“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose
blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these
Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this
way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen
who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty
than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will
all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
Thus begins today’s Gospel reading, and in the translation I took this passage from it
included a heading – “Repent or die” – which sums up Jesus’ words here pretty well!
Some of you are here to celebrate a baptism today, and you may well have been
feeling pretty good up to this point. I didn’t pick today’s readings. Perhaps that’s why,
in the early church, baptisms all happened on Easter Day – a day we celebrate life!
Today’s readings centre around death, with people trying to get Jesus to respond to
news about a series of tragic deaths, and the response Jesus offers them seems
tasteless, especially for us in our current context!
I’m thinking of the dialogue about the Galileans in particular here – those “whose blood
Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). Apparently, the Roman governor
had ordered his troops to slaughter a group of worshippers while they were at prayer in the temple, and the image of people being massacred while at prayer is one that is
very raw for us after the terrible shooting at the mosque in Christchurch last week.
All murder is terrible, but slaughtering people at prayer seems particularly barbaric, and it
raises questions for us at a religious level too. How could God allow this to happen?
That may well have been exactly the question these people were putting to Jesus after
they raised the incident with Him, and Jesus’ response – that “unless you repent, you
will all perish as they did” (Luke 13:3) seems to be extraordinarily insensitive.
Jesus’ response to the other tragedy mentioned isn’t any more consoling either – that
of the eighteen people crushed in the collapse of the ‘Tower of Siloam’ (Luke 13:4)
Presumably, this tragedy was just one of those ‘acts of God’ for which no one in
particular was to blame, or perhaps the Tower of Siloam was something like the Opal
Tower in Homebush, where the tragedy may have been due to shoddy workmanship
or the skirting of building regulations or something like that. Either way, the lesson
Jesus derives from this incident – that “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they
did.” (Luke 13:9) – is not one designed to give comfort to those who are grieving.
This is our Gospel reading today. It is not a happy one, and it concludes with a parable
about a fig tree that is equally discomforting.
“A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did
not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now
I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down!
Why should it use up the soil?’” (Luke 13:6-7).
‘Give it another year!’, the farmer pleads, and that’s where the story ends. We don’t
know if the landowner decides on a stay of execution for the tree or not. Either way, the
overall message – repent or die – is clear enough, and our newly-baptised member
could be forgiven at this point for wondering ‘what have I just got myself into?’
I’ll state at this point that I never see it as my job to make the words of Jesus palatable
for us. If Jesus’ words were meant to be offensive, it would be wrong of me to try to
sugar-coat them in order to take the sting out. Having said that, a text without a context
is a pretext for a proof-text (as we always say). In other words, if we do want to take these words seriously, we must understand the context in which they were spoken.
What were they really asking – these people who wanted to dialogue with Jesus about the murder in the temple? Were they grieving relatives? Almost certainly not! What then – were they just wanting to engage with Jesus in a bit of theological speculation?
One plausible interpretation of this dialogue is that there’s a political agenda at play.
Pilate is murdering Jews – Jews at prayer! What does Jesus have to say about that?
What is Jesus going to do about that?
I’d suggest that Jesus’ shifting of the discussion from the temple incident to the tower
tragedy (which, we assume, had nothing to do with the Romans) indicates that the
context was not really political but more strictly religious. In other words, these people
were asking the age-old question, ‘why does God allow things like this to happen?’
This is an age-old question. It can also be, I believe, a very dangerous question, as it’s
regularly associated with the process of scapegoating! I’m not suggesting that every
time we ask why something bad happened that we are looking to scapegoat someone.
It is a very human to ask ‘why’. Even so, a lot of the time when we are looking for
answers, what we are really looking for is someone to blame.
When tragedy strikes, be it by the sword of Pilate or by the bricks from a tower or from
a gun fired at a mosque, it can understandably make us feel insecure, and so we look
for answers in order to find reassurance. ‘If those people were gunned down in a mosque in Christchurch, does that mean I could be gunned down here in church in Sydney?’ That’s the question, and it’s the sort of question where we really want someone in authority to come up and say to us, ‘No. Don’t worry. I can’t happen to you because you’re not a Muslim’.
‘Isn’t that why bad things happen to people? It’s because they are bad people? Isn’t
that why there are all those wars going on in majority-Muslim countries. It’s not our
fault – surely – and it can’t happen here where we are all progressive, forward-thinking
white people who love our children and do lots of decent and forward-thinking things.
Those people who get shot or crushed by towers – there’s a good reason for that, and
even if I don’t know the reason right now I’m sure that God is just, and so those people
must have deserved what happened to them, and if they didn’t deserve it then there
must have been some higher purpose to it all, even if I just can’t see it at the moment.’
These are the sorts of dialogues we have with ourselves and, at one level, it’s entirely appropriate that we do. We believe that God is just. We don’t believe that things just happen randomly in our world, and we don’t believe that evil triumphs, do we? If we believe in God, we believe in order, surely, and justice. It’s offensive – blasphemous even – to not believe that there is a good reason for everything that happens. Well … that’s certainly what Job’s friends believed (for those who’ve read the Book of Job).
I’m not suggesting that it isn’t appropriate to ask these questions. Indeed, how can we
be religious people and not ask these questions? Even so, the danger is that in looking
for an explanation to tragedy, what we are really looking for is someone to blame so
that we can feel more secure. Who we blame probably doesn’t matter too much. It can
be Muslims, Jews, black people … anybody, so long as they are not ‘one of us’.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans
because they suffered this way?” Jesus asks – those poor souls whose blood Pilate
mingled with their sacrifices. “I tell you, no!”
“Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!”
Yes, these tragedies are terrible. Yes, they are unnerving, but no, these people did not
suffer because they deserved it. They weren’t any more sinful than anybody else.
Even so, get your act together or the next tower is going to fall on you!
It’s not immediately obvious why Jesus had to add that last line, reminding us about
our own mortality. Was He responding to a smug attitude on the part of the people He
was dialoguing with? Either way, one thing we can immediately get from these
sobering words is that there are lessons to be learned from tragedies like this.
There are lessons we can learn from the tragedy in Christchurch. It can remind us that
life is fragile, and that we should make the most of every moment that we have. In
watching those who are grieving in Christchurch, it may reinforce to us too that these
people are our sisters and brothers, and it may encourage us to reach out in love to
our Muslim sisters and brothers here in Sydney.
There are lessons we can draw from this tragedy, as from all tragedies. What Jesus
wants us to be clear about though here is that ‘something bad happened to those
people because they deserved it’ is not one of the lessons.
In a funny way I’ve had to apply the wisdom of this Gospel passage to my own life in
the last twenty-four hours. I don’t want to trivialise the tragedies mentioned in the
passage, and I certainly don’t mean to compare my struggles to those who have
suffered so much in Christchurch recently. Even so, when my fight was cancelled last
night it was for me something of a crisis of faith. How could God allow that to happen?
As I say, I appreciate that my concerns were relatively trivial. Even so, I had been
convinced that God wanted me to have this fight and that I was going to raise money
through it and that I was going to get some of that money over to people in Syria who
needed it, and when I turned up all ready to rumble last night, only to be told that the
powers from on high (the Combat Sports Authority in this case) had blocked my fight
from going ahead, it was something of a crisis of faith for me.
Interestingly, it was my Muslim friends at the venue who were telling me, ‘this is God’s
will. God obviously doesn’t want you to fight tonight. Maybe you would have killed your
opponent. Just wait and we will see what God is up to’. At the time I was less capable
of believing that there could be anything good in the fight’s cancellation but, as I
thought it through, and as I read over this passage again, it did occur to me that even if
I couldn’t work out why things had happened the way they did, there were certainly
other things I could learn from the experience.
The most obvious lesson for me was to be reminded of the wonderful support I had
from my friends who had come to be with me and support me in the ring. I also had
three wonderful text messages of support from my three wonderful daughters (one of
whom was there with me but decided to text me her support nonetheless). Perhaps it
was God’s way of reminding me of how much I had to be thankful for.
As I say, you’ll have to forgive me if that seems to be trivialising the dark and serious
issues targeted in our Gospel reading, but I do believe that even though the incidents
discussed are very specific, the relevance of Jesus’ teaching here can be very broad.
The broad issue at stake here, I believe, is simply how we deal with things we don’t
understand – most especially with really painful things that we don’t understand.
We all want answers. I find that the older I get, the more questions I have. I take some encouragement from remembering an interview done with Mother Theresa when she
was still with us. The interviewer asked her how she made sense of the suffering she
saw around her. I don’t remember her exact words, but her response was something
along the lines of ‘when I get to Heaven, I’ve got a lot of questions I want answered’!
Asking ‘why’ is very human though, as I say, it can also be very dangerous. It all depends on the context that gives rise to the question. The Germans actually have a special word for this – ‘Fragestellung’. It means, literally, ‘the putting of the question’.
How you put your question generally determines the answer you get. If you ask your
question out of pure curiosity, this leads to one kind of answer. If our questions arise
directly out of our insecurities, these tend to lead us to different sorts of answers.
Those who know me well know that I am a great disbeliever in science. Yes, I believe
the earth is flat and that evolution never happened. Well … no, I don’t really believe the
earth is flat and I have no real issue with evolutionary theory either, though I do
consider it to be just a theory, and a theory with a lot of problems.
It’s telling, I think, that in our society evolutionary theory is an almost unquestionable
dogma, and if you do question it you tend to get yourself ridiculed, and I think there’s a very straightforward reason for that – namely, it’s all we’ve got! In terms of the origin of the species, evolutionary theory is the only theory out there. The alternative is mystery
and we don’t like mystery.
This is what we are dealing with when we confront human and animal suffering too.
So much of it just doesn’t make any sense. We would like to make sense of it all
because we want to believe that the world is just and that everything is in order and,
hence, that we are safe, but so much of life just doesn’t make sense.
The alternative to having answers is embracing mystery, as the alternative to certainty
is faith, but who wants to live by faith when you can have science and certainty?
As I’ve noted, our Gospel passage ends in uncertainty. What’s going to happen to the
fig tree? We don’t know. It’s a mystery. What we do know is that the fig tree is only
going to survive if it starts behaving more like a fig tree and less like a weed. It needs to
undergo a radical transformation. In the words of Jesus, it needs to repent.
The Greek word here is ‘metanoia’, and it’s one that Jesus used a lot. It’s combines
two other Greek words – ‘meta’, meaning to move beyond, and ‘nous’, meaning mind.
To experience metanoia is to transition to a different state of mind, allowing ourselves
to undergo a mental and emotional reboot, such that we become different people.
This indeed is Jesus ultimate alternative to having all the answers. It’s not just
embracing mystery. It’s undergoing a metanoia, and so responding to the mystery of
suffering in our world and in our lives by fundamentally reorientating ourselves
towards God and towards our fellow human beings.
Forgive me if that’s an overly philosophical note on which to finish today’s sermon.
Perhaps my thoughts are better summed up by an aphorism attributed to the ancient
Greek thinker, Epictetus – “Reflection is endless. Action is lost”. There’s nothing wrong with looking for answers to the pain we see around us and the pain we find in ourselves, but our job, ultimately, is not to know the answer but to become the answer.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 24th of March, 2019.