectedly collapsed and killed the 18 people who were at the tower. These tragedies must have happened for a reason… because everything happens for a reason. And that reason must have been that those slaughtered in the Temple and those 18 killed by the collapsing tower sinned something terrible… They must have really ticked off God – because – as most first century religious folks believed – tragedy was a punishment from God and suffering was a form of God’s testing.
But as the Galileans begin speculating, Jesus asks them: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you!”
No, these tragedies have nothing to do with the character or actions of the victims. No, God does not punish or test people for their sins with state sanctioned violence or natural disasters. No, God does not punish or test people with illness, the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a job, homelessness, war, or any other tragedy that leaves us wondering, “why God?” God isn’t the wrathful, short-tempered vengeful God many confuse God to be. And you – Jesus seems to be saying to the Galileans around him – are not standing here now avoiding tragedy because you are any better or more faithful than these victims are.
No, I tell you!
The way the world works isn’t that bad things just happen to bad people and good things just happen to good people… as much as we may wish this to be so. Because many times good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. Tragedy just hits, and it can hit any of us. And it isn’t God doing this to our neighbors or to us. It just happens. It’s part of being human in this good and yet fallen world where we are both sinner and saint. Where we are both created good and in God’s image and yet we all fall short of the glory of God. It is the unexplainable mystery of being predestined and having free will: where – as humans, we are both chosen and called by God and yet we also get to choose what paths in life we are to take and we get to choose how we are to live. And it’s the crappy part of free will because with free will – with human choice – comes the bad, the evil, the suffering, the tragedies. However, we must also remember that with free will – with choice – comes the very very good, as well. We cannot have creativity, kindness, acts of compassion, hope, joy, peace, love, or even faith without it.
Jesus then tells the Galileans a parable.
“A man has a fig tree in a garden,” Jesus says. “But when the man sees the fig tree, he realizes it is not producing any fruit. He finds his gardener and says: ‘Look at this fig tree! It is not doing what it is supposed to be doing. For three years it’s been sitting here, and it is still not producing any fruit. It’s just sitting in my garden wasting soil, wasting space, doing nothing. There is no point to it being here, so cut it down!’ But the gardener says: ‘Don’t give up on it just yet. Give the fig tree another year. I will take care of it and tend to it regularly. I will dig around it and place manure on it, so it will bear fruit. In a year, check it out, and if it still doesn’t bear fruit by then, you may cut it down.’”
You see, Jesus is reiterating to the Galileans through this parable that God isn’t an unloving tyrant. Even if God’s people are not bearing fruit, God doesn’t just immediately cut us down and throw us away like the owner of the garden wanted to do with his fig tree. Instead, like the gardener, God is our loving advocate. God cares for us and tends to us. God sees our potential, holds onto hope that we will be fruit bearers, and doesn’t give up on us.
Therefore – Jesus seems to be urging the Galileans – since God is not the punishing and testing God they assumed God to be, rather than focusing on finding reasons for why bad things happen, the Galileans should instead focus on their own lives: on being bearers of fruit for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Repent, he urges. Turn around. Turn from your old ways and turn toward God. Choose God’s way.
But there is urgency in this parable, as well. “Let’s see what happens in a year,” the gardener says. “Let’s see if the fig tree bears fruit a year from now.”
Jesus knows that life is precious. Heck, the recent tragedies that took place in the Temple and at the tower – and not to mention, Jesus’ impending journey toward the cross – remind him of this fact. And the same goes for us. When we hear of the tragedies and suffering around us, we are often reminded of our own mortality.
From dust we came and to dust we shall return.
Tragedies often remind us just how fragile and precious life can be. Yes, bad things happen – to good people even – and can happen to anyone of us – at any time.
This realization can be extremely scary.
And yet, we can allow our fears to overcome us or we can instead embrace this reality and place our focus on being bearers of fruit. We can continue our old ways, or we can turn from them and turn toward God. We have been chosen and we have a choice. And we can choose to allow our fear of our mortality and life’s fragility to keep us from actually living and loving, or we can choose to embrace our mortality and the fact that life is fragile and we can let this realization inspire us to live and to love fully.
To be present in the moment. To take advantage of the precious time we do have with our loved ones. To sit with, cry alongside, and listen to those who are suffering and – rather than sing songs to their heavy hearts – we can acknowledge that their suffering just flat out sucks. To not just take up space in the world, but rather to use our gifts to make a difference in the lives of those around us. To make our precious time here count.
Why do bad things happen to good people? – we ask. It’s the great unexplainable mystery. We don’t know why. They just happen. But what we do know is that we have a compassionate God who knows our pain more than anyone else does. Who weeps over tragedy, suffering, and injustice in this world and never leaves us to grieve or to suffer alone. And who loves us so much that God does not give up on us, but instead continues to tend to us, to care for us, and to believe in us.
So may we choose to turn toward this loving God. May we choose to be bearers of fruit: and to live and to love.