Isaiah 55:1-9 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Luke 13:1-9
3rdSunday in Lent
Frank had been accepted into a doctoral program at Harvard. He and his family were active members in the church my family attended. Frank’s dad had formed a large and prominent company, and I imagined that Frank would be quite an asset there after graduation. He hung around with friends over the summer. In the fall, two of his friends would begin their graduate classes at Yale. When the news came that Frank and these two friends had all died in a car accident, the community was in disbelief. Frank was intelligent, young, handsome, and had a bright future in front of him. How could this have happened?
A drunk driver had entered the interstate going in the wrong direction and hit their car head on. Was there a reason this happened, other than someone irresponsibly chose to drive after consuming more than enough alcohol to impair his judgement?
After the funeral service, Frank’s parents stood in the church gathering space as people moved in a line to offer their words. Frank’s dad was numb, and his face expressionless as people shook his hand. Frank’s mom tried hard to graciously smile. As I waited to greet them, I thought that there were no words, really, that could offer comfort. As I took her hand. I asked, “Did you get to say good-bye?” She told me that she had spent a couple of hours in conversation with Frank before the service that morning.
I remember some of the things that I heard others say to her. “God must have needed another angel,” and “This was part of God’s plan.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “God never gives us more than we can handle.” I looked to see if they found solace in these thoughts. Some people do. The people who spoke these things were answering the question of “why.” We humans try to find a reason for everything. There must be a linear connection, a cause and effect, for what happens in our world. After Frank’s mother told me about her final time with her son, she said, “I asked God what it was he had done, or that we have done, to deserve this.”
Since Jesus was born, Christians have struggled to find answers to why God allows suffering and evil in our world. “Theodicy” is the word for this. We continue to try to make sense of that which makes no sense to us. We have yet to find satisfactory answers, and so we keep asking.
A few people who were among the crowds listening to Jesus expressed their concern that Pilate had slaughtered a group of Galileans and mixed their blood with the blood of their sacrifices. In the background was the news that 18 people were crushed to death by the collapse of the tower of Siloam. Their concern was really about themselves, and Jesus knew it. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” In other words, was God punishing them? Will God punish us like that, too? We like to think that people get exactly what they deserve in this life, good or bad. Do children deserve to be abused by someone they should trust, or to become refugees? Do adults get dementia because God is angry with their whole family? Every day we hear of bad things happening to good people.
How does Jesus respond? A flat and simple “No.” He does not explain any further. He gives no answer as to why.What he does say, however, is “But unless you repent, you are going to lose some blood, too.” With these words, Jesus takes their fear to motivate them to turn back to God. Instead of leading people to their death, he was trying to lead them to life! That’s God’s desire for us!
Our second reading contains the source of another platitude. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the test he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (vs.13). In other words, turn to God when you are tested, and God will help you. Put this in context and you will find that Paul is speaking of temptation, not of adversity. Some have transformed this into, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” Tell that to the family of a suicide victim.
If you think through the things we say to those who are already suffering, and those who are grieving, you will realize that many of them are terrible! They are dismissive. They shut the door as if everything is settled. They communicate the message, “Just get over it because this is God’s will. It must be okay.” Our cliché sayings keep us from living in the uncomfortable mystery and grief. They keep us from entering the holy space of suffering with someone. They disconnect us from humanity, and deny our own brokenness.
If we could just understand why, then we wouldn’t have to live with the uncertainty of mystery. We would not have to be afraid. We could prevent tragedies from happening. We would be in control. Maybe “why?” is not the right question.
In our Gospel reading Jesus continues, telling us a parable about a fig tree in the vineyard, a fig tree with no figs on it. “Cut it down!” the vineyard owner said. ‘It’s wasting soil!” We, who are so results oriented, probably agree with the owner. If your metrics at your place of work are off for the month, you are out of there. If something breaks, we throw it in the trash. The gardener, however, wants to provide the tree with all it needs to thrive, and live into possibilities. “Give it one more year. I will dig around it. I will put natural fertilizer on it. I will give it what it needs.” This is our God, the one who will not give up on those who stray, who sweeps the house all night looking for a lost coin, and leaves the 99 sheep to find the one has wandered away. Our God is the father who stands on the porch waiting, looking for us to return, and runs in his robe to greet us when we come home. Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.
Instead of giving any answers to our questions of why, Jesus gives us both a promise and an invitation. “Come to me. Return to me. Bring your tears and your anger. I will sit right there with you. I will care for you. I will love you in your living and your dying.” This Lenten season, you are invited to return to God.
~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin
One can interpret Jesus’ statement as meaning that we will cause our own downfall through our own bad choices because we do not follow Jesus.
For further study of familiar platitudes, read Adam Hamilton’s book, Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say. Abingdon Press, 2016.