These last two months there have been two massive earthquakes that have been devastating to the countries of Haiti and Chile. We’ve seen the footage. We’ve heard some of the good reporting telling the stories of those who are still alive. We’ve offered prayers and written checks to help with the aid.
Maybe it’s inevitable, but it seems that after just about all of these cataclysmic kinds of events there are comments made that pertain to the role of God or the absence of God in what has happened. A couple of the comments that caught my attention this time around:
Pat Robertson stated that the Haitians had made a deal with the devil in the slave rebellion that eventually led to their independence and basically that they had this coming. He was properly denounced by other religious leaders who said that we should not equate natural disasters with the activity of God. Just because insurance companies consider something as an “act of God,” doesn’t mean that’s good theology.
Another comment that caught my attention was an essay in the Christian Century magazine by Richard Kauffman titled “Letting God Off the Hook.” He began by totally renouncing views like those that Robertson expressed, but then stated that for him an entirely naturalistic explanation for such things is not satisfactory. He wondered if we should be more like the prophets or the psalmist who would often shake their fists at God and ask Why? calling God to the carpet for allowing such destruction on such vulnerable people. If we completely eliminate God from the picture are we letting God off the hook?
One reason we keep asking these questions, I think, is that no answer feels completely satisfactory. This is about the closest thing theologians have to job security. There’s always more to say, so there is always room for more conversation during these times.
It is worth noting, at least, that this is an area in which Jesus did have some things to say.
There was this time in Luke chapter 13 when some people told him about this group of Galileans that Pilate had killed or executed and caused their blood to get mingled with their sacrifices. It’s an obscure kind of reference and there aren’t other historical records of this happening, although there are numerous references from the first century historian Josephus to Pilate committing different brutalities in Palestine. And it’s not entirely clear why these people bring this up to Jesus. It sounds kind of like a “hey, have you heard…” kind of statement. Sort of like the equivalent, “Did you catch that bit on NPR this morning about…whatever it may be.” In the context here it seems most likely that the people bring this up because Jesus had just been talking about the kind of judgment that he came to bring on the earth and that people should learn how to “interpret the present time,” as it says in 12:56. It was the common belief of the day that whatever harm or illness or tragedy that a person experienced would have been a result of divine judgment, or a sign that the person had been living in sin. So it appears that the people are saying something like, “Yeah, judgment, we know what you’re talking about. Just like those Galileans that got it good from Pilate.”
It’s an interesting exchange here because it’s one of the few times that Jesus gets to comment on something that could be considered “current events.” Something happens that makes the news and everybody has opinions and interpretations about why it happened and what it means. So here’s a case when Jesus weighs in on something like that. This first piece of news doesn’t directly correlate to an earthquake or natural disaster. It’s pretty clear that this was a human initiated event. But in giving his reply in how he understands this, Jesus brings in something more in the category of a natural disaster. Apparently another recent happening had been that a tower had fallen on some people and killed them – the tower of Siloam. This is another newsbit that isn’t recorded anywhere else in the history books, but it is thought that the tower might have been a part of the defenses of Jerusalem. Jesus voluntarily cites this other tragedy because he has the same thing to say about both of them. Here’s what he says, “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 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.”
To the question of whether or not tragedy and judgment for sin should be linked together, Jesus says an emphatic “No.” Were the Galileans who died worse sinners than others? No. Were the victims of the tower collapse deserving of getting crushed in some way. No. Jesus uncouples these events from carrying some kind of divine meaning or some kind of sacred significance. They have nothing to do with sin. Nothing to do with God’s judgment. Pilate did whatever he did because Pilate is being Pilate and that tower fell either because it was poorly designed, or poorly built, or couldn’t take the shaking of a minor earth tremor or whatever. In this case Jesus seems pretty emphatic that these massive forces of politics and nature should not be interpreted as having God’s stamp of approval.
The adult Sunday school class has been studying a book by Greg Boyd. In another of his writings, he has made a comment that relates here. He writes:
“We don’t know and can’t know why particular harmful events unfold exactly as they do. What we can know, however, is why we can’t know: It’s not because God’s plan or character is mysterious, but because we are finite humans in an incomprehensibly vast creation that is afflicted by forces of chaos. Given this mystery, we must refrain from blaming each other or blaming God when misfortunes arise. Rather, following the example of Jesus, we must simply ask, ‘What can we do in response to the evil we encounter.’” (Greg Boyd, Is God to Blame?, Intervarsity Press, 2003)
So we’re with Greg Boyd and we’re with Jesus here. This is reassuring to know that Jesus has our back on this one.
But, in typical Jesus fashion, he has a way of saying something that we find very comforting, and following that up with something that we can find quite discomforting. Something that is quite a bit harder to swallow. He does an interesting thing here. Because his ‘No,’ is a “No, but.” Were these victims sinners? No….but. But unless you repent you will all perish as they did. Jesus says this twice. Once after mentioning the Pilate incident and then after mentioning the tower incident. The phrase must have caught the attention of the editors of the NRSV because in my Bible that’s the header for this whole section: “Repent or perish.” Kind of a bummer that’s the phrase that captures the headline, given the important shift that Jesus is offering for how his people interpret tragic events, but that’s what we’ve got. And maybe that’s what we most notice here, what most stands out to us.
So rather than just stopping with debunking the myth that sin leads to tragedy, he puts a twist on it and puts it right back in the lap of his conversation partners. In regards to those cosmic forces that we can’t control, what Greg Boyd calls the “forces of chaos,” Jesus has little to say. But in regards to those moral forces in our own lives that we can control, Jesus has plenty to say.
I’m guessing we’re not all that comfortable with “repent or perish” kind of language. I doubt if any of us have ever heard that spoken in a way that we would consider loving. Maybe as a brief exercise, you could each find a partner and try to say to them “Repent or perish,” in the most loving way possible. Just kidding. How do you even pretend to say that in a loving way? I wonder if we might want to receive it in a way similar to how we might hear the words of a doctor when we go for a check up, someone we can trust has our best interest in mind. Repent or perish. Change soon, or things aren’t going to work out well. You know, you are going to need to work really hard to lower your cholesterol or you’re going to be in big trouble pretty soon. You better lower your blood pressure or your body isn’t going to hold up. Jesus offers a moral diagnosis of sorts, and strikes a tone that resonates with the essence of Lent. Stop getting too caught up in trying to understand those cosmic forces over which we have so little control, and start paying attention to the forces in our own lives over which we do have some control. Whether that mean to focus on responding lovingly by giving money to earthquake victims, or whether that be taking a hard look at our attitudes toward any particular area of life that we struggle with.
To follow this up, Jesus tells a parable of mercy and then does an act of great mercy. It’s a parable about a man who had a fig tree in his vineyard for three years. He comes looking for fruit on it, doesn’t find any, and tells his gardener to cut it down because it’s wasting the soil. But the gardener says to him, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure of it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
I suppose there are a couple different ways of reading this. One way would say, OK, this tree gets one more year and then if it doesn’t produce its firewood. Maybe this is the way that the owner sees things. He wanted to chop it down now, but he’ll grudgingly risk allowing this tree taking up space for one more year, just in case it may produce fruit. The gardener, the one who intimately knows the trees and tends them daily, seems to have a different perspective. His purpose is to extend the life of the tree and do what he can to give it life. I’ll dig around it. I’ll give it plenty of manure, the best stuff. And plenty of water. I know this tree has some life in it yet. This is an act of mercy. An act of hope. An act of grace. Three years, but let’s give it one more year.
The next story extends this even further. It’s hard to know exactly how Luke wished to have these stories be related, placing them right after one another, but it’s interesting that the next thing we hear of is a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. That’s a long time. She had been bent over this whole time and was unable to stand up straight. And Jesus calls out to her and tells her she is free from her ailment. And he reached out and touched her and she stood up straight and started praising God. It’s hard to know if being healed after 18 long years of ailment is meant to have anything to say about that three year old fig tree that was given just one more year. Or if being stood up tall after 18 years has any correspondence to those 18 who were bent down low when the tower fell on them – if this is some kind of act of healing that involves more than meets the eye, Jesus somehow restoring all of those under the weight of tragedy, but I like to think that it shows a particular pattern that we’re meant to pay attention to.
I’d like to think that what’s going on here is the pattern of creation itself, something God has been doing since the beginning of time. The Hebrew creation myth talks about the chaos of the primordial waters, and the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, and then into that chaos, God speaking creation into being. Not abolishing chaos, but somehow extending grace into chaos. Carving out a space within the chaos in which life can thrive. Forming a little tiny planet in the midst of the forces of chaos where things can grow and produce fruit, and multiply and run around -the pattern of creation that Jesus models and is one of the reasons the church has always identified him so closely with the very being of God. Jesus is extending grace into chaos. All of the forces that threaten life are met with the presence of extending mercy just a little bit further. Making the world a little more human, a little more of a place where life can thrive. Not accusing innocent victims of disasters as having any fault of their own. Pressing to let that fig tree grow just one more year. Maybe the weather will be better this year. Maybe this manure and this water will be a miracle grow and that tree will be able to be fruitful. Reaching out and touching the woman after 18 years of suffering. Not solving all the problems in her life, but at least giving her a chance to stand tall and be free from this one burden.
Sometimes extending grace into chaos is the best thing we have to offer. We can’t conquer or abolish chaos, can’t bring back earthquake victims, but we can extend some form of grace into that chaos and do some kind of corresponding creative work that extends grace into the chaotic forces right around us. And we can trust that the chaos of our own lives is not the only force at work within us. That there is also grace. That there is also mercy, and that we get glimpses of that, and that’s what allows us to keep living and keep growing, keeps us from perishing. And that, occasionally, every once in a long while, someone or something does reach out and touch us and lift us up. And all we can do is respond with gratitude and praise.