1 Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. 2 He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. 4 What about those twelve people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”
6 Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ 8 The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. 9 Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.'” (CEB)
Earlier this week I learned that one of my friends from seminary died of cancer. The news broke my heart. He leaves behind a wife, who also attended Duke with me, and three children. Tragedy always brings up the same deeply human questions in us. We often struggle to make sense of things, to find answers to questions of sin and suffering. We search for a cause to explain the effect.
In part, that’s what’s happening here in Luke 13.
Different veins of thought within the Scriptures offer varying ways of thinking about the problem of suffering and the questions we ask about it. Scripture does not speak with a united voice in the matter. In fact, some of its perspectives are contradictory.
Why do we suffer? People have wrestled with this question since ancient times because suffering doesn’t always make sense to us. We can take the question and apply it to even more senseless situations: Why do bad things happen to seemingly good people? And the most senseless of all: Why does tragedy strike even the innocent, even children?
Job’s friends tried to make sense of his situation for him. They couldn’t imagine that Job was actually innocent. One of the dominant strains of thought in the Scriptures—and still today—is Deuteronomic theology. It’s called that largely because of Deuteronomy 28, which lays out the blessings and curses of the covenant. If we obey God and observe all the commandments, then we’ll be overcome with blessings. If we disobey God and ignore the commandments, we’ll be cursed beyond imagination.
It’s a theology that links human suffering directly to sin because God is just. It’s a theology that says good things happen to good people. So if you’re healthy, wealthy, and wise to the world, it’s because you are righteous and God is smiling on you. If you’re sick or infirmed, broke as a joke, and make foolish decisions, it’s because you’re a sinner and God is punishing you.
Proverbs also takes up this theme. “When the tempest passes, the wicked are no more, but the righteous are established forever.” (Prov. 10:25, NRSV). Even the disciples thought this way. They came upon a man born blind and asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2, CEB). God is just, so someone must have done something for this bad thing to happen.
But the truth is that suffering cannot always be traced to sin. In fact, Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question was “Neither he nor his parents.” No one sinned to cause this.
Some people argue that suffering is the result of a lack of faith. If you have faith, God will heal you. Some of you know I have a rare form of type 2 diabetes. My endocrinologist called it Type-2 of the thin variety. I’m 6-foot, 173 pounds. Under 40 (for a few more months anyway). I don’t fit the profile for this disease. Am I diabetic because I lack faith in God or God’s power to heal? Somehow I don’t buy that argument.
Others argue that suffering isn’t a result of sin or faithlessness, but it’s a part of God’s bigger plan for the world. Bad things happen to good people because our suffering will eventually benefit us or other people. A tornado kills a family, but spares their neighbors. A driver, high on meth, goes the wrong way on I-69 and kills a pregnant woman, her unborn child, her best friend, injures another woman and kills her husband, but the driver on meth survives. Maybe I’m diabetic so I won’t eat too much sugar, which is bad for me anyway.
Is it really God’s will? Is it all a part of God’s plan to teach us something? Well-meaning people often say things like, God must have a reason.
I would argue it’s actually a lack of faith on our part that requires us to insist that God has a reason for everything that happens.
It is WE who require order.
It is WE who require things to make sense.
It is WE who require logic.
We require these things the same way people around Jesus demanded signs. We need the proof. We need sense and order. After all, If God doesn’t have a reason for this tragedy, then it makes no sense. If it doesn’t make sense, then God isn’t in control. But God is in control, therefore it must be part of God’s plan.
The problem is, faith does not require proof. Faith is not logical. Neither is a fallen world corrupted by sin where people make bad choices, where bodies fail, where disease strikes, where storms blow, where the earth shakes, and where waters rise.
Job is an incredibly complex book. In one sense, it suggests God allows Satan to cause suffering, and then rewards us for enduring it. But Job, his wife, and his friends all see Job’s suffering from different angles. Job insisted there was no justification for his suffering. Job’s friends tried to comfort him by explaining his situation to him rationally. They employed Deuteronomic theology, and did all they could to force Job’s situation to make sense.
His first friend insisted God wouldn’t have brought this calamity on Job if he were really innocent. “Think! What innocent person has ever perished? When have those who do the right thing been destroyed? As I’ve observed, those who plow sin and sow trouble will harvest it.” (Job 4:7-8, CEB).
You must have done something wrong, Job!
His next friend insisted God is just, so Job needs to act faithfully. “If you will search eagerly for God, plead with the Almighty. If you are pure and do the right thing, then surely he will become active on your behalf and reward your innocent dwelling.” (Job 8:5-6).
You just need the right kind of faith, Job! Then God will make all your troubles go away.
His third friend insisted Job look on the bright side. After all, it could be worse. “Know that God lets some of your sin be forgotten.” (Job 11:6b, CEB). In other words, Job isn’t getting punished nearly as badly as he deserves.
It could be worse, Job!
So when these people told Jesus about the Galilean pilgrims Pilate apparently murdered inside the Temple, letting their blood flow with the blood of the sacrificial animals, Jesus addressed it head on, but in a way that dismantled Deuteronomic theology.
“Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will all die just as they did. What about those twelve people who were killed with the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5, CEB).
These things didn’t happen because the people were worse sinners than anyone else. They didn’t happen because of God’s punishment or monstrous educational plan. Accidents happen, and there aren’t always answers. Tragedy can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere, whether it’s an accident, an act of nature, or the result of someone’s violence or negligence. It adds a sense of urgency for our need to repent, in part because we might suffer tragedy at any moment and, in part, because when we live sinfully and selfishly, without mercy, hospitality, or generosity, we add to the brokenness of the world.
We need to repent because we are a part of the problem! We don’t want to admit it. We don’t even like the idea of thinking that way. If we had to judge ourselves we’d say we’re pretty good people. But that’s partly what the parable of the fig tree illustrates. We’re all sinners who fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). No one is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). We’re all fig trees who fail to bear fruit. We all need to turn away from sin.
This particular fig tree was given time to produce, but didn’t. So the owner demanded it be cut down. After all, it’s wasting the soil that could be used for a productive tree. But the tree has an advocate in the gardener.
Let me take care of it. Let me try. I’ll prune some of its roots to force the tree into production. I’ll put manure around it to make sure it has everything it needs. Wait a little longer and see. If it still doesn’t bear fruit, then you can cut it down.
This is not a story about second chances where we just need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and work harder. It’s a parable about the possibility of new life which God offers to us through grace. We can’t produce this fruit on our own. All we can do is turn our life away from sin and cooperate with God’s grace as it works in us.
It might make us feel uncomfortable to take an image of poop too far, but since Jesus used it I’ll roll with it.
We need Christ’s body and blood—God’s grace—to nourish us like a tree needs manure. We need the Holy Spirit to prune our roots so we can draw nourishment from the right source, keeping us from the peripheral things out there that get in the way. We need God in order to produce fruit. And God is patient enough to care for us and stave off the impatience of judgement for a while. We have an opportunity to repent and turn back to God in fresh ways. That’s what Lent is all about.
Let’s not waste our chance.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!