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Reflections on the Gospel, Week before March 3, 2013

Luke 13:1-9

 13At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

What I am learning:

This text gets at issues all human beings deal with: are we being punished by God when bad things happen?

When I was 7 a woman in my church walked up to me and said, "If your family were better Christians your mother would not be sick." My mom had been diagnosed with MS a few years earlier. In a strange way I am glad she asked this terrible question. This is when I began to be a theologian: a person who practices the art of the critique of worldviews.

Her theology is common. It teaches us that when bad things happen, we not only lose our health or a loved one but we also lose God who is no longer "on our side."

What does the Bible say about this?

There is a strain of thought, we usually call this the Deuteronomist (the writer of Deuteronomy), that says God is either rewarding you when good things happen or punishing you when bad things happen. This view is in the Bible.

There is also a strain of thought that God "causes the rain to fall on the hawk and the dove" and that "time and chance happen to them all." Job and Ecclesiastes represent this way of seeing things. This view is in the Bible

I am glad that both are there. I am glad that the editors of the Bible kept this a conversation. Truth is just bigger than our puny heads can grasp.

Jesus does not take the Deuteronomist position. He easily could have. But he refuses to blame victims of violence and accident for their suffering. He seems to take the side of Job and Ecclesiastes.

God created a world of freedom which is based on chance and choice and risk. God is responsible for creating that world, but does not choose bad or good things to happen. Respecting this world of freedom, God seeks to influence us, but not to control us.

But our choices do matter, they do change the world and the effect the kind of possibilities others have.

This is the point of the second part of this passage. The fig tree is here a symbol for the whole People of Israel. They were called to be a blessing to all nations, to produce fruit that would provide a way of peace for all people. But instead of producing that fruit by living in the covenant, they did their own thing. Sin in this passage is a "lack of covenant faithfulness to God." This covenant was to be a beacon to all the nations for how humans can live with one another: caring for the poor, the immigrant, and the widow.

But because they did their own thing and behaved like most everybody else, there was no fruit to eat. Their sin, their lack of faithfulness to the covenant, led to lots of terrible things - including the Roman occupation of Israel.

Jesus, I think, is telling us that while God is not in the reward or punishment business, that our faithfulness to God's vision for humanity matters. It makes a difference.

God is always on our side. God is always accepting us as we are. God is with us and hurts with us when we suffer. We see this in Jesus.

But it is true that our choices, as people and as a community, very powerfully effect others, and the future we all share and will pass on to our children.

God is always seeking to draw our vision to a world of mutuality - where all live in mutuality with each other and the vulnerable are sustained in both kind words and shared food. God's Way of Mutuality is near and among us.

Our participation makes a difference even if we didn't start it and even if we won't finish it.