Lent 3 10
Isaiah 55.1-9, 1 Cor 10.1-13, Luke 13. 1-9
If you were here last Sunday, you may recall Kevin beginning his sermon by sharing with us the struggle he’d had to write it. The readings he had to work with were complicated and difficult to understand and explain. Well, Kevin, I have to tell you – this week’s were no easier!
That’s because they touch on one of the most fraught and complex issues any of us have to deal with, the issue of suffering. It is something theologians from every religion puzzle over, but of course it is something which also comes home to us all personally too, which is why it is so hard to tackle. It’s not just academic. It brings to light big questions, “Why suffering?” “Why me?” ”Why now?”
People have come up with all sorts of answers to those questions. Sometimes we suffer simply because we are human. Our bodies wear out and are vulnerable to diseases that we can do nothing to avoid, but without those bodies, we wouldn’t be here at all. We live in a world where earthquakes and hurricanes cause immense destruction, but they are also vital parts of a natural system which we depend on. If the earth weren’t volcanically active it couldn’t support life.
Sometimes we suffer because of the actions of others, or they suffer through things we do. That’s inevitable too. Until we are all perfect, we are bound to fail each other and cause each other pain, whether we mean to or not.
Sometimes, of course, we know that we have caused our own suffering, if only we have the courage to admit it. There was an unusual funeral reported in the news this week. A Dover man, who had been a heavy smoker for most of his life, and who knew it had caused the lung disease from which he died, made a very unusual request. He asked that his hearse should display on its side in large bold letters the words, “Smoking killed me”. It might have been too late for him, but perhaps, he thought, someone else might heed his message.
You can find all of these explanations for suffering in the Bible, as you would expect, but there is another that crops up from time to time too, and it is the most problematic of the lot. Here and there in the Bible you find people suggesting that suffering is some sort of punishment from God for sin, perhaps entirely unrelated to the disaster that has befallen you. St Paul seems to be saying that in our second reading. But it is an argument which is just as often challenged in the Bible. The Bible isn’t an instruction manual, it is the record of many generations struggling with these big questions, and it doesn’t always agree with itself. Most famously it is contested in the book of Job. Job’s friends tell him that the terrible times he is going through must be a sign that God is angry with him, that he has done something he shouldn’t. Job isn’t having it though – he knows it is nonsense – and God backs him up. Suffering, like the rest of life, is a mystery he isn’t ever going to understand. What matters is that he knows God’s presence with him in it.
It is this sort of thinking though, which Jesus is facing in today’s Gospel reading.
He is heading towards Jerusalem, straight into conflict with the Roman and Jewish authorities, and everybody knows it. Some of those around him try to stop him. We don’t know who they were or why they do this. They might be followers; they might just be bystanders. What is clear is that they think Jesus is mad. “Can’t he see what is coming?” they ask. They remind him of another incident which has recently happened, something obviously famous at the time, something to do with some Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices…”
Fortunately the Jewish historian Josephus, who was a contemporary of Jesus, writes about an incident that sounds as if it could be this one, so we can fill in at least some of the gaps. Pilate, not always a sensitive or sensible man, decided that it would be a good idea to send his Roman troops into the very holiest place in Judaism, the Temple in Jerusalem, to show people who was boss. Great big, hobnail booted soldiers, tramped into its hallowed courtyards. Once in, they proceeded to slaughter the worshippers as they made their sacrifices. Not only was this barbaric, it would also have been regarded as sacrilegious, desecrating the Temple. There was widespread horror and revulsion.
But gradually people started to ask those insidious questions “why were these pilgrims in particular the ones who were killed?” “There but for the grace of God go I” we sometimes say, thoughtlessly, when disaster strikes, as if those who weren’t so lucky must have somehow deserved their fate – God’s grace wasn’t with them as it was with those who survived. They must have committed some sin or other to turn God against them.
Jesus is very quick to refute that idea. The people who were killed were no worse than anyone else, he says – don’t blame the victim.
But he has more to say, and it doesn’t make comfortable hearing, for us or for them. They may have been no worse than anyone else, says Jesus, but “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” It is a rather terrifying and baffling thing to say. What does he mean? It sounds as if he is contradicting himself. Are we responsible for our suffering or not?
The answer is, of course, it all depends which sin and which suffering we are thinking about. His questioners have tied themselves in knots with what is really no more than magical thinking; they have run away with the idea that some infringement of a law, some failure in performing a ritual could cause a completely unrelated disaster. It is superstition, not sense. There is no way that this massacre in Jerusalem can be blamed on that sort of triviality. But it feels tidy to them, and it feels like something they could have some control over – like being careful not to step on the cracks in the pavement or walk under ladders. But all this is distracting them from the real issues they need to face. They are living under brutal Roman occupation. They need to make some real choices about how they respond to the situation they face. It is a time for pulling together, supporting each other, preserving and standing up for those things which really matter, those who are most vulnerable, not nit-picking over the detail of the law. But they are sleepwalking through this time of peril, evidently hoping that if they keep their heads down it will all go away.
I am reminded of the famous words of Pastor Martin Niemöller, who was imprisoned by the Nazis.
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Jesus’ questioners probably want to keep him out of trouble, just as they want to keep themselves out of trouble. They think he is making a ghastly mistake by going to Jerusalem – look what happened to these others who went there. Not only will it lead to his death, but if he dies then any idea that he is the Messiah will die with him. Bad things only happen to bad people, they think to themselves. If he dies it will just go to show that God was never really with him. But Jesus is having none of it. Sometimes, he says, the painful path, the path that leads into trouble is the right path, the path you need to walk. Death and suffering are necessary for him, and inescapable if he is to be true to the message he has been sent to proclaim. To turn back because he will suffer, or because people will think he is cursed when he hangs on the cross will betray all those who have heard his message, that God loves them and wants them to live in freedom and dignity.
The fig tree he talks about in his parable looks like a failure, fit only for burning, but patience and root pruning will reveal that it isn’t so at all. Figs fruit better if their roots are restricted or pruned – that is horticultural fact, and I expect his hearers knew it. It sounds counter-intuitive, just as it is hard to see how the cross could be the gateway to life, but it is so, says Jesus. What he will go through won’t look like the kind of success they expect from their Messiah, but it will, in the end bear fruit. He calls them to accept that, and to walk in that same challenging path too – remember, Luke’s Gospel is written for the early church, a church under persecution, who had to make the same sort of agonising choices Jesus did. Speaking out for justice, sticking with those who suffer; that is the way to life and freedom and true peace, says Jesus to them.
Today’s collect puts it well. “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it no other than the way of life and peace:”
We don’t have to live with occupation or persecution, but I think Jesus words are just as valid for us; we often face tough choices about our priorities, and the temptation to avoid facing the things we need to face as well. I wonder today what paths we might be avoiding because we can see they will be painful or difficult. Do we try to distract ourselves from the real issues we need to deal with by spending our time and energy on trivialities and abstractions?
God wants us to bear good fruit. Our world, so full of suffering, needs us to bear good fruit. But do we have the courage to let God cut around our roots? Do we have the perseverance to take in the food he gives us? Do we have the patience to stop looking for instant success and wait for his life to well up from deeper places?
Here’s a prayer to end with as we ponder these things.
Show us, good Lord,
the peace we should seek
the peace we must give
the peace we can keep
the peace we must forgo
and the peace you have given in Jesus our Lord.